The Beauty Myth

A couple of months ago I wrote a blog about putting on a little weight. Although the blog ended on an upbeat note, I’ve been struggling to view myself positively. I tried to decide what I needed to do if I did want to lose the weight I’ve gained, and thought of some ideas – cutting out alcohol, no snacking on biscuits, more physical exercise. All these are easier said than done, especially the last couple of weeks as I’ve had a shin splint and even a little walking has been painful. The negativity around my appearance, compounded by a few other things happening in my life that made me feel a little inadequate, culminated in a few occurrences where I found myself thinking: I’m hungry. That’s good. I should stay hungry, because I want to lose weight. Immediately after I thought this I thought, uh oh. That’s not good at all. That’s the opposite of good. I need to tell somebody about that.

I’m part of a body positivity group on facebook so I wrote a little note about those thoughts, and said I was ordering a couple of books around self compassion and changing attitudes to food, but did anyone have any advice. A couple of people replied, and although they were very supportive, I felt so ashamed and silly that I took the post down. I thought people weren’t replying either because I’m too slim, and they were thinking, what does she know about it? Or thinking, Jesus, she needs to see a doctor, I’m staying well out of this one. I’ve found over the years that some of these groups on facebook are remarkably helpful for my self-esteem and general mood, so when you cry for help and are met with silence, it feels even more painful. Better to say nothing than to hear nothing in return.

I decided to try to tackle the problem myself, firstly by eating properly and trying not to worry about it. In general this went okay, although I did get a bemused and, to my overwrought brain, smirking glance from someone in Sainsbury’s when I wandered between the snacks and baked goods for some minutes trying to decide which, if any, to purchase. I always get hungry in the afternoon at work and as I leave work at 5 and get home at 7, eating something is imperative if I’m not to get home in the worst possible mood and be a complete pain to my poor partner. But everything I looked at that looked tasty had so many of those horrible red labels on, telling you it ALONE was 25% of this and 29% of the other, that I gave up. In the spirit of eating properly, though, I did go to a Portuguese café and get a custard tart. So I achieved 1) eating, but not really 2) not worrying about it.

Secondly, to help me, I bought several books. I bought Eat Up by Ruby Tandoh, who some may remember as a Bake Off finalist from a few years back. I’ve read some of her articles and she talks a lot of sense. As a former anorexic I thought her opinion on changing your attitude to food would be useful. I also bought Self Compassion by Kristin Neff – I suck at self compassion. I am extremely hard on myself. Lastly I bought Body Positive Power by Megan Jayne Crabbe, aka @bodyposipanda. I’ve loved her facebook page for some time, she always has something appropriate and encouraging to say. But having started her book, I realised that really, first I should read the bible: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. This book is simply essential reading.

I actually started The Beauty Myth a few months ago, but the statistics on rape and attitudes towards rape were so depressing I had to take a break. It was written in 1990, only two years after I was born, so sometimes when you’re reading it you think CHRIST this is horrific- but it’s nearly 30 years ago, things must be better now, right? But the fact that so much of it is so resonant to me, and is shocking and not shocking at the same time, suggests that not as much has changed as you might hope.

What her research does show is what a completely bullshit, half-baked, cruel, ludicrous thing the idea of the “ideal woman” is. It’s simply an invention. The ideal of women’s body shape has changed numerous times in the last hundred years alone, never mind the rest of history. Today, we are expected to be curvy in the right places, and toned all over. As someone says in the book, nature does not make women like this. For nearly all women, it’s simply impossible to achieve. Which makes it perfect as a tool for keeping women focussed on their appearance instead of breaking through glass ceilings.

