Everyday Powerful Women – Appearance

For more than a year, I’ve had this definition of power saved on my phone: ‘Power: the ability to act or produce an effect’. Lately I’ve been thinking more about the word ‘power’, and in particular what it means to be a ‘powerful woman’ in today’s world. In this brilliant article on women in power throughout history, Mary Beard suggested that one of the main problems we still have is that we don’t really know what a powerful woman looks like. Most women we think of as ‘powerful’ are adopting the clothes and style of powerful men, rather than inventing a new way for women to appear powerful.

Where does power come from, and is it different for men and women? Historically men have been physically powerful – in terms of strength – and powerful in terms of intellect. When we read the history books, the politicians and the warriors and the philosophers and the scientists and the decision-makers are overwhelmingly male. There are examples of women, and they are often passed over or forgotten, but even so the men are primarily seen as the ones with this power. Women are powerful in terms of their beauty, and their ability to bear children. The latter is a never-ending political hot potato, as the life of an unborn child is frequently seen to be more important than the life of the woman carrying it. This is the paradoxical power of being able to carry a child: it overwhelms all other purposes or needs a woman may have.

Mary Beard also wrote that women may not want political power or to stand on a soapbox, they just want to be taken seriously. I caught my breath a little at that, because it struck right to the heart of what feminism means for me. I want to be taken seriously. I want people to meet me and listen to my ideas and take them seriously as ideas coming from a person, not a sex object. Unfortunately the week after I read this article I was reminded how little women are still taken seriously, even in the middle of London. I was cat-called by a man on a bicycle while I was on the phone to my mum. I was pointlessly challenged in a pub by some idiot propping up the bar, who thought it would be funny to say ‘no you can’t!’ when I asked if I could have a pint of some beer or other. And I was threatened with bodily violence by a stranger for passing comment on a horse he’d tied in the middle of a pavement (don’t even ask).

Our appearance and our ability to bear children both give us power in myriad ways, but as a primary source of feeling powerful, they often suck. To have your ‘ability to act or produce an effect’ determined by the way you look means that your brain and personality are frequently ignored in favour of being summed up instantly as a) a woman, and b) on a sliding scale of attractiveness. This is endlessly frustrating, and is applicable to all women everywhere. In some parts of the world, it means your own will and wishes are considered to be secondary to those of others. When you are only judged on the outside, you are essentially a doll, and considered to be a second class of citizen. And even in the UK, which is apparently enlightened, and even if you are running a country, some people still won’t take you seriously – and prefer to comment on the shape of your legs rather than your ideas and your actions.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to look good. I see women every day on the train putting on their make-up, and I don’t think this is a bad thing. The thing I hate is the system that makes women believe that they have to spend a lot of time and money on improving their appearance. All of it speaks to a notion that we are not enough as we are. We are not enough unless we spend hours removing hair and shaping brows and going on diets to get a ‘bikini body’. And this is all because the whole system still buys into the idea that women’s power, and worth, comes first and foremost from how they look.

This is made clear from childhood. I hated looking stupid or wrong or ugly from an extremely young age. I didn’t want to pull faces, or get dirty, because then I wouldn’t look pretty. My body was rarely praised or criticised for its abilities, only for the shape it made. I have grown up continuing to evaluate it in the same way. I hated playing sports at school because I didn’t think I could do it properly and I hated looking like a fool – I also hated wearing shorts for P.E. because I thought my legs were too skinny (this was enough of a problem that at age seven I feigned illness to get out of a school Sports Day).  It was all about how I looked doing things, and because I was so concerned with that, I was inevitably bad at things that required full concentration on, say, where the ball was, and whether I could swing a stick in time to hit it. I thought that if I tried to hit it hard, it would go a pathetic distance, so I put no effort in at all so at least it wouldn’t look as if I’d tried and failed. Clearly the only way to be good at any physical activity is to keep trying and failing until you stop failing so often, and begin to succeed, but nobody told me that. Sport seemed to me to be for boys, and I was no good at it. I didn’t take myself seriously, but did that start because nobody took me seriously? I don’t remember ever being really coached at sport, you just did the activity and then stopped. I sucked, and wasn’t told how I could get better. This creates problems throughout life because exercise is key to health and happiness.

