Monday, 23 December 2013

The Hardest Thing

This post first appeared two years ago on an old blog of mine. I decided to move it over here.

I was reading a website recently and a quote caught my eye. Somebody said, 'The hardest thing in this society for a woman to be is not an astronaut or president, it's ugly.'

It reminded me of something said by my creative writing prof. She read us a piece she had written about being seventeen years old, which started with something like 'Seventeen was the year I learned to be ugly.' She told about a boy who would follow her between classes, walking behind her down the hallways, chanting, 'Ugly. Ugly. Ugly.'

I think that as women, we are told so explicitly how it is okay for us to look. At Shakesville, there's a series of posts called 'Impossibly Beautiful', which talk about how even the women held up as rolemodels for us, the women who we are supposed to want to look like, are airbrushed and altered until some of them are unrecognisable.

I think it gets even harder because it's almost never phrased as what we should look like, always what we shouldn't. Don't be hairy. Don't be fat. Don't have birthmarks or blemishes. Don't have wonky features, big teeth, a big nose, small eyes, imperfect teeth, frizzy hair. Don't have hair that's too long or too short, too straight or too curly, too styled or too much left to its own devices, and incidentally, we're going to move the goalposts more or less weekly, so your hair that was too short last week is too long this week, and just when you dig out your curling iron, we're going to decide that straight is back in. Don't be too pale or too dark, don't be too tall or too short. Be thin, but not too thin. Don't be bony. Don't be disproportionate in the relative lengths of your legs and body. Don't be too busty, don't be flat chested. Don't have a butt that's too large or too flat.

We are trained to look for what is 'wrong' with ourselves. We are taught to separate our bodies into parts, to chop ourselves up before the mirror. To identify problem areas, and areas that are not problematic... yet. Areas of our bodies that we can stand to display in front of the world, unlike the parts which we are expected to hide and be ashamed of.

It's not difficult to see who is profiting from women being taught to hate their bodies. Just look at the clothing being advertised when the magazines tell you which body part is unacceptable right now. Look at who is making these clothes to hide the parts of your body deemed too unsightly for society to be able to stomach. Look at the paints and potions sold with the promise that they'll fix what's wrong with your face. Look at the poisons and starvation packaged up for us with the promise that, one day, we'll get thin enough to be acceptable. We'll become thin enough that society won't puke upon seeing us.

It is so hard to be ugly in this world. We are taught that we, as women, are things to look at. We are taught to link our self-worth to our appearance, to the number on the scale. We're told that looking good is more important than feeling good. We're told that ugly is unwomanly. When I look at the covers of women's magazines, I think, why do these magazines pretend that they're anything other than what they are? The headline on each one should be, "Women! Hate yourselves!"

I'm short. I wear glasses. I have hair that's longer than is fashionable, and wear home-sewed long skirts and hand knit shawls with clunky boots. I'm fat enough that strangers ask when my baby is due. I don't shave my legs, or my underarms. I don't pluck my eyebrows or wear makeup. I have an autoimmune skin condition that affects every part of my body with unsightly patches. I am intensely aware of the ways in which my body does not adhere to the way that we are told women's bodies are meant to look. I am also a woman, with my scars and my hairy legs and my jiggly tummy, and not being conventionally beautiful does not change that. I am a person and no matter how many companies have invested however much money in my self hatred, I am not just an object to be looked at. I will not hate myself. I absolutely refuse.

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