Pretty Is a Lie
Updated: Oct 16, 2020
A small child with blonde hair and blue eyes, I fit the white privileged mould of ‘pretty’. I was told this often, by my parent’s friends, old ladies on the bus, the school photographer with the Sooty puppet. I remember a holiday in Lanzarote where dark-eyed men would stare and comment, closely followed by the protective arm of my Dad. I couldn’t have been more than about five, but I quickly surmised that pretty was a good thing. It got attention from grown-ups, whether I wanted it or not.
I carried this piece of information with me to girls’ school and it found good company, at a time of Kate Moss famously claiming ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ and Pamela Anderson sharing tips on how to stop hunger pangs (brush your teeth, apparently). Heroin chic was the ambition and hip bones were, well, hip. Skinny was better than strong, sporty, funny or kind. As pliable teens, giggling behind More magazine’s 'Position of the Fortnight' and crash diets, we believed skinny would make us popular, fancied, successful…..happy.
Alongside our Spanish subjunctive, we learned the charming rating systems used by school boys to rate girls’ bodies. I will never forget the ‘thigh gap’ or ‘the pencil rule’. We continued to receive unsolicited feedback on our appearance, shouted from building sites, white vans, and by the harshest judges of all; ourselves.
Pretty and skinny seemed to culturally determine the self-worth of the millennial female generation from early on. And despite our mothers entering the workforce and women smashing barriers in music, politics and space travel, the 80's and 90's created false hope for feminism. The more women claimed power, the more power was taken from them in a hostile process of sexist subordination, or what Time magazine refers to as 'bitchification'. Pre-‘me too’ and with the patriarchy sitting fatly on its throne, even the Iron Lady was still softening her voice and her face to appease her critical male counterparts. The Spice Girls were judged brutally on their looks, no matter how much they shouted about Girl Power. Disney put big-eyed, tiny-waisted princesses on the big screen, usually asleep or miserable until a handsome prince came along to give them a kiss. It’s no big surprise that girls raised in the 80’s and 90’s became women whose inner value is rooted in outer appearance.
Things got typically uncertain in my 20’s; a parental split and several short-lived (often less than 24 hours) relationships with men who offered further advice on how to improve my looks. The standard shake-ups and break-ups that life throws, when you’re still trying to figure out who you are. I fell back on my weight as a cornerstone of my identity. It felt like the one thing I knew, the secret to happiness and at times the one thing I could control. I slipped quietly and easily into an eating disorder, while living alone in another country. It has slowly become something accepted; I have self-created coping mechanisms which make it manageable, if mentally exhausting. Far from a magic ticket to happiness, being a slave to impossible standards of pretty and skinny became a self-built prison.
I now have my own daughter, and like many parents, want to break the cycle of passing on our bad habits. Weirdly this means re-parenting myself at the same time - giving the younger me a big cuddle and saying ‘you are worth more.’
Jameela Jamil’s ‘I Weigh’ inclusive activism movement was founded in urging people to reconsider their worth in terms of positive achievements, personality, what they bring to the world and give to others - not on looks or a number on the scale. As guiding forces to the next generation of women, we need to re-wire ourselves to this mindset, speak kindly to our inner girl and remind her of all the other kinds of wonderful she is. It’s so crucial that the special little girls in our lives grow up hearing that they are strong, kind, genuine, brave, funny and determined. And knowing that they must find validation within themselves, not from other people’s well-meant compliments.