“In ’90s Ireland, Beauty Was Always Tethered To Control”
My proximity to beauty has shifted many times in my life. I have been ugly and I have been beautiful, and experiencing these opposing states has done nothing except reveal how disappointing the world can be. Predictably, when I was beautiful, people took more of an interest in me, impressed by my apparent ‘control’. I was a beautiful child, an ugly teenager and then beautiful again for a spell. Now here I am, aged 38 and once again drifting away from beauty. I’m not saying this so that someone will argue with me and tell me I’m beautiful. I have proof enough. I am convinced of this unbeauty right down to the marrow of my ugly bones. I can write that with total dispassion – especially now I am on the precipice of invisibility. An invisibility I welcome; because being looked at and assessed endlessly is exhausting and I am glad to be retiring from it.
It’s tempting to cast beauty and the pursuit of it as ‘unserious’, but for millennia beauty has been one of the few ways that women could ecru some modicum of dubious power. To this day, in so many areas of life, beauty is a requisite for participation. To be a woman in any arena, it is really best if you are beautiful – it is one less thing you will be attacked for. Though, of course, in the grand tradition of ‘you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t’, a woman’s face and body is also frequently used to discount her when she’s perceived to have power.
If you’re too pretty, you are unlikely to be intelligent; if you’re ugly, well… In researching this piece, I came across a grim page of the internet where a group of men were workshopping a list of the ‘ugliest women in Ireland’. The women who ‘made’ the list should be proud, because it is a who’s who of the blazingly powerful women who have shaped a modern Ireland. There were politicians, activists, journalists and comedians – pretty much everyone I admire.
If only the assiduous tracking of our looks was only by men. Unfortunately, the greatest trick the patriarchy ever played was getting us to oppress each other. As an ugly young woman, I often felt most judged by other women. ‘She could be so beautiful…’ was a phrase I heard among the women in my life. Its silent conclusion echoed inside me: ‘…if only she tried.’
Being an ugly woman can feel as though you are not fulfilling some implied social contract. Here, we are persisting in being female and then having the nerve to not even be easy on the eye.
She could be so beautiful… if only she tried.
And so, I started to try in earnest. If I couldn’t be beautiful, I could at least be thin – and aren’t they one and the same? They certainly were in the homogenous landscape of ’90s Ireland. An almost total lack of diversity meant that there was no celebration of the many beautiful forms people take, in terms of race, gender expression and body shape. For me, this also ties into the whiteness and thinness of the Irish representation of Catholicism – there’s no one whiter or thinner than Irish Jesus! Plus, there’s the Catholic obsession with cloistering the female body. I never saw my grandmother in a swimsuit, or my mother in a bikini. I vividly remember our first beach holiday abroad in Spain, when I was around eight, seeing women of all body types in bikinis and feeling palpable shock at seeing them ‘breaking the rules’.
Becoming thin was how I came to experience being beautiful. But what it took to be thin was corrosive. Depressingly, I devoted most of my intellectual powers to it. I was in a constant war with my body, starving it into being small. My outlook became small, too. The parts of me that I love, those that are unquestionably the most beautiful – my creativity, my humour, my passion – were packed into an ever-tighter space in my brain, compressed and withering as the frenzied quest to consume as little as possible raged on.
Beauty is always tethered to control. The messiness of our sensitive human nature, our needs and our desperation must stay hidden for our beauty – our value – to remain intact.
Until five years ago, abortion in Ireland was illegal, the state holding ultimate control of women’s bodies. In my lifetime, becoming pregnant out of wedlock there was the ultimate transgression – punishable by literal incarceration in the worst-case scenario and systematic ostracization in the best. Controlling our bodies was a matter of survival for Irish women, a way to be accepted and to (hopefully) go unpunished for our womanhood. Fatness was abhorrent because it was perceived as a lack of control.
Since trying to return to ‘normal’ eating, I am training myself to see beauty in my body – a type of beauty I’d been taught was wrong. A big part of this journey has been taking up life drawing and seeing a variety of bodies; ones that are plump and puckered and pulsing with life. They are stretched and sagging, swollen and erotic. They are the furthest from the bland, controlled perfection of mainstream beauty you can imagine.
Part of what I’m responding to in these rebellious bodies is their bold rejection of control. Their exuberant embracing of mess and appetites and desires. Because this is being alive: to hunger and want and need is our nature, and the controlled suppression of that is not only futile but also joyless and sad.