“Becoming the new feminine ideal requires just the right combination of insecurity, exercise, bulimia, and surgery.”
– G. B. Trudeau
Recently I have been posting a lot of selfies. And I mean A LOT. Sometimes I post them because I am genuinely feeling fabulous, and sometimes I post them because I am not. A few days ago I posted these two pictures, and as someone who enjoys being a little bit ‘Extra’, I obviously decided to opt for the flower crown and blingy glasses.
But after I posted these, my mind started to race. “Shit, maybe people think I am really vain, or really over the top…..They are probably judging me now. Now I’ll be even more unlovable. Maybe I should rather delete them.”
I went into a bit of a spiral and started feeling self-conscious… You know that pattern when one insecurity triggers a thousand more. It was getting dark in that chaotic chasm that is my mind… But then, out of that darkness came a little voice.
“NO Charlotte…..Just No. Who the heck has the right to dictate what is over the top? Whose business is it if you love that freaking flower crown, that for the first time in a long time you are feeling brave enough, and good enough to wear? You wear that bloody flower crown and you wear it with pride. You be extra today and for all days that you so choose.” (Okay, have possibly been watching too much Game of Thrones and it now sounds like I am pledging allegiance and ‘bending the knee’ to some Queen. But maybe I’ll just be my own Queen, and King and pledge some freaking allegiance to myself for once?!)
And so I left the selfie on my Instagram and wore the flipping crown. In fact, I drove my car all the way to Noordhoek whilst wearing the crown, and blasting 80s music and CeeLo’s “F**k You”, and it felt amazing. And just as that little but powerful voice arrived, so did a message from a beautiful womxn telling me that I looked like a ‘movie star’. A message from a friend so effortlessly and lovingly supporting a moment in which I loved myself.
These moments inspired me to believe in loving myself too.
And so I wore it for a good couple of hours and rocked up at a 6-year-olds birthday party wearing it. And you know what? All the kids loved it too. They all took turns wearing it, boys and girls, alike. Why can children so easily engage in the fabulous, and the wonderful (and acknowledge that they look pretty freaking amazing) when we find it so tough?
Well, we live in a society that benefits from insecurity.
Insecurity is the backbone of the cosmetic industry and various health industries alike. I know I have spent hundreds on hair removal, mustache bleach, facials, waxes, dermatology appointments, false eyelashes, hair appointments and make-up to obsessively cover my imperfections. Why? Because I felt that spending my money on these things would make me pretty and I thought that prettiness would equate to love and acceptance.
Now, I am not saying any of these things are bad, at all. They aren’t even half bad. I freaking adore going for facials, and my lashes make me feel like a fan-fucking-tastic goddess who can tackle anything. But what concerns me is the underlying narrative as to why we supposedly need these things, and why they are marketed as necessities that will enhance the probability of acceptance. I remember going for a facial when I was about thirteen and having a particularly angry breakout. “Your forehead looks like a landmine,” the beautician chuckled, as she proceeded to sell me products worth hundreds of rands that would supposedly cure my ‘problem.’ My face – her reactions told me – was not very likable. But not to worry, if I bought her little bag of magic skin goodies I would be cured. And then, of course, I would be liked, and not laughed at. And so it goes. We subscribe to trends and fads and spending a pretty-penny, because then just maybe, we will be accepted….whatever that really means. But god forbid we spend ‘too much’, or like ourselves TOO MUCH.
It’s a flawed and unattainable logic. These ideas are lauded at us regularly, and yet if we indulge too much, or take too many selfies, or love the way that we look, we are judged. Judged as vain, self-centered, superficial, and shallow. You name it; there is a judgment. So we have to toe this strange line. A line between ‘caring enough’ about ourselves not to be ostracized by the superficial standards that govern the capitalist world, but also not showing too much interest in ourselves either. The womxan who cares ‘too much’ about her looks is a slut, or selfish, and the one who cares ‘too little’ is an old hag. We cannot win. We cannot win a game we never asked to play in the first place.
These incongruities permeate the existence of womxn and many vulnerable groups. We are told that we should be sexually meek, and not ‘easy’ (whatever that means) and yet in situations where we feel uncomfortable or sexually harassed we are expected to ‘reject advances politely.’ We cannot cause ‘too much’ of a scene. Because to be ‘too much’ is seen as bad. Girls shouldn’t drink ‘too much,’ or swear ‘too much,’ but they also shouldn’t wear ‘too much’ make-up, or wear clothes that are ‘too revealing.’ We are told to shrink. To cower. To disappear. We should represent the hour-glass shape of a woman, a figure of some desirable dream, but be void of the very things that make us human. That make us real.
And these narratives go deeper. They shed light on the inherent misogyny of our society. Why is it that we are more comfortable with womxn hating their bodies and themselves more than we are with them loving themselves? Why does a womxn pouting her lips, or taking a selfie, or thinking she looks fucking beautiful, shock us so very much? or cause such discomfort? Are you only deserving of beauty if it is recognized by someone else? Are you only of value if you pretend not to see all the things that make you marvelous? Does naivety, or disempowerment, or a lack of self-love equate to being beautiful? The imagery of the coy and unassuming beauty are still capitalized upon in contemporary media. The womxn who knows her value and shouts it from the rooftops is seen as fickle, or uncaring, or ‘selfish,’ but the beauty who is unaware of all her potential is somewhat desirable. Why? Because she does not acknowledge her worth, and if she doesn’t yet see that, she might still feel that she needs external validation.
