The war on women’s bodies is part of our culture. Most women grow up with a strong sense of what their bodies should look like. Images seared into our brains, driven by the popular icons of the time, the celebrities, the ideals, the rules. The type of physical perfection we worship undergoes subtle changes over time, but our inability to live up to it is timeless.
Buzzfeed produced a video showing the different body ideals for women through the ages. It shows that the standard definition of beauty changes. If we could time travel, there would be an era in which we all have the ideal body type. But the idea of there only being one preferred body type in each era is so depressing. That means 90% of the women in every stage of history felt like they were not measuring up.
I reflected recently on how much time I spent unhappy with my appearance in my youth. At the tender age of 11, I remember worrying about my first day of high school. ‘I look different and I won’t fit in’, I told my parents, ‘…because all the girls have perms’. These were the corkscrew curls popularised by Kylie on her iconic album cover.
My hair was stubbornly straight and flat, despite my best efforts with heated rollers. Not being allowed the chemical transformation of perming, I used to wash my hair, plait it, and uncomfortably try to sleep on the plaits. I hoped that when I awoke, I would have some semblance of wavy hair. That never worked and as a result, I kept my embarrassingly flat hair in a ponytail.
To add insult to injury, it was a mousey colour somewhere between blonde and brown though not close enough to either colour to have any real personality. I tried desperately to ‘fix’ this by various methods, such as adding lemon juice and sitting in the sun. Until I discovered Sun-In. This was a cheap spray-on bleach hair dye which was supposed to add sun-kissed blonde highlights. What it actually did was turn my hair orange and make it go crusty when I over-did the spraying. Glamourous.
This was the female ideal of the time: tanned, perky and cute.
By comparison, I had ghostly pale skin. I developed short-sightedness as a teenager and started wearing NHS glasses. Now glasses are socially acceptable and even cool, but back then…..not so much. Oh and I suffered from acne. I felt deeply unattractive and prayed to wake up looking like someone else.
It seemed that I wasn’t made for the mainstream so I went alternative. I embraced grunge music and culture. It seemed an aesthetic I could work with. I already had long unruly hair dyed random colours, a penchant for stomping around in Doc Martens and a sarcastic sense of humour that no-one understood. This was not a popular look in Stoke-on-Trent where I grew up in, but it did create a bond with other misfits who became my one or two friends.
Puberty is a cruel time because everyone develops at different rates and the social pressure to fit in is so high. Many girls at my school struggled with their weight. The goal generally seemed to be for every girl to reduce the space she took up. I had one friend who banned the f word (fat) – it upset her so much that she couldn’t bear to hear it said in her presence.
To be fat was considered embarrassing. But to be too thin was also unacceptable. I had a growth spurt around 13 and was one of the tallest girls in my year. I had long legs, which became a target of bullying. ‘Match-stick legs’ is such as ridiculous insult that I can’t believe it upset me so much at the time. But it did. I took to wearing long skirts to hide my legs, least they offend the eyes of the public.
Often I look back at this surreal time in my life where having thin long legs was deemed unattractive. It only illustrates the extent to which girls couldn’t win. Tall and skinny was bad but so was short and heavier. What were we even aiming for? I thought that if I was 5ft 1 that would be ideal, because all the boys would be taller than me. Words they used to describe attractive girls were ‘petite’ and ‘sporty’. But I was already several inches taller and not remotely into sports. I resigned myself to not meeting their standards of beauty, to never being described as petite or cute. These days I give fewer fucks. It’s great being tall now! I stand up for myself and others more.
Substitute Kylie for Kim or whoever is deemed the beauty standard these days and I would imagine the story is much the same. Equally unattainable. It seems sad that teenage girls spend so long hating how they look. When I look back at photos, I generally think I looked alright. Not amazing, not comfortable in my own skin by any stretch of the imagination, but alright.
Even though I’m older and wiser now, there will always be at least one of my friends on a diet at any given time. Unfortunately the topic of conversation is often how they are trying to control their bodies and change their looks. Typically the friend-in-diet-mode has a goal and a strange sounding regime to try to achieve it. Over the years I’ve often heard how my friends ‘are being good’ by denying themselves a piece of toast, or a glass of wine, or dessert. You have to smile and nod, as if good and bad are real categories a woman can be placed into and those who eat carbs are really in the bad category. If that’s true, I’ve resided there my entire life.
I have even succumbed to the madness on occasion. At particularly low points in my life, I decided my body needed to be less. Diets I tried and failed at included: eating only leek soup for a whole weekend (the boredom), a version of the Atkins diet which involved eating meat and cheese at most opportunities (doable but god, it made me realise I love bread), and a postal delivery of diet meals which involved dinner being liquid for a month (always a sad watery curry, stew or ratatouille).
I even had a go at jumping on the 5/2 bank wagon. I remember going to meet a friend in Starbucks on a ‘fasting day’ and drinking only green tea, unavailable to have my usual tea or coffee with milk. Trying to keep the day’s calorie intake below 600 left me faint and shaky. After every stupid diet attempt, I concluded that actually I preferred being able to get through the day without feeling sick and that starving my body actually wasn’t going to work. So it saddens me when yet another friend comments that she feels too big and is going to try to ‘fix’ herself.
Lately I’ve discovered new inspirations in popular culture. Sofie Hagen is an awesome comedian who writes about body positivity and feminism:
“Ever told people that you think you look hot? It is frowned upon, usually. People lift an eyebrow and make sure to let you know that arrogance doesn’t suit anyone. It is not arrogance. It is a personal struggle ended….Every selfie I take is a fuck-you to a culture that wants women to loathe themselves, so they are too busy buying mascara and push-up bras to, oh I don’t know, ask for a raise or consider running for president.” Sofie Hagen
The reality is that most women look in the mirror and are painfully aware of how their appearances differ from the beauty standards. Self-loathing keeps us trapped and as Sofie points out, it keeps us spending our money on products that promise to make us look better. It’s so radical to hear of women accepting themselves. If we dispensed with all this anxiety over appearance, perhaps we could get more shit done.
Imagine if next time we catch sight of fat, instead of finding some expensive, fake and pointless treatment to fix it, we decide to like it. What if we just stop buying into all the lies? Accept that differences really do make us interesting and beauty really is diverse.
This is my new mantra – I like myself as I am. It’s work in progress but I am trying to no longer compare myself to standards. Liberation is sweet!