I was going to call this piece “I believe I am beautiful.” I think it is a powerful cliche, a provocative one. But my insecurities beat my journalistic ambitions. I couldn’t stand the thought of a headline reading “I believe I am beautiful” circling social media. Friends of friends staring at laptops assuming arrogance from my use of language. Or people raising their eyebrows and saying, “Yeah I guess she’s alright, I wouldn’t say beautiful, she’s got big tits though.”
I didn’t used to believe I was beautiful. I don’t even think now, writing this piece, I have truly acknowledged how much my relationship toward my looks and my body has impacted me. Since I was young enough to feel ugly, I’ve felt it. That there was a divide between me and my childhood friends because I was not as petite, as slim, as blonde, as freckly, as blue-eyed as they were. I saw myself as lacking in all elements that fit within my narrow definition of beauty.
These feelings of ugliness caused me to become disassociated with my body. When I was 10, I started tearing out bits of my hair. I couldn’t stop. I ended up modeling some bizarre OCD-fueled crimp-do accompanied with white dip-dye. My hair became a mixture of bald patches and serious inconsistencies in thickness. My ends were so split that someone might have dunked them in icing sugar. My hairdresser asked me if I had taken a lighter and held it to the bottom of my hair. This jagged and broken frizz inescapably stapled to my head — combined with the fact I was gaining weight — caused me to enter puberty adamant that I was not pretty and never would be so I may as well focus on other things.
A couple years older and wanting to present myself as sexually attractive to boys, I decided my only route was dressing like a slut (I say this in a retrospective voice — this was before my feminist enlightenment and understanding of slut shaming). 14 years old, on the tube drinking vodka Red Bull and heading to some house party I wasn’t on the list for, channelling a baby prostitute that got dressed with her eyes shut. I once genuinely wore simply an Ann Summers pink and black polka-dot corset, knickers, tights and heels to an underage night.
At age 16 I underwent a complete 180. Patterned dresses from ASOS ordered in bulk. I was never going to be sexy but maybe I could at least feel feminine if my clothes were littered with more hearts and flowers than a six-year-old girl’s doodles. I had begun to resent my curves, my big boobs, my big bum and my big thighs: physical attributes that determined the way clothes fell on me, undermined the delicate flower fairy image I was trying to sport. I attempted to erase my voluptuous physique with these long shapeless dresses. I drifted through high school dressed like a frumpy church lady. One benefit of this frantic desexualization, however, was that I gave off a false air of apathy, far too moral and grounded for the superficiality of striving for pretty.
A year or so ago, specific circumstances forced me to finally identify these insecurities and attempt to address them. It took me two full decades of existence, as someone fascinated by all the political psychology that framed these insecurities in the first place, to understand that the most basic cliché applied to me: no one was going to believe I was beautiful until I believed I was beautiful.
I responded well to this newfound knowledge and was able to rewrite the narrative of eternal ugliness that I had devised. I began to take control of a situation I had rendered wholly uncontrollable. I taught myself how to work out what cuts of clothing actually compliment my figure, how to apply a full face of make-up. I now stop to look in a mirror as opposed to scurrying past it.
But finally being content in my own body has not come without its complications. The more self-assurance I acquire, the more ashamed I am also. I know that I am becoming increasingly vain, a shortcoming I never imagined I would have to grapple with. Even writing this now, the thought of submitting this piece for publication terrifies me. This is partially because publicizing the personal is inevitably a terrifying experience, but it also because I am embarrassed that I really do care about looking good.
Recently, I was at home, standing in the hallway mirror, painting my face with foundation, Q-tips scattered across the floor, rejected after fulfilling their role of making my eyeliner flicks symmetrical. My dad walked past me and rolled his eyes jokingly, making some comment about ‘girls’ and ‘girliness.’ While I know my dad was just being playful and did not personally mean any harm, these sort of comments underline the problem precisely. The nature of these jokes exemplify a huge facing young women and girls, an issue that can sometimes only be truly identified by the subtleties of language. This may have been subconscious, but somewhere at the heart of the underlying, lies a question in my dad’s response: Why are you, a free–thinking young woman passionate about feminism and left-wing politics, succumbing to this vanity and superficiality?
Since the sexual revolution of the 60s, expectations of girls and women have been so broad and multi-layered that we have found ourselves under pressure to have — or be — everything (the specifics of “everything” evolving from decade to decade). In 2016, we are at a particular crossroads. Thanks to the work of the women before us, we believed wholeheartedly that we deserve to get as far in life as our male peers. We have been taught to demand equality. Angela Merkel, Theresa May and Hillary Clinton are all living, breathing, walking reminders that women have the ability to lead global movements and dictate global policy.
But our progress is undercut by a rapid resurgence in lookism. The Kardashians et al harness the powers of plastic surgery, sepia filters and decent genes to remind you via infinite social media sites of how physically attractive they are and how much you should strive to look just like them. This tension for female millennials, the demands of politics versus the demands of media — flicking between “Jezebel” articles about the cheek of men to attempt to regulate a women’s uterus and Kylie Jenner’s Snapchat story — lead us to strive for an absolutely unattainable ideal: Look good but don’t focus on it, look good but don’t talk about, spend money on looking good but be embarrassed that is why you are broke.
This notion of the ideal woman, effortlessly beautiful but concerned about far more profound things, is also emphasized by modern fictional female icons. Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games or Game of Thrones’ Khaleesi are fantastically bold, outspoken political leaders who possess far superior physical ability and mental strength than their male counterparts. They are simultaneously beautiful and sassy and we love them for it because it is inspiring. When Daenerys walks through fire and is left unscathed, standing there with her perfect face and her perfect boobs, she reminds us on some unconscious level that the impossible is possible. She encapsulates our dream version of our self: as sexy as Kim K., as powerful as Clinton. I have been raised to be motivated to reach my potential career-wise. But since developing an aspiration to reach my most beautiful as well, I am more at ease with myself than I have ever been.
It is integral for us as fourth-wave feminists to acknowledge the power and complexities of these identity tensions. We, knee-jerk opposers of the beauty standard all girls are subject to, are still learning how to navigate this conflict. We certainly need to encourage other girls — and ourselves — to overcome these destructive obsessions with our appearance. But we must be mindful to never judge and belittle others — or self-deprecate — for succumbing to demands to look like a Snapchat filter. Deciding to believe I am beautiful, and maxing out my student overdraft on clothes in order to fulfill this perception of myself, was an act of vanity, but I am tired of being ashamed of it. Being born with all the inevitable baggage that comes with being a girl is not a crime.
Leah Gavron is an English Literature major, on exchange from the University of Sussex. She can be reached at [email protected]