The Vagenda

A Letter To You, A Letter To Me, A Letter To Us

Somewhere, deep in the guttural pit of me, I know that there must be more than this. 
That I cannot live my life cowering from my reflection in changing room mirrors, shop windows, backs of spoons and the glistening, inquisitive eyes of others. That despite my assertions of self-worth and superiority, my fuck-you-society-and-pass-me-the-Pringle-tub platitudes, that I still have all too frequent moments of paralysis. Whole minutes of time in which I whittle my body down into bullet points of smoother, slicker, softer, slimmer – knowing that I am silly and frivolous and vapid for relenting into this poisonous vortex of thought and yet cleaving at my flesh with fresh gusto. I told myself long ago that this was not what I wanted to be and not what I would define myself by. But again and again, it comes down this. Whether anyone would look at me and consider me lovable. Or if not that, desirable. Or if not that, fleetingly fuckable.  How close my arse cheeks come to the round ripeness of a blushing peach, whether a streak of sunlight could snake its blade through the gap between my obliging thighs. Pretty. Sexy. Hot. Fit. Beautiful. Adjectives that make a girl unfurl herself from lowered eyelids and folded arms and smile with relief. Like she’s been given permission to breathe outwards, to slot herself amongst the blessed. 
But I know that there must be more than this.
That surely my friends, my ridiculously clever, insightful, successful, passionate, funny, talented and generous friends, shouldn’t look at all the tools they have to be instigators of all that is awesome and transcendent and yet look mournfully around them for a boy to lace his fingers around their waists and assure them of the wonder locked inside their ribcages. These are girls that are admired and respected by everyone around them and yet when they get drunk and emotional they will slur statements such as ‘I’m just not fit like all the other girls. And you know, that’s whatever, it’s fine. But I just want a boyfriend. Someone to love me. That’s all’. And all I can think is: this search, this hope and wish for that one thing that they are certain will complete them above all else is fruitless.  I wish we could step outside of ourselves and understand the momentous depths of our self-induced suppression. How strange and sad it is that we will gather in tribes, swapping tales of our own inadequacies and shortcomings, nodding and egging each other on in our sick blood sport. And we will throw crazy and unattainable things into the air and grasp at them with all the naïve will of a sticky fingered child playing a rigged fairground game. 
Quite frankly, I am bored of this now. It serves no one and leaves all parties affirmed in their stagnant self-pity and perpetuates never ending cycles of self-negation. Here’s an idea: tell yourself that you are the shit. Entertain the notion of believing that assertion.  And if you’re not yet, tell yourself that you have every intention of working on it until it’s the undisputed truth. When your friend tells you you’re the shit, believe that too. If I tell you that I am happy, that I am confident, that I cross my fingers and choose to see the best in myself against all else, will you give me a withering look? Make a joke about it, look awkwardly around you and quickly continue in your never ending circle of negativity? I really hope that you won’t, as I am only just beginning to build the courage to change my way of thinking and your derision is the only small but significant gust of wind required to knock it over. I appreciate this may seem contrived or sentimental to you because it does to me too. I am aware of my Britishness, my aching youth, the insistent need to inject everything with withering irony and cutting nonchalance that has threaded its way through our culture like sugared cyanide. It’s time we realise that these are all methods of covering up the fact that we feel and that we care, which is what we fear above all else. But I don’t accuse or judge you. Your thought processes are mine as well. I look up to you – I think you are incredible inside and out. To see you rip yourself to shreds rips me apart too. If I am your friend, then surely you can see that you dispute my character judgement by berating yourself. Can we not agree that we both choose to bask in the company of cool, crazy, illuminating beings? When you shrug, when you turn your head away, when you make a flippant joke at the first sign of genuine emotion, you leave us in perpetual limbo.
And still, I know that there is more than this.
Sure, I want to be desired, loved, considered pretty. I know that for better or worse, I will never truly escape this feeling. However, this isn’t about peddling condescending ideas of what ‘real women’ should look like or demonizing people who are skinny and beautiful. In my experience, the women who are put on pedestals for their looks are far more insecure than most would have the perception to realise. So ‘curvy women’ campaigns and other such steaming horseshit really isn’t the answer. (Side note: Fashion magazine spreads with size fourteen women squeezed into mumsy ‘form-flattering’ wrap dresses and smiles like tortured circus monkeys on stilts do not make me feel more ‘sexy’ or ‘womanly’. They make me feel very, very nervous and slightly itchy behind the eyes. Thanks anyway, Cosmo). For me, the solution seems to be a shift away from the physical entirely. When I think of the people I truly admire, it is their incredible talents that I aspire to. Yes, Beyonce Knowles is an unrefuted stunner. But she is also a stupidly gifted singer, dancer and athlete. This woman has her fair share of naysayers, but I defy you to see her live and tell me she is not a one woman storm of bad-assedness. But if you are going to admire her body, admire its stamina, its health, its vitality, its ability to ‘bear the children, then get back to bid-ness’. 
And I go beyond Queen Bee – I want to be a little bit of Nina Simone, of Christopher Hitchens, of Michelle Obama, of Salman Rushdie, of Raymond Carver, of Charles Darwin and Meryl Streep.  All crazy talented and accomplished people who will be remembered for what they contributed to the world, not just some sexy backless number they wore on the red carpet once, #Scandalous. Why admire things that have no function? I can see the point in aspiring to have a strong, toned body that can endure and will withstand the inevitable knocks of life – there is inherent beauty in that, for sure. Hit the gym, eat well, dance in your pants freely and often, whatever gets you going. But I cannot find any true attributes in a body whose primary function is decorative. We are on this Earth to actually get shit done at the end of the day. And we can look fly whilst doing it too, but as far as I can see it’s a simple matter of getting the priorities the right way round.
Essentially, I now realise that ‘pretty’ is a long way down on a list of things that I want for myself. I know that I want to be intelligent. Fiercely so. Undeniably so. Fill my head with the words of those who trod this earth with a far bolder stride than I will ever attain. Read a fuckton of literature and be able to quote my favourite poems from memory. I want to be open minded – to be able to listen to someone whose life experiences and innate voice are completely different to mine but still manage to forge a bridge of understanding along the gulf. I want to observe things sharply – to make people laugh and laugh readily at others’ wit and goofiness. And I want to be many other things besides: incessantly silly, self-reflexive, wise, patient, brave, kind, honest, unbeatable at Scrabble, the owner of a lifetime’s supply of white chocolate covered Oreos. I want to accumulate experiences and sights and people’s stories and collect them for the dusty mantelpiece of my mind. And the more I add to this list, the further down that word ‘pretty’ falls until I have to squint to remember it is even there: it is a mere speck of inconsequential dust in an ambivalent horizon.  Perhaps one day it will drop away of its own accord. Perhaps I will achieve it through some strange twist of fate whilst I’m busy enjoying my life. I leave that to the cosmos.
I am aware that I am adding to an already voluminous pile of opinions, tirades and thought pieces on the ‘body-issues’ topic and that it is all getting rather tedious. So hopefully this will be the last I shall say on the matter. But like anything to do with the fragile human ego, this is not going to be a confident linear stride to complete and unwavering ‘self-love’ (whatever that dishwater term is supposed to mean). I do abrupt U-turns on myself some mornings and it can feel like I am back on square one, ready to sink into the quicksand with a soft resignation.  But then I remind myself that I can, and must, strive for more. Because surely there has to be more. And when I’ve found it, I will grab fistfuls of it like a greedy child and hold on to it tight. Like my life, and my sanity, depended on it. It’s scary. But I’m almost certain it’s the best decision I’ve ever made. That, and not buying a wrap dress. 
Peace, love and perseverance,

