On body image

For one reason or another I’ve been thinking about this for most of my life, but lately it’s had a resurgence into the forefront of my mind and I thought I’d write about it. It came up recently because I’ve really got into Alisha Rai’s books and her main female characters are so…normal and real and relatable. They’re curvy and insecure and desperate to please their mothers and they don’t go for that smooth and hairless playboy wax-job that always makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. And you know what? They’re sexy as. Seriously.

Body image is something that I’ve struggled with all my life. I suffer from quite severe polycystic ovary syndrome (and if you don’t know how awful that is internally, never mind cosmetically, consider that I once passed a kidney stone (and left it jammed in a bladder valve for 3 WEEKS before emergency surgery) without pain medication because I thought it was ‘just stomach cramps’). Cosmetically it’s a horrible syndrome. Typically sufferers of PCOS are overweight because the hormone imbalances mean that our insulin regulation is screwy and every molecule of sugar we eat lays straight down to fat. We carry it in specific ways – hips, boobs and stomach, meaning we’re the poor unfortunates that often get asked when we’re due when we’re not actually pregnant. Unluckily for me I hit the bottom of the gene pool when it comes to weight because I also have incredibly solid bones for my height. I know a lot of people use it as an excuse but in my case it happens to be true. I’m 5 foot 4 and when I slimmed right down to a small UK size 10 (hip bones showing and everything), I still weighed more than 11st 10lbs, most of which was bone mass. PCOS sufferers frequently have acne, another side effect of the hormone imbalance. Finally, we usually suffer from an excess of dark, luxuriant and resilient body and facial hair. It’s hard not to feel self-conscious about it.

I’m never going to be slim. I’m never going to be smooth. I’m never going to have luminous skin. And in a world that is literally saturated with images of what society considers “beautiful”, it really fucking hurts.

So I’m reading about these achingly normal women and thinking that I can relate to them and, by jove, they are sexy and I find myself wondering all over again why it is that society forces us into trying to attain a standard of “beauty” that is, in essence, unnatural. Why is it that something that is perfectly natural on men is considered ugly in women? I’m not inviting any sort of misogynist diatribe here – I’m genuinely bewildered by the situation and how it came to be. Why can’t I have armpit hair and be considered normal instead of some kind of weird-ass hippy freak, when every guy out there on the street never thinks twice about their underarms?

You look at these book and magazine covers with these tiny women and ripped men and think they’re beautiful but it’s about as warped as it comes with nature. It’s unnatural to look like that. If we were meant to be that skinny or look that muscular, why is it so hard to get that physique and why do we have to starve ourselves down and exercise to extremes for it? If we weren’t meant to have body hair, why do we grow it? Why do we make an icon out of a state of misery? Why do we force ourselves through unpleasant and often prohibitively expensive treatments, ripping our body hair out by the follicles again and again, for no reason other than to feel like we fit in?

How and why did this state of affairs happen? Why do we continue to perpetuate it when it’s so far from the state of existence of an average human being? Where does it end? Deep down I have this fear that in three or four generations time, our concept of beauty will be so artificial that we will resemble the residents of The Capitol from The Hunger Games – all body mods and extreme styling.

Returning to the world of Alisha Rai, in my more sleep deprived and less lucid moments, I wondered if it was somehow aimed at not letting women like me feel sexy like the characters in her books. Why can’t I feel sexy? Why must I be judged for something I can’t help against a standard that next to no-one can attain? Is this some culturally mandated state of misery that must exist to drive the economy somehow? Are we so easily manipulated that pharmaceutical corporations can drive our cultural norms towards things that benefit their profit margin?

When I brought this up earlier with a friend, we talked about how ideals of beauty had changed over the centuries and how there was a time when my body shape was considered the most beautiful. We talked about the rise and fall of the Ginger – in Elizabethan times it was considered gloriously beautiful, then it fell out of favour and every redhead in creation was considered the devil’s spawn. Now it’s coming back as trendy and beautiful. We even dissected it down to eyebrow styling – when we were young the fashion was for these tiny thin eyebrows, then they started to get normal and now they’ve gone the other way into monstrous black shaded caterpillar-looking things. Who even makes money from dictating the trends of eyebrow shape??

We’re not talking about clothes here, about fashions or styles changing, we’re talking about the natural state of our bodies and how things rise and fall in favour without rhyme or reason. Who decided that, for at least a few decades, we should persecute anyone who had the misfortune to be born ginger and then forced it to be a cultural norm? How does that even happen? Why do we give them the power to do that?

More importantly, how do we stop it from happening? How do we stop this whole crazy carousel of judgemental existence and learn to accept that everyone is beautiful in their own way, without modification or misery? How do we return to our primal state, where we base attractiveness on sheer chemical response in our bodies? Everyone has that weird crush, right? The person that’s not conventionally beautiful but somehow flicks all our buttons…that’s your primal attraction and why the hell should we have to put a caveat on it? Why do we have to insert that disclaimer about conventional beauty and label it a “weird crush”? Why can’t we just out and out say that we find someone sexy without being judged for it?

I know that these are all open-ended questions and mostly without answers, at that. I just needed to talk about it and I hope that some of you have interesting or heartfelt responses. That’s all.

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