A couple of weeks ago, a photo of me appeared in a women’s magazine. ‘Fuck me,’ said Herbert, ‘they’ve made you look 21 again.’
‘No difference, then,’ I joked weakly. But I felt churningly guilty. Because I’ve done my fair share of expressing horror at the way magazines routinely airbrush the people who appear in them. And yet, when the time came for my own image to appear in the glossy pages, I made damned sure that I’d be airbrushed, too.
Airbrushing (or more accurately, extensive Photoshopping) is the beauty world’s equivalent of phone hacking. It’s something we’ve all known about, if we’re honest. But faced with the brutal facts – the already very thin Kate Middleton made to look even thinner by Grazia; L’Oreal giving their foundation a little helping hand – we declare ourselves appalled.
And, like phone hacking, we’re complicit. We buy those perfected images, and rather like them. We drool over the exquisiteness of actresses and models who pose in clothes, not as real people, but as platonic ideals of the human body, unattainable paragons of loveliness.
In many ways, I don’t have a problem with this – so long as we remember to acknowledge that what we’re looking at is impossible. If some of the most beautiful people in the world are deemed to need airbrushing, then we mere mortals don’t have a chance.
But the problem is, we forget. We get suckered by the pristine skin and elongated limbs, and then we gaze down at our ordinary bodies and feel the lack. We can’t help but compare ourselves unfavourably to bodies whose beauty is maintained by continuously eating below the recommended daily amount of calories, or by surgery or beauty treatments way beyond a normal person’s reach.
What’s more, we relish the schadenfreude of watching these icons fall off this precarious pedestal – as is endlessly documented in highly-successful gossip mags – by putting on weight or leaving home without makeup.
We begin to view our own bodies with disgust. We forget that, in the real world, it’s a full time job to maintain the skinny frame of an 18 year-old, or that our skin inevitably ages, or that having babies stretches our bodies into different shapes. We only need to look around us to see evidence of this, but we choose to discount it, believing that we can do better. And then, when we can’t, we spiral into self-loathing. We become unable to enjoy the most natural pleasures of life – eating, sex, resting – because we can’t stop thinking about our ugly, imperfect flesh.
It fascinates me that, every now and then, we all rise up and get angry with ‘the media’ as if this is all their fault. But we’re the ones who pay good money to access this stuff. Millions of us buy images of impossible, celestial beings, and we recoil in disgust at the sight of real bodies. This is not men oppressing women; this is women oppressing each other.
For my part, I asked to be airbrushed because I was worried about my legs. Owning a bedroom roughly two inches larger than my bed has left me with scarred shins from continually walking into the damned frame. In real life, I tend not to wear things that reveal my pock-marked legs, but apparently that wasn’t an option. If I wasn’t to be allowed trousers, tights or leggings, I was desperate to make sure that my legs wouldn’t look like a pot-holed road.
What made me think that this was necessary? I’m an author, not a model. Why do I think I need to be beautiful to do that? Do I basically believe that I ought to be attractive in order to write about sex? I’m not sure, but I know that I came home feeling depressed and insecure, like I couldn’t quite fit into the right-sized hole.
That was never the point of The 52 Seductions. It was never about being perfect or being a ‘sexpert’. In fact, it was quite the opposite – it was about revelling the glory of imperfection, inviting everyone to feast at the table or normal. It was about saying that normal bodies – wobbly ones, scarred ones, funny-shaped ones – can be loved, admired, and desired. It was about saying that those bodies feel pleasure just as intensely as the ones we see on TV. Maybe more so, because we’re not constantly afraid of breaking an expensively-manicured nail.
What is beautiful – and what is sexy – is the ability to feel comfortable in our own skin. We all have some work to do on that front, but we could start by opening our eyes on the streets around us to see bodies as they really are.
And another suggestion: the next time a magazine or a newspaper prints photos of someone looking minutely overweight in their bikini, why not tear out the page and post it back to the editor? For as long as we blindly accept these images, we’ll never accept our own bodies.
And, by way of atonement, here’s a picture of me at the hairdresser last week. I know what you’re thinking: the glamour.