25 thoughts on “A Letter To You, A Letter To Me, A Letter To Us

  1. Nice. We should all strive to be fitter, smarter and more empathetic. They’re all things we can, and should, develop – which make us better people. And they all have value utterly independent of other people’s opinions. Prettiness? Coolness? Not so much.

  2. On Body Acceptance and a Woman’s Sense of Self Esteem: “Until we develop the capacity to love and appreciate ourselves just as we are, we will go through life with our noses pressed up against the glass. No matter what externals we manage to manifest in spite of ourselves – right livelihood, the “perfect” mate, healthy children – we will always feel just a little on the wrong side of happiness.” from Calling in the One by Katherine Woodward Thomas.

    At first glance this book looks and sounds like hippy American rubbish. It’s really changed the way I think. Whether you are actively “looking for love” or not. Read it.

  3. this is so, so important and it’s exactly what I’ve been trying to work out for myself. thank you for expressing it so beautifully! everyone should read this.

  4. As a young woman I really cannot relate to this article at all. I am by no means stunners but i cannot comprehend why intelligent women are desperate to look a certain way. I have never felt any of the things described above and have certainly never looked to a man to reassure me that I was attractive. Serious question: can someone explain this to me? I understand the media throws certain images at women but these are easy to ignore if you’re not interested (as I’m not), yet I seem to be some kind of anomaly, with so many women agreeing with this post.

