Benign self-destruction


Last week, I sent and received this picture four or five times, my dearest girlfriends and I all marvelling at the unapologetic glamour and insouciance. None of us have won an Emmy – never mind four of them (yet, anyway) – but we all recognised the feeling. The deep exhale, the giddy pleasure of a stiff drink and a cigarette after a stressful or exhausting few hours. Oh, we felt this image deep in the pits of our stomachs.

The photo of Waller-Bridge went viral, and earned comparisons with Terry O’Neill’s iconic shot of Faye Dunaway on the morning after the 1977 Oscars. But what my friends and I were responding to when we WhatsApped the photo to each other with the caption “big fucking mood” was the sense of relief. That feeling of “right now, I don’t have to be good. Thank God”.

Of course, photos of a working-class celebrity having a drink and a cigarette wouldn’t be admired in the same way – ditto a woman of colour, or someone larger than a size 10. Yes, women are all held to higher standards than men, but conventionally attractive middle-class white girls will always have the easiest time of it – let’s acknowledge that right away.

But let’s also acknowledge the pressures that everyone who identifies as a woman is under to be “good” most of the time. To look a certain way, to be successful but not too ambitious, emotionally articulate but never angry, to be responsible, to have everything under control – you can’t be messy, if you’re a woman. Don’t ever look like a mess. Come as you are? We’d rather you didn’t.

Writer Felicity Morse’s take on the photo that caught my eye – it hit on something I’ve been thinking about recently:

The older I get (she types, at the positively decrepit age of 29), the more I believe it’s useless simply telling people what they should and shouldn’t be doing. So seeing an image of one of the most successful, in-demand female writers on the planet enjoying a drink and a cigarette is heartening. She’s earned it – she has earned the right to not be good, for just a moment – but then so has every woman I know.

But oh, don’t we still love to tell a woman what she should and shouldn’t do? Her body is, firstly, a problem, a thing to be constantly honed and sculpted; secondly, public property – there to be looked at and judged; and thirdly, it’s political – a battleground, a thing fertile for debate. What should a woman be allowed to do with her own flesh? How much control should she have?

Alongside all this debate, all these opinions, there’s the internal ebb and flow of hormones. Being at the mercy of that tide changes you a little. You resign yourself early in life to the fact that you will never be wholly in control of your physical being – and then you look outwards and realise you’re not really supposed to talk about that. You may show off the good, clean-boned bits of you, but don’t talk about the grim realities – the pain and the blood about which you do not usually have a choice. And maintaining that silence is exhausting. The appetites and the desire to be seen and understood have to come out somehow.

And so we bond over wine and cigarettes. The third glass is often when the truth bubbles to the surface, and you share the bad stories. You stand outside the pub or sit on the steps, smoking and telling each other about thoughtless partners, absent parents, unhealed wounds. You buy another round, because there is so much still to exorcise. And you breathe out smoke and it feels like relief.

Looking after yourself in the ways that you know you “should” – exercise, water, vegetables, eight hours of sleep – can feel a bit too much like toeing the line, playing the game. We know alcohol isn’t the answer, we know each fag knocks a moment off our lives, but let us have our small rebellions, because it is still so hard to be a rebellious woman.

I’m reading The Trip To Echo Spring by Olivia Laing at the moment, and it’s a beautiful exploration of why Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Williams and a few more of the finest male writers we’ve ever seen had such trouble with alcohol. For them, it was the only thing that would quell the torturous voices in their heads – the chorus of panic, anxiety and self-loathing. It made them temporarily shake off the weight of expectation.

And I think a lot of ordinary women need that too. We need our ‘fuck yous’, our revolts, our ways of exerting control when we feel we have very little. Both internally and externally, our bodies are so rarely fully our own. So fuck you, we’re going to drink until we can’t hear the judging voices, and when we light a cigarette, we’re going to imagine blowing smoke in the faces of everyone who ever told us we were too fat, too thin, too hungry, too emotional, too angry, too cold, too ambitious, too much.

But in time, we figure out what our own version of healthy is, and I think for a lot of us, it doesn’t have anything to do with an outside narrative. For a long time, what’s been missing from conversations about well-being and exercise is the notion of joy. It doesn’t have to be a punishment for soft thighs, a slog in pursuit of size 8 jeans. It can be a brisk few laps of the park on a glittering autumn morning, breathing in cold air, staring into blue sky, crunching on copper leaves. It can be slicing and gliding through water, feeling finally weightless. It can be an hour of Pilates, the gentle, satisfying stretch of muscles and the calming of a hamster-wheel mind.

But no wonder we still seek solace in acceptable nearly-self-harm. When your choices are “be good, or be quiet”, being bad feels delicious.

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