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​a girl’s guide to body image

You don't have to be beautiful, acceptance doesn't come from within and remember that your face is making someone else money.

by Bertie Brandes
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25 November 2015, 12:40pm

Here is my Girl's Guide to Body Image, the irony being that the entire guide is about rejecting prescribed body ideals and the very notion of girliness. I suppose you could call it an anti-guide of sorts, maybe an antidote. Whatever it is, it hinges on the fact that you don't need to be pretty on the inside or the outside. You don't need to love yourself to be a loving person. You don't need to feel beautiful, ever, but you will sometimes. Sometimes it's the wiry, oily, wobbly, flaky people who can tell you the most about beauty. Sometimes it's the people who can laugh at their bodies who are the most serious about them. Your body is a powerful weapon and a lot of people are trying to disarm you of it a lot of the time. Don't let them. Be angry, be determined and most importantly, be as 'ugly' as you like.

You don't have to be a girl
Being girly can be fun. I recently had lunch with a man wearing an unapologetically girly pink cocktail dress. He looked lovely. But girly has become a by-word for female in a way that betrays so many of the ways women are encouraged to think about their bodies. Cover the faces of models and they could be children. Uncover their faces and they basically are. Vogue recently ran a feature called "9 models you haven't heard of (yet) but will want to look like". There is a never-ending parade of rosy-cheeked youth thrust into the spotlight in order to make women feel humiliated and inferior, acknowledging that is important for your sanity. Equally, you might not be a girl but you don't have to feel like a woman all the time either. It's not unheard of for me to act like a child (I know, shocking) but I often do so feeling in some way as though I'm wearing that girliness as a form of drag. It can be empowering; you can radicalise girliness in an incredibly satisfying way and one that is, for better or worse, perhaps more straightforward and immediately identifiable than radicalising womanliness. Perhaps that's why so many young female artists and writers are pre-occupied with it - you can occupy it quite easily. But girliness as subversion can also err on the wrong side of irony; it too often relies on the same capitalist tropes of personal branding and clean, largely white, flesh imagery that it claims to uproot. You don't have to be a girl, but you don't have to fixate on undoing girliness either. Be nothing. Be everything. Let there be a galaxy at the top of your legs. Put a Galaxy at the top of your legs (if that's what you're in to). Have hairy armpits and prickly half-shaven legs. Wax your pubes off and grow your chin hairs proudly. You don't have to be a girl, or a woman, or anything.

You don't have to be beautiful
But it helps. Isn't that what all those Daily Mail articles say? That good-looking people do better in the workplace, along with white people, male people and people who speak in Received Pronunciation, though they don't tend to mention those others, oddly enough. Where is the opt-out option? Beauty is so boring, it's so plainly economic and it's so underwhelming. Our consumer culture has done a phenomenal job of shifting the boundaries of beauty over the last few years to include everybody. Nowadays everybody is beautiful and everybody ought to look their beautiful best™ (Bertie's Nourishing, Lightening body wash). There's a lot of "hey this sexist, ageist, racist, sizeist institution told this incredibly privileged girl that she wasn't right but isn't she actually really photogenic and aspirational LOOK!" The beauty economy is clever and immense and almost entirely driven by pressure on women to appear unthreatening and neat. Don't buy it. Neat is murder.

Your face makes someone else money
I mean, so does your dinner and your deodorant and your Friday night in the pub so I wouldn't worry a huge amount, but it is worth bearing in mind. Do you need a £12 clear brow gel? Maybe you do. Maybe you don't. Do you need a primer, foundation, concealer, setting powder, bronzer, highlighter, contouring kit, make-up remover, cleanser, toner, moisturiser and a night oil? Maybe you do. Maybe you don't. Buy what you want, but remember that somewhere, someone in an unforgivable suit is making a lot of money from your face and they don't want you to only buy one or two products a year. I like wearing make-up; I wear really smudged eyeliner because it's kind of like war paint. You can wear make-up to make you feel pretty or sexy or scary -- these are all forms of female power in a culture that likes to strip power from women. You don't need it, but you might want it and that's great. Just make sure you scrub it all off at the end of the day because the last thing you want is make-up getting under your skin.

Your appearance doesn't define you, but it can if you want it to
I have more clothes than anything else in the world because millennials can't afford permanent (or even semi-permanent) homes so are less likely to invest in furniture or stuff. That's what Douglas Coupland says anyway and I think he's right. If I vanished tomorrow and my flat was let out to some other mid-twenties aspiring whatever at least the hoard of coats and dresses stuffed into the rented wardrobe would remind everyone it was me who used to leave my coffee cups on the windowsill. You can absolutely choose to remove yourself from the hierarchy of stylishness, or you can meticulously dress yourself up with pride as a fuck you to a political system that refuses us the ability to express ourselves physically virtually any other way. In a nutshell, you can't paint your bedroom but you can paint your face.

Acceptance does not come from within
Why do we have this weirdly Thatcherite attitude towards happiness? Don't believe the truism bullshit: you do not have to love yourself before anyone else can love you. Acceptance does not have to come from within. When you've been brought up in a system that puts extreme pressure on women (and men, but y'know - Girl's Guide) and forces them in a permanent mindset of fear and stress, gleefully spreading the idea that you are the only obstacle between yourself and total bliss is basically a form of patriarchal propaganda. Relieve yourself of the pressure to somehow find inner peace in an incredibly tumultuous society and turn your anger outwards instead.

You do not have a body type - you are not a vegetable
I'm nearly 26 and over the last year my body has started to let me get on with other things. Nothing about it has changed in particular, but it's stopped fighting with my mouth and my brain over which one of them gets to define me. It feels like calmly walking off a battlefield, and it feels good. There is a flat part of my chest that I can press down on and feel my breastbone underneath like armour. Its plateau makes me feel old; it's hard and tough, not springy or sprightly or soft, and I welcome that. I remember I used to be bean-shaped and then I was pear-shaped and who knows maybe I was a celery-stick for a while. Regardless of how little I actually resembled any of those groceries, whatever I read about my body shape encouraged me to believe that while I was lacking in X I was making up for it in Y. Women are taught to think of their bodies as a set of dismembered limbs adding up to a total value (like maths for serial killers). Natasha Walters wrote in Female Chauvinist Pigs how women often betray a learned disassociation of flesh and self by jabbing and jiggling parts of their bodies as though they're fashion accessories or temporary growths. We are encouraged to name and gender our breasts like pets so suddenly they don't belong to us anymore. We're encouraged to add up the price of our best features and weigh them against our less desirable ones. Our brains are, unsurprisingly, quite low down on the list. It's funny to think I spent my teens imagining the strong, solid core of my body was just a gap where there should have been breasts. It's odd to think we're taught to balance apparent losses with gains: weak shoulders righted by sexy curves, flat chest rectified by shapely legs. Our bodies are wonderfully resilient - from the hard, raspy skin on the back of our heels up to our muscular calves and on to that line of oil at the top of our forehead. You are so much more than a body type - you are not a vegetable.

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Bertie Brandes
size matters
a girls guide