When I was growing up, I was not popular with boys – which I shouldn’t have cared about as most of them were idiots. But somehow it seemed to be the most important thing. Getting a boyfriend seemed to be key to happiness (a problem which the media and society do nothing to assuage as you get older) and thus I needed to be more attractive to fulfil this goal. I was lucky that I had very supportive parents and I grew up before social media was really a thing, because I can’t imagine what it’s like without a good support network and with other people constantly pushing idealised images of people in your face. With Photoshop and filters used on every picture in the public eye, people judge themselves against CGI and even forget what they look like when they haven’t edited their own face. People like Kylie Jenner, who apparently had her face, boobs and arse remodelled at age 16, are truly terrifying examples of what can happen to young women who have one goal: to look perfect. When women in the news are judged on how they look every single day, young girls absorb the message from everywhere that how they look is of utmost importance.

Unfortunately, women frequently perpetuate this notion themselves. Women put down other women like pros: many magazines ‘for women’ make an industry out of criticising other women for being too fat/thin on a daily basis. We are so chronically insecure and tired from judging ourselves all the time that the only way to make ourselves feel better is to judge everyone else too. For example, many people have many issues with Lena Dunham, but the fact that people got upset because she started seeing a personal trainer and doing some exercise absolutely astounds me. This reaction proved a few things: a) that Lena is still extremely rare to be a woman in the public eye owning power in her less than “perfect” body; b) that people hate people who go to the gym; and c) that women have such serious insecurity issues that one woman taking some exercise is enough to make them very angry. It’s fairly obvious that Lena going to the gym on its own isn’t enough to annoy anybody, the problem is that she was “fat” and said she was happy being “fat,” so other women who are “fat” can also feel happy the way they are – but now Lena is betraying the tribe. She’s taking exercise because she wants to help herself with serious mental health issues and endometriosis, but she is attacked for apparently wanting to change the way she looks. Everyone thought that if she was happy the way she was, and achieved what she has looking that way, then she could be taken seriously without being thin and conventionally beautiful. And if she could do it, everyone else could stop worrying about how they looked too and think about something else. The ridiculous thing is that of course one woman doing some exercise doesn’t affect anybody else’s self-worth or power, and that there is nothing wrong with doing exercise anyway – even though many people hate it, exercise is always good for you. And it doesn’t have to be anything to do with weight loss, although infuriatingly exercise and weight loss are almost always connected for women. I would love to be able to change this. The negativity surrounding exercise for women is toxic.

All these perceptions of women and their power need to be taught differently from childhood. Being a girl should not be about being pretty and looking nice all the time, about never being awkward or doing something stupid or getting into trouble. Girls should do all those things, and be encouraged to move and exercise to enjoy it, as well as be good at it. Hopefully as more girls see female sports players, politicians, writers, scientists, and decision-makers on the television and elsewhere, they will see women showing power and strength through something other than their physical attractiveness. The outcry when the media and people in top positions treat women like dolls must be louder and longer until it’s no longer acceptable. Unfortunately America just voted in someone who speaks about women as if they are not just dolls, but sex dolls, provided for his amusement. But I am hopeful that the next four years will show him just how many powerful women there are around the world who are willing to show him he is wrong and repulsive, and needs to take women seriously. We can all do our own bit by taking ourselves seriously, every day, and taking the other women around us seriously. Only then can we link by link undo the chain that stops us from being judged – by ourselves and everyone else – on our internal worth.

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The self-esteem and female body image problem

It’s no secret that women and girls often struggle with the way they look. Magazines, television, film, adverts, magazines, and any other kind of visual media always have a lot to say about how women look and what’s right and wrong. Even the places that you’d think would be supportive, like magazines aimed at women, tend to show perfect pictures or airbrushed women and then spend a lot of space and column inches telling you how to spend money so you can look the same. Most of the time, discussions of women’s insecurity focusses on being slim and losing weight, particularly as the fashion industry continue to use often unhealthily thin women to promote their often unwearable clothes. As someone who is more than averagely slim, I think people sometimes assume that I must not be so affected by this constant push for perfection. On the contrary. I have had issues with the way I look since I was eleven years old, and I’ve realised lately that even though I’m much more conscious of the social rules that have made me feel this way, that hasn’t actually helped me see myself in a more realistic light.

When I was growing up, people were always telling me I was too thin. I got called names: stick insect, twiglet, twiggy, and so on, and people would ask me in the lunch queue if I was anorexic. Whenever I went to the doctor they would ask me unsubtle questions to try and find out if I had an eating disorder –  I never did, not even close, I ate loads, but had my father’s fast metabolism and never put on any weight. My mum got used to doctor appointments always ending with me in tears because I was so tired of people looking at me and assuming I had a serious mental illness. Looking back, I do look unhealthily thin. I hated it but there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Boys would snigger at me and make jokes behind their hands and friends were whispering between themselves about my eating habits right into university. To this day I hate eating in front of people because I think they’re judging how much I’m eating and whether I go straight to the bathroom when I’ve finished.

