It irks me that I can recall the experience with such clarity, but that is, sadly, the point. With my third daughter in tow, a smiley baby of six months soundly asleep in her pram, I was in a brightly lit cubicle with a single goal: to find a new pair of swimmers.
The exercise was predictably torturous. Not simply because of the universal discomfort of standing in various states of undress in fluorescent light, but because somehow, one by one, these inanimate, colourful creations of lycra, undid me.
It triggered what I knew was a painfully indulgent, unnecessary and unhelpful crisis of confidence. I disliked that more than my reflection.
Away from the stuffy mirrored confines of the store’s changeroom, having bought nothing, I gave myself an adult version of a talking-too. (Silently, I might add.)
How patently ridiculous that a grown woman of a socially acceptable dress size could be rattled by the reflection of a body that has lived. A body that was still, happily, in the throes of breastfeeding. (Happily, because the experience was wonderfully without angst.) A body belonging to a woman in the midst of one of her life’s rosiest times.
Why did I care how I looked in swimmers? Why did it matter? What did I expect?
This was not my first rodeo. My body had – and has – travailed three and half decades of living, three pregnancies, three years of feeding babies as well as a cocktail of chronic conditions. It was not a body that had ever been subject to the kind of physical campaign that might lead to the perfectly toned physique that is seemingly imprinted as the norm. (I might be a mental sadist at times but not when it comes to exercise.)
I regrouped. From the outside nothing dramatic had occurred but I felt weary from the mental battle, another round in the ring against an unrealistic body standard I didn’t want to fight.
I contemplated writing about it at the time but felt torn. By sharing my experience of body-related angst (as a white female of a very conventionally acceptable size) would I merely be perpetuating a narrative in which physical appearance remains paramount?
By not sharing my experience would I be diminishing or erasing a reality that, against all logic and reason, still plagues women?
Ultimately I went with the former. Bri Lee’s new book, Beauty, an essay that explores our obsession with thinness and how prolific an intrinsically unattainable standard of physical ‘perfection’ has become, prompted me to reconsider.
Lee makes a compelling case that despite the momentous progress women have made towards equality in the past few decades, women are held to ever-stricter, more punishing physical standards than ever before. Social media is – and has been – a perilous accelerant.
In Beauty, Lee, details her own battle, and the toxic lengths to which she went in pursuing an impossible physical goal. It is relevant here to note, as Lee herself acknowledges, that she is a lean and statuesque woman who is conventionally beautiful.
Yet neither of these facts made her immune from pursuing a higher standard of thinness or beauty. And, that is a maddening universal reality, the very one I faced in that cubicle: diminished self-worth on account of perceived physical imperfections or inadequacies is not the exclusive domain of any particular size or shape of woman. It transcends logic and reason and shape and reflection.
An unattainable beauty ideal, elevated to a symbol of goodness and values, diminishes all of us, and in Beauty, Lee concludes that the only way to combat it is a conscious, intelligent rejection.
Rejecting the pursuit of impossible physical standards cannot be equated with pretending that this battle isn’t a serious affliction. As Lee observes eating disorders are more deadly because of how readily they are dismissed. They remain deadly for too many, particularly young, women.
An intelligent rejection of physical perfection does not mean deigning any woman’s qualms with her body and appearance as frivolous or merely of her own making. It means accepting the structural, historical and cultural factors that perpetuate the notion that a woman’s appearance is fundamental to her worth.
On an individual level it means seeking to unpick or change this narrative when you can.
Conversations between and among women so often revolve around weight or appearance: it’s the way we’ve been socialised and programmed. Buying out of the loop in which it’s routine to complement your friends and family on physical appearance or routinely criticise yourself is doable. Buying out of conversations in which food choices are dissected and justified is also doable. How often have you heard or said yourself: “I can be bad and have dessert because I went to the gym”? It subtly but surely reinforces the idea of physical appearance coming first.
If you consider your whole life a pie, reducing the piece of the pie you ascribe to your physical appearance is a practical suggestion Lee makes for woman wanting to embrace a realistic standard of beauty.
In the changeroom with the dreaded lycra I had inadvertently equated my body with my entire human worth. In that moment, my body wasn’t a piece of the pie: it was the whole pie.
The pursuit of physical perfection doesn’t just pose a threat to women’s health: it poses a very real threat to self-worth, contentment and enjoyment of life. Making beauty a smaller piece of your pie, particularly if that means eating a bigger piece of pie, is worth trying.