Smoothing Things Over

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.

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11 thoughts on “Smoothing Things Over

  1. Why on earth wouldn’t they let you wear trousers or something? That would make me extraordinarily angry. After many years of school uniform skirts I hold my right to trousers very dear.

    Like QRG I try not to buy in to mainstream stuff aimed at women, it’s mostly about the hair removal, but also the philosophy that you must always be striving for an obtainable ideal.

  2. It’s hard to find anything interesting in any of them, male or female. I usually read Wired, Prospect and New Scientist.
    I bought a year’s sub to Filament – but I didn’t fancy the totty in the only issue I read. Maybe next quarter’s will be hotter, who knows. I seem to get more of a rise from Bangable Dudes in History to be honest.

  3. Oh god no! Men’s Health sounds like it is horrendous for example.

    And things like GQ -which I have looked at online are so camp and ridiculous.

    The only ‘magazines’ I have ever read avidly have either been very esoteric political ones, or creative writing magazines.

    Filament magazine is supposed to have interesting articles and ‘hot (male) totty’. But I fell out with the editor over gender politics, which made me think it wouldn’t be my kind of thing!

  4. Have you tried reading men’s magazines? The glossy end of the market is even deadlier than the women’s ones. I’d love to read a magazine that just had interesting stuff in it.

  5. I have never bought a woman’s magazine in my life, so when you say ‘we’ it does not include every single woman. Not that I am not affected by media airbrushing, but that I actively try not to ‘buy into it’.

    I find women’s magazines the most depressing thing in the world. But I think it is partly because I am more interested in men, if I am totally honest. Men, separately from women.

  6. You would be amazed how little people realise things are actually airbrushed when it comes down to it. I was a make up artist for years and about 90% of my clients were rendered speechless when you told them that all foundation ads are airbrushed. They really thought that they were doing something wrong that you could see their pores (pores that keep them alive incidentally.)

    Even I was surprised after years of working in fashion to discover that they airbrush the jutting bones out on fashion models so that there is a particular acceptable way to look underweight. I was taught to do make up as perfectly and as best I could at the time and only to assume airbrushing would be used for flyaway hairs, spots etc, not as standard. I took that seriously and never skimped on the real stuff and was insulted when my work was airbrushed into something else.

    I don’t see make up or clothing as equivalent to airbrushing because airbrushing is never done to celebrate something, but clothes, hair and make up can be good things as well. Even when a plump lip is plumper even more with airbrushing, it is saying that the plump lip still wasn’t good enough. But putting lipstick or gloss on the plump lip celebrates it and says ‘look at me. I’m lovely!’

    We need to be teaching airbrushing awareness to everyone. Adults have no idea how much more airbrushing is happening that in their day and don’t realise what their kids are being exposed to in comparison. They also don’t realise what is being fed to them and everyone is getting unhappier. We need less silence and more honesty. But don’t assume people know and are genuinely complicit…

  7. SO true about the makeup – I’m so grateful for it. I feel like it gives me control over my outward image – and I suspect that’s why more and more men are using it. It’s a fascinating and very tangled area, because we’re all keen to ‘airbrush’ in one way or another, and I’d argue that it’s part of being human to seek ways of improving our appearance.

  8. Such an interesting blog! It reminded me of the programme Alesha Dixon did about wanting to appear on a magazine cover with no air brushing. Even she was shocked at what would be air brushed.

    I often feel sorry for people in the public eye for the very reasons you state as they get castigated if they step outside of the house with out a full face of make up, or the paparazzi catch them yawning etc. It’s no wonder that as women our body image is so screwed up.

    The irony for me is that so much of body image is about confidence and for all of us we gain that confidence in different ways be it losing a few pounds, a favourite pair of jeans, a boob job or even make up, as lets face it how many of us would step outside with a face entirely devoid of cosmetics as men do???

    I’d love to say if I’d been in your situation, that I would have taken the moral high ground and said no to air brushing but the reality is if I was appearing in a magazine I know my vanity would prevail and a bit of air brushing to the shins would be nothing compared to what I’d probably end up asking for!!!!

  9. Congrats on your new boobs! I think body image – and it’s repercussions – is way too complicated an issue to condemn people for having surgery. Because, really, what’s the difference between having a boob job and having a tattoo, or a piercing, or going on a diet? We all have different levels of comfort with different parts of our body. If there was surgery that made my legs look smooth again, I’d be sorely tempted. I think adult women can definitely be trusted to make decisions about how their own bodies look.

  10. I read this with interest, as 3 weeks ago today I had a boob job. Bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and I suppose I should in my late forties have accepted my flat-chestedness and the fact that they just don’t make bras small enough.
    I wanted to feel like a grown up woman, and so now, instead of being a 32AAAAAA (and the reason why teen bras have added silicone and padding isn’t for oversexed teenagers, it’s for the ladies who pretend they’re buying them for their imaginary 10 year old daughters) I have a very sore chest, bruised ribs and am about a 32B (early days, that may change). There is much condemnation of women who undergo cosmetic surgery for whatever reason, but I can understand what drives people to want to look unlike what Mother Nature intended, and can sympathise with an airbrushed leg or two too!

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