Girls… we like to talk, don’t we? If you follow even a couple of women’s lifestyle publications on Twitter or Facebook, then you’ll most likely be inundated on a daily basis by other women preaching self-love, lambasting the patriarchy, and passing comment on fat-shaming/thin-shaming/slut-shaming/etc. I mean—my Facebook news feed is currently more densely populated with articles about weddings (and/or critiques of getting married) than actual news from my friends who have actual weddings in the pipeline. Scrolling down my Twitter feed reveals a certain theme: obsession with Lena Dunham and Miley Cyrus, Eating Disorder 101 and calling out the douchey frat bros on TFM.
These articles and opinions are all fantastic. I’m glad we have a voice and an audience who’ll listen. As I’ve said before, I believe that any comment that thwarts accepted social norms (where body image/gender roles/sexual preference/etc is concerned) is worth writing and worth reading.
However, just because I am constantly berated with feminism and the concept of self-love, self-confidence and the “power of the selfie”, didn’t necessarily mean I ever truly discovered it. That is, until I had An Epiphany: I started thinking about my role models as a child.
Time for a tangent—a smattering of memoir, because, y’know, no argument is credible without some, erm, quality sources. Hear me out, at least. You see, recently, my dad found his collection of family photos—which were then duly presented to my fiancé and my cringing self. The pictures documented my first decade of life: from the little bald baby to scrappy, redhaired toddler to gawky pre-teen with Bugs Bunny teeth. There are pictures of me and my sister grinning wildly on my bed in fairy outfits, standing on top of mountains in Wales, and giddy with pride at our shambolic sand sculptures.
Thinking about it, I was a far more intellectual, substantial human being as a child. My childhood activities were wholesome and outdoorsy, and I loved school. I devoured books. I idolised heroines like Matilda just as much as I loved playing with Barbie dolls. I remember wanting to be like the girls I read about in my books, who were ruddy-faced and spirited—a far cry from the women I read about in gossip magazines today. Nor, at six years old, did I ever really cultivate that desire to be delicate and pretty. I desperately wanted freckles, and until I started secondary school at 11, I was rather proud of my goofy “adult” teeth.
Somehow, that tomboyish zest for life seems to have dissipated a bit over the years, and only now do I regret it. Lying in bed a few days ago, I suddenly realised I missed how it felt to crave difference, intelligence and fun—as opposed to a thigh gap or a bikini bridge.
When I was little, I played with Barbie dolls and idolised the princesses who fluttered and flounced around in Disney movies, but not once do I remember agonising over the fact my legs weren’t endless and slender, or the fact my eyes weren’t as wide as dinner plates. These plastic caricatures of women formed the basis of my fashion sense—where and when I had control over it—and probably were largely to blame for the fact that for years I was convinced that pink was (to resort to a to a tired fashion quip) the new black. But I was more than happy to amble around like a young hobbit in a tutu without ever feeling shy or inadequate because of my body. It wasn’t as though I didn’t feel the buds of self-awareness start to swell somewhere deep in my psyche—I just had different priorities for what I wanted to look like and who I wanted to be. I liked my stoutness and my mop of red hair. I liked the way I looked.
‘Tis pity that eventually we all have to grow up from this sort of existence, but after a while Neverland ousts us into the “real world”—which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is significantly less fun. Somewhere along the line, boys and sex and the media and other girls all sort of barge into our bubble of existence and all of a sudden we start agonising over new problems: money, jobs, and our physical appearance. Getting covered in mud isn’t a pleasure, it’s just icky. We don’t wear pretty clothes because we want to, we wear them if we feel confident enough to. We don’t get the same kick out of birthday cake, because calories. Birthdays lose their appeal, because it just means a step closer to being Old—and anyway, it’s not like you’re getting a bike.
It’s not so much about yearning for a lost time, but instead about how we can love our differences because they’re awesome and fun—and not because we’re being force-fed embittered, preachy articles. Finding the beauty in yourself and the world around you starts with introspection. The purest happiness is simple; what could be more simple, honest and wholesome than the mind of your 6-year-old self?
For me it began with rediscovering the quirky heroines that I adored so much. For every Belle and Aurora, there is a Katie Morag and a Millie Molly Mandy. Heroines who are sweet and scrappy and playful and gutsy. In twenty-something terms, that’s like saying for every Victoria’s Secret model there’s an Ellen Page and a Zooey Deschanel. Neither are better or worse heroines, but a balance between those who build their public images based on sex appeal and beauty with those who gained media attention with their humour and difference is refreshing and necessary.
So now, I’m trying to apply some of the awesomeness of childhood to my daily life in useful ways. For example: I’m going to go on more adventures. I’m going to read books about everything again. I’m going to sit out in the sun until I get that coveted bridge of freckles across my face. I’m going to smile like an idiot in photographs. I’m going to stop wondering how to mould my body into a Barbie doll and just… do me. Because? Because fuck yeah my life is great, that’s why.
This little brainwave isn’t necessarily going to undo the years and years of psychological conditioning that leads us to compare ourselves, scrutinise ourselves and sometimes even detest ourselves, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. Make a conscious effort to treat yourself like you would a daughter or a young sibling—yep, make sure you eat your greens and wear enough sunscreen, darlings. Not because you’re chasing a vision of beauty, but just because it’s good for you. Shift the focus. Remember that you take care of yourself for the sake of taking care of yourself, you precious little thing … not because you want to fit into a size four dress on the weekends.
Here’s a suggestion. Take some time to have a blast from the past: read your old favourite books, look through old photos. Look past the gawky kid with bad teeth and cringe-worthy clothing. See past that and remember all the fun you had when you cared less. Let yourself have fun again, take pride in your differences and stop coveting the woman that the adult world wants you to be. Because, darlings, it’s quite alright—and a whole lot of fun—to act your shoe size once in a while.