There’s nothing like a heatwave to make you painfully aware of your body, is there? After months of jeans and jumpers, a few days of delicious golden heat forces you to pull the shorts and t-shirts from where they’ve been stashed since last August, and suddenly you’re confronted with inches of pale thigh and arm. You head to the park or the beach and are surrounded by people in swimwear or summer dresses, and it’s impossible to resist comparing your waist/hips/legs to hers, hers and hers.
And I’ve had enough of caring. I’ve had enough of the cold sinking feeling, so at odds with the warm glow of late spring sunshine, the words “not thin enough not thin enough not thin enough” ringing in my head like the tune of a sick merry-go-round.
I’m not asking to feel “beautiful”, or to “love myself”, like a Dove advert might want me to – I just want to get to a point of acceptance, or neutrality. I want to accept my body for what it does for me. It allows me to walk my dog, to trot up and downstairs with relative ease, it allows me to have sex and hug my girlfriends and eat pizza and drink champagne and laugh until my stomach muscles ache. I can walk into H&M and find something that fits in a matter of minutes. I write this from a place of immense privilege – as a white, able-bodied, fairly petite woman, I have very little to complain about. I know this. But still I berate myself. And I’ve had enough now; I want to get off the merry-go-round.
When I was about sixteen, I went through a few months of being very, very controlled about what I ate, and consequently not eating much at all. I lost quite of bit of weight, my periods stopped, but even though people told me I looked thin, I never felt thin enough. A timely and dramatic intestinal infection, acquired on a school trip to Morocco, temporarily reset my relationship with food. After five days of not being able to keep anything inside me for longer than about eight minutes, I moved from ‘revulsion at the mere thought of food’ to ‘fantasising about toast’. While I sometimes wish I could recover the willpower that took me to about 7 stone, the thing I remember most about those not-eating months is the sheer fucking boredom. The monotony of obsession. Every day a mental battle, and not even a useful one.
I no longer want to be on the quest for beauty. Because it’s so utterly subjective and impermanent, a perfect brittle mask that’s easily shattered. And it just isn’t as meaningful as we’ve made it. What if, one day, in some Freaky-Friday-esque turn of events, I woke up looking the way I sometimes fantasise about? Clear skin, bruise-yourself bone structure, slightly-bigger tits and fawn-like legs. It might be nice – like finding twenty quid in the pocket of a jacket you haven’t worn for a few months – but nothing important would change. I might spend a little less time getting ready in the morning. Maybe I’d get approached a bit more in bars, but frankly that’s not a huge draw. Maybe people would think, “I wish I looked like her” – but I wouldn’t know it, would I? Because no-one tells you those things, and it’d be creepy if they did.
The perfect face only looks so when it’s still. Models are chosen because they can hold a pose, immobile, and look gorgeous or striking or fierce or seductive in that frozen moment. This isn’t a requirement for the rest of us. We want to feel pretty or beautiful or handsome when we’re with other people. And when we’re laughing, arguing a point, kissing, or wrapped round each other, our faces are in motion, lighting up or clouding over, moment by moment. So we don’t need that perfect face. The flawless symmetry, the ideal organisation of features – it doesn’t matter. It’s of no use to us.
I wrote recently about compliments, and how delicate you should be when commenting on someone’s appearance. When we hear someone confess that they don’t feel comfortable with how they look, our first instinct is to tell them they’re wrong – “you’re so pretty though! You look great!” I expect when this post goes out, someone will respond with, “you have nothing to worry about!” But whether that’s true or not is hardly relevant; it doesn’t matter how many times you hear it from other people, the belief has to come from within. You can tell someone you think they’re pretty, or hot, or that their body turns you on, but that’s about you, not them. It’s nice to hear it, of course, but it doesn’t bring about a shift in thought processes. You have to decide to think differently. You have to choose to accept your body for what it is and what it can do.
Make no mistake, I never want to stop taking pride in how I look. I love make-up, skincare and clothes and probably always will. This is simply about acceptance – about deciding to stop the relentless self-castigation, the endless criticism of a body and face that function, for the most part, exactly as they should. And they won’t always function the way I want and need them to. It is beginning to strike me as incredibly churlish to keep denigrating a thing that works just because it doesn’t conform to an arbitrarily-chosen ideal.
I don’t know how to become immune to the messaging we’re all still bombarded with. I don’t know how not to look at a group of women and start ranking us all by my fucked-up internalised beauty standard and find myself lacking in some way. I want to enjoy people’s looks (bespectacled men in knitwear, hit me up, as always) without rating myself against them. And as for my own looks: I simply want to give less of a shit.
How I – and you – look will change. To that we must reconcile ourselves. Our lives will write all over our bodies, our skin will be graffiti-ed by love and sunshine and sickness and age. But the lines and the scars and the flesh will always be the least important parts of us – it’s the things that lie either side of that flesh that count. The wit within, and the warmth we give out.