I remember when I was in my early teens I saw a quote from Jennifer Aniston in a magazine which I cut out and kept for years: “You’re damned if you’re thin and you’re damned if you’re too fat. It’s impossible to please everyone and I suggest we all stop trying.” It was one of the first times I saw someone acknowledge that this was a thing, that people who were considered too thin were ostracised too. As I grew up I kept hearing things that made me feel worse. That men only like curvy women, and that nobody finds models attractive because they’re too skinny. For me, it all focussed on one area in particular: breasts.

This is a topic I’ve felt such deep shame about that I’ve barely ever spoken to anybody about it: I don’t talk to friends about it, I never mentioned it to a therapist I saw for two years despite it being a huge source of low self-esteem. I always felt like people were laughing at me about it, but now I realise how much of the problem has been feeding and growing on its own in my head all this time.

Right from age ten or eleven, I could see how important big breasts were. My crush in primary school had pictures of Lara Croft pasted all over his workbooks, and he used to obsess over the curvy drawings like a man (boy) possessed. He also fancied my best friend, who developed far earlier than I did. Boys passed around magazines full of women with big breasts in RE, and men on buses were staring openly at page 3 models. Girls in teenage novels I read were constantly trying to improve their busts to attract boys, and everywhere I looked were films and TV programmes saying the bigger the boobs, the better. As I hit puberty and started to develop in some limited way, I looked around in vain for someone who looked the same as me. The only people who looked similar were models, and everyone had told me they weren’t attractive because they were too thin.

Keira Knightley was one of the first famous women I saw who had very small breasts, and who also gave very few fucks about the fact. Her producers did, and over the years I’ve read many interviews with her complaining about being “enhanced” in adverts and film posters and magazine covers. One great quote from her after a Chanel advert was: “I don’t know whose those are, but they aren’t mine.” When I was about seventeen she was voted the sexiest actress of the year by Empire, and I felt a bit more hopeful. But it was still a drop in a bucket against the constant comments and cultural references to the fact that only big breasts were sexy.

At my lowest points, I considered surgery. Even websites advertising clothes showed this perfect curvy silhouette you were meant to achieve, and all I could see was that I didn’t look like that. I watched some godawful daytime TV programme where a woman had a breast enhancement and she was grinning all over the shop. I felt miserable and alone. I was always too afraid to do anything about it but I did believe it would make me happier. Boyfriends had to deal with me constantly putting myself down: compliments rolled off me like water off a duck’s back. I realised recently that in over ten years of dating, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times men have complimented me on my breasts and I’ve genuinely believed them. 99% of them I’ve immediately discounted what they’ve said as them trying to make me feel better, firmly convinced that actually they would much rather I had bigger, bouncier breasts for them to- do I don’t really know what with. Use as a pillow maybe.

The psychological block on my own breasts was so strong that for a few years I wore totally the wrong size bra. Bra shopping was always a mental torment, usually utterly dispiriting and frequently also ended in tears (and no purchases). I was a 32A for years and then they became uncomfortable in my early 20’s. Convinced I couldn’t be anything other than an A, I switched to a 34A for a few more years before finally becoming too irritated with none of them bloody fitting and getting someone to measure me. Turned out I needed a 32C. I was amazed and overjoyed; emotions immediately punctured by my mother when I told her what the woman had said: “Don’t be ridiculous! You can’t possibly be a C.” I felt two inches tall, and never completely recovered that joyful feeling, despite the evidence clearly showing me that my mother was wrong and I was (and am) a 32C, based on the fact that they fucking fit (well, as well as one size ever fits, am I right ladies? It’s never a certainty, like sizes in jeans. That’s why bra and jeans shopping are THE ABSOLUTE WORST).

