Almost Famous, real women and the normalisation of self-hate

I wish I wasn’t pear-shaped.

My nose is too fat.

Laxatives are definitely the answer.

Why can’t I be thinner?

Does all this sound familiar? If you’re a woman, it should. While these statements were taken from the walls of the ladies’ loos in a burger bar, they’re meant to represent what all of us are really thinking. Go on, admit it. We hate ourselves. We’re women; it’s what women do.  If you’re not drowning in self-loathing, you’re not in the club.

Staff at Almost Famous, Leeds, have now painted over their fresco of female insecurity, in response to a blog by food writer Helen Graves. The wall was a shitty idea, poorly executed. Nonetheless, you can’t blame the owners for trying. Why not cast an ironic eye on female self-hatred?  It’s what all the cool kids are doing. Twenty-five years after the publication of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth – bright, fiery and full of anger – women’s hatred of their bodies is seen not as a scandal but an inevitability. We no longer deny that women hate themselves but write it off as part of what women are.

If you are female, expressing hatred for your own body is not just acceptable, it’s practically de rigeur. Failure to indulge in the requisite amount of self-flagellation – my thighs! my skin! my face! – isn’t just negligent, it’s unfeminine. Self-hatred is fundamental to how femininity is constructed, more fundamental than any of the more obvious external symbols (dress, make-up, shoes). What matters is not that you are beautiful, but you know your place in the beauty hierarchy (and since every woman ages, every woman’s place will eventually be somewhere at the bottom).

Young women are encouraged to bond over their dislike of excess body hair, surplus flesh and “uneven” skin. They are meant to do so in a jovial way, egged on by perky adverts informing them what “real women” do: worry about having underarms beautiful enough for a sleeveless top, celebrate curves with apologetic booty shakes and cackle ruefully over miserable Sex-and-the-City-style lunches of Ryvita and Dulcolax. It’s a gendered ritual; men get football and booze, women get control pants and detoxes. We are supposed, of course, to be grateful. Hey, you don’t have to be perfect! Just know you’re not perfect and act accordingly, with the appropriate levels of guilt and shame!

Fairy tale after fairy tale tells us that what matters is being beautiful “on the inside” but what does that really mean? It means submission, obedience and the suppression of one’s own desires. Don’t be haughty and proud. Clean the hearth. Kiss the frog. Love the beast. Suck it up when you’re replaced by a younger model. Sure, you may look fine, but you mustn’t feel fine. You mustn’t be vain. You mustn’t be angry. All fury and pain must be turned back on itself. That way you’ll be a real princess: silent, fragile and never threatening to challenge the status quo.

The phrases on the wall of the Almost Famous toilets weren’t just offensive; they were desperately sad. According to a statement from the company,

The designs were created by a female employee to voice her own and other women’s insecurities. We accept we didn’t communicate this properly.

But even if this had been communicated “properly”, what would have been the aim? That all women entering those toilets read the statements and give a wry nod of recognition? Aha, someone like me! So I’m not the only one who rams her fingers to the back of her throat post-burger! Solidarity, graffiti woman! The implication is that ostentatious self-loathing is publicly acceptable, albeit only for women (there was no equivalent “why is my dick so small?” lament above the urinals). And indeed, had the messages stayed, they would have joined a million others telling women that dislike of one’s own body is not something that needs to be challenged; on the contrary, it’s part of what makes you normal (you want to be normal, right? Even if your tits are too small and your nose isn’t right, the least you can do is be normal).

I think this constant feeling of not being at home in one’s body – whether such a feeling is normalised or not – has a huge impact on women’s confidence. It affects the way we walk, how we sit, whether we dare to be noticed. It makes us feel not quite whole, lugging around a hopeless, excessive, ageing body that isn’t really ours.  Right now our “liberation” is not escaping from this horrible feeling; it’s embracing it, wallowing in it, deciding that being pretty on the inside is the best we can do. But this surely isn’t right. We shouldn’t settle for pretty on the inside when we’re also flesh and blood, feeling and thought.