Why is that so? Is it because men are the keepers of beauty? The ones who can laud people as beautiful, and worthy of love, or not? We have been taught for centuries that loving yourself ‘too much’ is wrong and if you do love yourself ‘too much’, you are more worthy of criticism than a compliment.
Let’s not even get started on how self-love begins to unravel the very tenets of patriarchy. It undoes the ways in which patriarchy pits womxan against each other for male benefit, and by doing so, it is a threat. A threat that must be shot down with cruel words, and shame.
If you do not believe this, you can visibly witness the discomfort that self-positivity elicits, through people’s reactions to the fat positivity movement. People obsess themselves with notions of ‘health,’ and under the guise of being concerned do-gooders, they bring people down. They cannot fathom, or even stand the magic of a womxn, unapologetically adoring herself, even though she lives in a world that tells her she should not. She doesn’t fit into the narrow constraints of what our world delineates as beautiful, and she loves herself all the same. That is terrifying to the structures that gain momentum from generations of insecure womxn and girls. It is a threat, that for many, needs to be brought down.
Within Susan Bordo’s influential text Twilight Zones: The Hidden Life of Cultural Images from Plato to O.J, she compares our present condition of “bedazzlement by created images” (2) to Plato’s The Republic and pays particular reference to his tale of the cave. Within this parable, Plato asks the reader to envision and compare their “usual condition” (1) as knowledge bearers to that of living in a dark cave. He divulges that in this cave we are chained at the neck and leg, in such a way that we are incapable of seeing anything but a wall in front of us, which is covered by a “procession of shadow figures” (1). These artificial figures, which are maneuvered by “hidden puppeteers” (1) would be the only world that we knew and thus serve as our only reality. If we were forced to leave the comfort of our cave we would unquestionably feel “confused and even scornful” (1) of those who told us that life outside of our cave was actually the real world and that we had been “deceived into believing” (1) that these artificial images were real. In order to accept the new truth which suggests that they were, in fact, synthetic, our knowledge would have to be re-evaluated and, to reach enlightenment, this new idea accepted. Bordo, parallels this fable to that of our current condition, suggesting that never before has “Plato’s allegory about the seductiveness of appearances been more apt than today” (2). Images of emaciated models and surgically enhanced bodies grace the covers of popular magazines and mainstream media and if we are to break free of their unhealthy hold on us we need to “recognize that they are not real” (2).
Naomi Wolf takes this notion of the power that cultural images have on individuals, most significantly women a step further, in her book The Beauty Myth. This powerful book argues that the socially constructed ideal of beauty is the last standpoint in the Western world that certifies male dominance over women and suggests that we are in the middle of a “violent backlash on feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement” (10). In order to reveal the negative impact that cultural images have on women, Wolf compares their consequences to that of the Iron Maiden. The Iron Maiden was a medieval German torture device which served as a body casket. On the exterior of this casket were the painted features of a beautiful young maiden and the unfortunate victim who befell her evil fate was slowly enclosed inside of the device and trapped. Wolf, through the revelation of this unpleasant comparison, discloses that women today are often trapped within an equally “rigid, cruel and euphemistically painted” (17) vision. Our contemporary culture “directs [its] attention to [the] imagery of the Iron Maiden while censoring real women’s faces and bodies.” (17).
Thus, we seem to be living in a world which places unlikely expectations upon our bodies but disciplines us cruelly if we do not live up to them. Wolf divulges the long-standing nature of this struggle through her reiteration of the words of the suffragist Lucy Stone in 1855. “It is very little to me,” said Stone, “to have the right to vote, to own property, etcetera, if I may not keep my body and its uses, in my absolute right.” (11). Thus, this is something that women have been struggling with for hundreds of years and is something that needs to be addressed. Perhaps it is now up to us to see without “bedazzled eyes” (Bordo, 16) so that we can see our reality from an objective and discerning perspective and release the vice-like grip that these images have on our bodies.
But these images are powerful, and they have permeated our entire lives. It will take years of un-doing, and un-knowing, and unbelieving, to challenge the depth of their magnitude. But we cannot forget that small victories, across time, have always won the scary battles. Loving yourself, and embracing who you are – in a world that wants to shrink you – is an act of revolution. Being EXTRA is fucking revolutionary in a system that seeks to keep you small.
There might three-weeks where you think you look ugly, or the negative self-talk wins, but there might also be that one day amid the darkness where you feel unstoppable and beautiful. Embrace that day. Document every moment. Shout it from the rooftops and do not let the world and all its horror shrink you. Embrace every single second that you feel good about yourself, my fellow womxn. Do not let this world or another shrink you. You will never be ‘too much’ for the right people. The world needs your laugh that is ‘too loud’, your smile that is ‘too skew’, your nose that is ‘too big’, and your heart that loves ‘too deeply.’ The world needs you. The world needs you to dance. It needs you to express your ideas. And it needs you to be unapologetically you. Fuck shrinking. It didn’t do Alice much good, and it won’t help us either.