Women in the 1960s and 1970s were working to change the status quo. They were no longer confined to the house, and amongst other things, were no longer so responsive to ads and articles about how to clean the oven perfectly. So advertisers needed something else to sell women, and they struck on our appearance. The number of articles on dieting increased by 60% between 1979 and 1980. Women’s dieting wasn’t a huge deal, and then suddenly, it was. Anti-aging products were flung into the marketplace despite not being properly tested and doing absolutely fuck all- something that was eventually noticed and the advertisers got a slap on the wrist, but judging by the number of anti-aging products my mum keeps buying, the slap wasn’t big enough. Cosmetic surgery became massive business, despite going against the fundamental Hippocratic oath of: first, do no harm. The very concept of cutting up healthy people, and overwhelmingly women, to “improve” some part of their appearance which is only wrong because the media wills it so, is enough to make my blood boil. When Wolf was writing, she tried to get statistics on death rates from cosmetic surgery, and was told no such records were being kept. Today I did a little googling, and there is now some information – but it’s not exactly easy to come by and some studies are hugely out of date (the most popular one for liposuction was from the 1990s, and the results showed a higher risk of death from liposuction than from ordinary surgery).

The Beauty Myth made me cry tears of frustration but in the end left me feeling powerful and motivated to change. Because what I see is that in the time since she wrote the book, not enough has changed. One of the things she said we needed was a third wave of feminism, and here we are, right in the middle of it. But we have a long way to go. She talks about breaking down the barriers of competition between women, saying we need to become advocates for each other and band together instead of seeing beauty as a finite resource – if she’s pretty, that must mean I am less so. Although I do have friends who I support and they are very supportive of me, that competitive element certainly hasn’t disappeared. I struggled to connect with a colleague very recently because I was so envious of her appearance – when I did finally talk to her properly, I found she was sweet and lovely and as happily touched by a compliment on her appearance as any woman.

Wolf wanted us to learn to roll our eyes at the adverts and the “beauty pornography” plastered all over magazines and television, but I haven’t managed to do that much. Magazine editors say girls are smart enough to tell when a picture is photoshopped, but I’m not. Or I assume that everything is photoshopped but I don’t know which parts or how much or what. And even if I try to rationalise an image like that, it’s too late. The instinctive judgement and comparison has already happened, and I have come up wanting.

But I am, as I said, determined to change this attitude to myself, and do my part to help overthrow this ridiculous set of impossible standards. I am tired of seeing all my female colleagues, regardless of size and shape, sit down to lunches of salads and carrot sticks. I am sick of hearing everyone say ‘oh, no, I’m trying to be good’ when birthday cake is offered round. Our attitude to food is MISERABLE. Of course we should eat healthily as much as possible, but if their thought processes on these occasions are anything like mine, it’s far from fucking healthy. When you think about it rationally it’s insane that we’re all trying as hard as we can to look the same – especially now, when the person we are aiming for is at best surgically altered, at worst a computer-generated image.

People struggle with the body positivity movement, and some mistake it for a rallying cry for all women to put on as much weight as possible. It’s not about that. The point is that no matter what size you are, you shouldn’t feel guilty about it. Your size should not be a “bad” thing. We are all “good” bodies. Maybe you want to lose weight, and that’s okay. But it shouldn’t be a source of pain and hatred towards yourself. Instead, our bodies should be sources of joy, pleasure and happiness. This is one of my favourite passages from the book, and one I may have to print out and put up somewhere: ‘The pleasure to be had from turning oneself into a living art object, the roaring in the ears and the fine jetspray of regard on the surface of the skin, is some kind of power, where power is in short supply. But it is not much compared to the pleasures of getting back forever inside the body; the pleasure of discovering sexual pride, a delight in a common female sexuality that overwhelms the divisions of “beauty”; the pleasure of shedding self-consciousness and narcissism and guilt like a chainmail gown; the pleasure of the freedom to forget all about it.’

We are all works in progress with this. I fully expect to have plenty of bad days. But I hope not to have that thought again that I should keep myself hungry, that feeling empty is “good” because the way I look and am is “bad”. I am well aware that that is the first step towards a couple of very destructive illnesses. With the help of Naomi Wolf, and the other books I’ve bought, as well as the confused but steadfast support of partner and friends and family, I want to feel beautiful and strong and capable regardless of whether my shape changes. Fingers crossed the world will change more too to make it all just a little easier for me, and everyone else, to achieve.

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