There is a picture of me as a child, an annual school photo in fact, that has me grinning hugely at the camera, feeling superb, with toothpaste all down my front. The other children are particularly well-groomed and I look like I chucked on anything nearby and ran all the way to school via the playground, which of course I had. This photograph in many ways feels like the visual metaphor for my life. I simply have never had the intrinsic instinct or desire to mould myself to an acceptable version of femaleness, beauty or chic. This is not a blog about my great rebellion or resistance to the norms of society however, I never consciously resisted. I simply didn’t fit. What this blog is about is the toll that this has and how we all participate in one of the greatest unchallenged prisons of our time. Image.
Despite the fact that I move in “left” circles in which I tend to surround myself with critical thinkers, innovators and people who embrace diversity, I find very few people who talk openly about the walls we have up around beauty. It is so normal to talk about weight for example, there is rarely a day I do not hear a comment from a colleague or read a facebook post about someones latest diet, how much weight they have lost/gained or how great/terrible they feel because of this. Our world is drowning in discredited measures of health such as the Body Mass Index (BMI) fad diets and latest health crazes. Meanwhile women (and also some men) suffer from anorexia and bulimia in record numbers
In fact I once witnessed one person compliment another on how great they looked due to the weight they lost when they were weeks away from dying of cancer. The same cancer that had eaten away her weight followed by the treatment which had caused her to lose her appetite. Our perceptions of health and well-being are warped. Yet most of us don’t see it, either because it inherently privileges us or it forces us to spend time and energy making ourselves as close to it as possible.
Our image prison doesn’t end with weight though. Though any public discourse often does. Our ideas of what it is to be beautiful as a woman are so regimented and yet so invisibilised as to be perceived as normal, as inherent. I am regularly pressured by other women, with the best of intentions to wear makeup, to pluck my eyebrows, to do or wear or try X, Y or Z that would “bring out my beauty” They feel anxious for me. They probably don’t even realise why. They just want to be helpful and kind. I love many of these people, yet it has taken a huge toll over the years. I avoid mirrors. I steer away from conversations about how great shopping is and the latest pair of shoes which is a must have. I know it’s no answer but it’s how I have survived as the gregarious and confident woman I am. Kind of a can’t fit, fuck it I’ll ignore it attitude. (I do want to do better). I don’t ever see myself anywhere, in advertising, in movies, in our representations of ourselves. Its like I have no point of reference or anchor.
This is why the Greens cover of North and South was upsetting for me. Not because I don’t think women should wear dresses. If they want to, of course they should. It’s not that I think women should not be “feminine” if they wish to. Of course they should. It’s that they perceived it to be a breaking of a stereotype and a clever power play. When in fact its simply the perpetuation of another stereotype the “normal” one. Its saying “don’t freak out we are normal that’s why you should vote for us” I simply hear another fuck you to anyone like me, who is different who actually can’t fit that fucking image. I’m sick of being othered.
They showed me a picture of two oranges and a pear, they asked me which one is different and does not belong, they taught me different was wrong- Ani Difranco
I would love there to genuinely be many expressions of what is “feminine” (and “masculine”), what is beautiful and for us to be able to perceive beauty as multifaceted. I would love us to realise that what we see as beautiful is largely taught to us – just look at history and the changing notions of beauty if you doubt this. I do have hope, for me Orange is the New Black broke some wonderful ground in showing women in many shapes sizes and expressions of femaleness. It’s special to me for this reason. I saw myself in Boo, in Red, in many of the strong, ferocious diverse women present on the show. I hope that we will see more of this and an exapnsaion of what is “normal”, so we all fit.
May the future be free of cages.