  5. Rebecca, good on you if you’ve really managed to to escape the programming thrown at all of us that we’re only as worthy as we are attractive to men! I am really happy for you, and I’m happier still for the young people in your life that you will hopefully influence.

    I do think you’re an anomaly, though. It isn’t just a matter of seeing stunning women in magazines: it’s the articles in the magazines saying pregnant women need to wax their nether regions so they won’t be embarrassed when they’re giving birth, and the million other examples I don’t have time to type.

    It’s the fact that even as infants, girls are complimented based on appearance: so cute! So pretty! So sweet! And boys on personality: so alert! Wow, good set of lungs! etc. etc.

    Perhaps you had truly excellent parents who would have no part of this and didn’t subject you to this cultural stereo typing. That is amazing! Good for them! Maybe they weren’t any better than anybody else and made these mistakes, but you were made of sterner stuff and ignored the conditioning. Good for you!

    You obviously have a lot to teach the women around you, and I hope that you’ll embrace that role, and if you do, it’ll be important for you to understand that you are unusual in the best possible way: most women do fall prey to this conditioning. It will only hurt their self esteem more if you point out to them that you managed to avoid it, and you just can’t comprehend how they could be so silly. Take some time to research this issue, and how it affects most women, and then, be prepared to empathize!

    All the best!

    P.S. I agree 100%, this article is amazing, and I can relate to just about every line. Thank you thank you thank you.

  6. Rebecca, I wrote this because I want more women to have your attitude towards themselves – you could reach out to others who you feel haven’t got the self esteem that you treasure within yourself. Do so without condescension or superiority and I’m sure your awesomeness will emanate from you and inspire others to relax a little in themselves. It may be easy for you to ignore the onslaught of pressure coming from all sides, but for many it’s nigh on impossible. When we are bombarded with such ideas from our formative years it is nothing short of miraculous to come out of it completely unaffected. I used to see things from your point of view, convincing myself I was somehow ‘above’ feeling insecure about my looks when in fact I was lying to myself. I’m not suggesting that you are the same, but that is the journey I am on. Try to understand that so many women are still struggling with this. Though we are intelligent, critical thinkers, the power of these beauty ideals still has the most immense chokehold on our subconscious and it takes constant iron will to refuse to give in to it. We can’t all be as strong and impenetrable, but I applaud you for being an example of these traits because girls need to know that it is possible to embody these. Thank you for contributing to the thread, your opinion is valid and welcomed x

  7. Thanks for the reply – it’s Rebecca, I’m just using a different account sorry for any confusion! – I definitely think my attitude is a lot down to my upbringing – my parents never placed any emphasis on ‘attractiveness’ being an important quality and gave out praise for other reasons (hard work, intelligence etc). I especially think this is true of my Mum as she was never interested in beauty magazines/products/dieting. And personally i’ve always been a healthy weight and never had any huge issues with my looks (but do of course have some insecurities like everyone else). Hope that doesn’t make me sound arrogant, I really don’t mean it like that, I just find this topic hard to relate to.

  8. thank YOU! I’ve been watching my eldest sister struggle with her weight for all my life. Being over weight, never happy, always cutting the size tags out of her clothes, lying about her size as if the number was a shameful secret. She had a gastric band, it’s been nothing but trouble to her health. She can’t eat a small (healthy sunday dinner but can eat a whole tub of (my favourite) icecream (from my freezer, thank you very much!).

    I grew up hating that i wasn’t tall, pole-skinny and bronze like the girls in sixteen magazine and kiss magazine. HATING. Disgusted with myself. That lasted for years. Then I came to terms that I wasn’t them, wasn’t tall or skinny, was pale, but I was the best person I could be, a carer, a volunteer for the arts, not nasty or two faced, and… that thing that my mum kept saying, “you’re beautiful”, it’s true! Inside and out, i’m beautiful, just like everyone i associate with. Beautiful inside and out. I’m size 16, 5ft1. though according to caitlin moran and many of her followers, size 10 is just about allowable for a feminist, the acceptable level of self-love, over size 10? omgz, i need to get my inches down! yeah, that’s not me. i’m a caitlin moran fan, but i hugely disagree on some things.

    and my sister, she’s still not skinny, and she’s not a nice person to know. But if she really wanted to be happy, she didn’t need to loose weight, she needed to be happy with what she has and get away from the nasty people in her life and set a good example to her kids and kid sister and to be nice to her family. shes plus sized, can be pretty, but she’s an ugly person.

    the end =)