Despite my new size and the small increase in confidence it brought, I still felt like I wasn’t good enough. This was reinforced every time I went bra shopping, a) by the pictures of stunningly curvy (yet slim) women plastered over the walls and b) by the fact that half the bras are extra padded and many of them scream things like “INCREASES BREAST SIZE BY UP TO THREE CUP SIZES!!” I once tried on one of these apparently magic bras only to discover that there was no room for any breast tissue. Literally, none. I actually got horribly embarrassed and triple checked the label, thinking I’d picked up a bra for women who’d had a mastectomy by mistake. Although I thought that one was a bit extreme, I still believed that wearing bras that showed me au naturel were not attractive, not pleasing to the eye, and that people would be judging me for it. I kept looking worriedly at the “BOOST YOUR BOOBS!!” bras until very recently, when my partner and I were browsing bras and I pointed out one of these bras saying that it looked pretty uncomfortable because there was no room for you. He said: “Well yeah, plus if you’re wearing something like that, I can’t feel you- I’m just feeling this padding.” He said it softly, almost delicately, and it suddenly dawned on me that I might have been totally misjudging the whole thing for years. I have always been going on looks, big equalling good, because that’s what I’ve been taught. But just as important, perhaps, is feel. I had barely even considered this from the man’s perspective like that, assuming that seeing massive boobs and lots of cleavage was the one and only important thing.

This reminded me of a moment in Sex and the City, when the topic of the episode is whether honesty is the best policy. A guy says: “My wife’s recently had a boob job. They look fantastic – they feel like shit. I keep that information to myself.” And of course it’s not just feel for your partner – it’s feel for you too. One of the reasons I never got beyond fretful worrying about having a breast enhancement was because you lose the sensitivity in your breasts and nipples. I was deeply saddened to hear recently that many girls not yet out of their teens are having breast surgery: their breasts haven’t even stopped growing, and they’ll never get a chance to fully appreciate how sexually sensitive their breasts might be. Another reason this is so sad is because a study I read about recently showed that women with low self-esteem who have boob jobs generally do not feel an increase in their self-esteem afterwards. They have had serious surgery, and will need more in years to come so that the implants don’t cause serious issues as the plastic starts to decay, and they still have the same mental issues that they had before. This all goes to prove for me: it’s all in my head. Especially as another study said that self-esteem is lower in women with big breasts than small ones. I was absolutely astonished when I read that. Here was I assuming that if I had some other size boobs then everything would be glorious, and there are these women wishing to god they didn’t have what I thought I wanted. What I’d never really thought about were the cultural perceptions there are of women with large breasts – that they’re easy, or stupid, or something else equally ridiculous.

I hear every day from somewhere that you need to accept the way you look if you ever want to be happy.  For a long time I thought I felt better about my breasts because I realised that never wanting to take your top off because you’re too shy is definitely not sexy. I tried to fake confidence to get over the problem, and quite often it works. But it’s still not quite the same as genuine confidence. Blimey, if they sold that stuff by the bottle, I’d set up a subscription. But the problem can only really be solved by less faking. Less fake bras, fake boobs, faked pictures. Stop making everyone assume that they have to make whatever they have bigger. And that’s just for my particular bugbear, I’m sure other people have different ones: thighs, stomach, legs, whatever it is. It’s exhausting constantly comparing yourself to other people, real or elsewhere, and finding yourself wanting. It’s every day, so many times a day, and all the time I have to remind myself that I have a set of deeply ingrained standards in my head that are not real. I’m quite sure I have a body dysmorphia issue where most of the time I look in the mirror I don’t see what’s really there. Maybe I still see myself as I was when I was a teenager, and my brain hasn’t refreshed the image properly.

We need help not getting into these mental traps to begin with, by not being given the same repeated message over and over again about what is and isn’t attractive. Websites like Beauty Redefined are doing amazing work in this area, challenging full stop the notion that women should be judged first and foremost on how they look – which is, sadly, still the case a large proportion of the time. It needs to change as soon as can be, as so many girls and young women these days are going on diets, or considering surgery, and generally building up a bank of negative self-esteem to make them feel shit about themselves well into their twenties, and beyond. There is a great quote from Tina Fey on body image, showing how utterly impossible it is for anyone to ever achieve “perfection”: “Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits.” As Jennifer Aniston said all those years ago: it’s impossible to please everyone. We need to stop trying, and stop being told to try.

I’ve focussed on female body image in this post, because that’s what I know best, but it should be noted that men can really struggle with this too. The media push the idea that men need to be incredibly muscular to be attractive to women, which is patently untrue. Although it is easier for men in some ways in that there are plenty of examples in the news and popular culture of less attractive males being with beautiful women, it is still a big issue that prompts many men to develop eating disorders or take ridiculous numbers of protein shakes. It’s odd that although I was well aware of this when I was growing up, and whenever a male friend mentioned it to me I assured him that women wanting men to look like an Action Man was a myth, I never turned it around to think that the standards women were aspiring to were possibly false too. It goes to show how internalised these messages are, that we apply these standards to ourselves when we don’t push them on to other people.