Musings on Beauty

Feeling bad about your beautiful body

by Melody Thomas

Where do our ideas about beauty come from? How does our idea of beauty differ when looking outward from that we see when looking inward, or at our own reflection? We are after all far more forgiving and embracing of “imperfections” in others than in ourselves. When I say something is beautiful what am I referring to? A juxtaposition of colour? Symmetry? Familiarity? Is something beautiful because I innately feel it to be so, or because I have been told repeatedly and often subconsciously that it is so?

How is it that some days I can feel perfectly centred, hyper-aware of my own beauty and sexuality and gushing with warmth for my sturdy thighs, wispy waist and pert breasts, only for this warmth to give way only a day after to an intense dislike? Despite my common sense and better judgement those solid trunks for thighs turn pale and flaccid as chicken drumsticks, my breasts shrivel from pert and suggestive to flat and alluring as pancakes and my waist visibly thickens as I watch. Reality has not changed, but it may as well have, and in fact if perception is reality then it has. Yesterday I was beautiful, but today I am a troll – that is not a perception, but a truth.

In mulling over perceptions of beauty one of the first places my mind went to was the fact that not only have advertisers and other purveyors of “real beauty” managed to completely undermine our own self-perceptions – but because it is always the individual who is under target and made to feel lacking or unappealing or ugly, we have also lost some very valuable methods of communication. Why would I admit to a girlfriend that I feel my thighs are fat? She already knows that! She knows what thighs are meant to look like! She too has seen the billboards. And anyway in this world where nothing matters except being perceived as attractive to males a cry for comfort to another female is like exposing your naked throat to a poisonous snake. We are after all competitors for that all-important natural resource – the male stare (some of us are even lucky enough to make the wank-bank!)

But in mulling over these destroyed avenues of communication – and a real lack of sisterhood at the very moment when we most need it – I recalled one small avenue still open, still stealthily being used away from the eyes of men and despite the fact that it is continuously shut down, hushed up and painted over. I thought of bathroom stalls, and the times I have smiled reading messages like “You are a beautiful woman!” and following declarations that Bob or John or Rick “doesn’t want me” comments from caring sisters shouting that “he doesn’t deserve you!” These conversations may have been relegated to dark, smelly stalls but they are alive and well there – mirrored in those drunken bathroom interactions where girls moved by alcohol and close quarters exclaim how they love your dress or how you look pretty and don’t need to worry about your makeup.

In pondering how to clearly communicate my ideas about beauty to other women I remembered with a flash the poem that moves me to tears every time I hear its first words spoken. It’s the poem that reminds me, even when I think I’m grounded and secure, that I still haven’t figured it all out yet. That I still have work to do in terms of self-image. It’s a poem by Apirana Taylor – a New Zealand treasure who taught himself the art of poetry while in prison – and it was written for a friend of his who was suffering badly in her attempts to live up to a certain ideal of beauty. (Click to expand image to read poem)

My initial idea was to tag this poem in bathroom stalls and then to photograph the replies, but I would like to take this method of communication to a wider audience. I want to write it on the mirrors in clothing-store dressing rooms. I want to stencil it on the pavement outside pharmacies where massive, illuminated faces stare down at you threatening you with the ideas of “ugly” and “different” and “outcast” if you don’t subscribe to their narrow definition of beauty. I want it spray painted on walls near high schools, especially the girls schools – like mine where the lunch hour meant bathrooms filled with sounds of choking and crying as girls attempted to bring up the lunch they had guiltily consumed.

The overwhelming message about beauty that is shouted at us today, from the sides of buses, from the tops of buildings, from magazines and shop windows and almost every surface you could name is that however you choose to define this slippery concept, you can be sure you’re not there yourself – yet.

And after this text and these images have done the job of ensuring we feel vulnerable and self-doubting we are offered the miracle fix – the product that can do it all for us. The mascara that will make our eyes more dramatic, the shoes that will make our legs look leaner, the dress that will attract the man we need. And all empty promises. We believe in these products. We take that text as a promise. And when that promise isn’t fulfilled we direct our disappointment inward – it’s not that the product failed, it’s that we’re such failed women. that even the wonder product couldn’t fix us.

We need a different dialogue. A dialogue of empowerment and truth and kindness. A dialogue with backbone, that isn’t afraid to say “FUCK OFF WONDERBRA!! MY TITS ARE JUST FINE THIS WAY!!” We need to be able to turn to our friends and see them pulling the finger in support for our tits too, instead of sniggering into their own wonder bras and looking round to see if any boys are watching. And we need to take this method of conversation out of the confines of the bathroom stall and out into the open. We need to spray it over every wall and mirror we see because fuck knows no-one’s going to give us the space to say it legally. We need to question the right for “them” to scream at us every day that we are worthless, inadequate and alone when we have no way to answer back. And we need to do it together, because if hell has no fury like that of a woman scorned we really do have the ability to change the world resting in our palms.