If you haven’t yet read this wonderful piece from Masterchef winner Julie Goodwin in response to mean-spirited tabloid critiques of her body, go read it now. I’ll wait.
With her defence of ‘broader people’, Julie Goodwin has set herself apart from other media personalities who are all too often keen to self-flagellate about their failure to attain physical perfection. This is delightfully sensible and refreshing; I hope the huge support she seems to have received is reflective of a tiny shift in consciousness about both body image and health.
Even so, I heartily wish that there was no imperative for women to do the magazine-covershoot-swimsuit-reveal in the first place. When can a woman get a break from being judged on whether she looks fuckable in her bathers? How is her body shape even relevant to what Goodwin does, and who she is? But we are still in thrall of the suffering ween, apparently (sigh), as well as the stand-in scrutiny provided by other women.
This profoundly-felt obligation to be pretty, this imperative to commit time and money and energy towards some ever-shifting and always unattainable (because not even models look like models) beauty ideal — it isn’t going away. I’m already noticing its toxic effects on Bean, and that’s heartbreaking.
Unfortunately, what passes for commentary on body image issues in popular media generally takes for granted the scrutiny of women’s appearance as right and proper, if inconvenient. I used to indulge in a little Oprah from time to time, and I sometimes liked it, too. If there was one thing that Oprah was good at it was the promotion of public displays of emotional vulnerability. But every time Oprah was about to well up, she’d make some crack about ‘the ugly cry’. When the cameras are rolling, one can’t be ugly. No matter how ‘real’ and raw the moment is supposed to be, we can’t have any screwed-up-face-mascara-running ugliness, at least not without self-deprecation thrown up as a shield. Emotions are good, seemed to be the message, but women can never, ever, let up on themselves when it comes to appearance.
It’s okay to have confronting feelings so long as you stay cute, folks.
I’ve been thinking about the ugly cry a lot lately; it’s a pernicious example of how women’s behaviour is constrained by the imperative to ‘look good’, as well as by ingrained notions of feminine conduct. Grooming protocols and fashion policing, it seems to me, are closely related to decorum and manners and, well, come along with a whole lot of sexist (and racist, ableist, classist) baggage. They also rely upon a false dichotomy between beauty and ugliness and fail to allow space for interrogating the very notion that appearance matters.
A lot of fat activism centres around fat visibility; the message that fat people exist and have the right to take up space is pivotal. More than that, the notion that a fat body can be beautiful and desirable is at the core of some body positive work. And these things are important. But there is, I think, a deeper cultural problem here that can’t be solved just by widening (literally, even!) the definition of beauty.
Sometimes, frequently, I have no interest in attaining any standard of beauty. It’s not churlishness: yeah, I don’t meet any aesthetic ideal and I’ve been derided often over the years for exhibiting various forms of ugliness. And sometimes that has hurt. But my interest in exploring the potential for the reclamation of ugly is not merely personal.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel that I had some kind of obligation to be, if not pretty, then passable. Palatable. And if not that, then invisible.
In taking a kinder, more accepting disposition towards my physical self, I am finding that I feel rather invested in my right to be ugly. And I am far less critical of others. Letting go of any judgement about ugliness means it can start to look kinda beautiful, too.
That’s why I’ve enjoyed Definatalie’s explorations of Ugly Cute.
Sometimes, refusing to hide (or hide from) my ugly might be about finding a safe space in invisibility, or it might be about nothing more than pleasing my own damn self by privileging comfort over appearance or prioritising self-expression over fashion. Or sometimes, it’s political. It’s here I am, don’t erase me. Here I am, don’t judge me. Interrogating one’s own choices with regard to personal presentation is a little exhausting and it can be excruciatingly boring, too. But I think it’s important work for feminists — for anyone — to undertake from time to time.
None of us has an obligation to be conventionally attractive. We all have the right to let go of, if only briefly, the imperative to strive.
Letting yourself be enough, just as you are; now that is a beautiful thing.