Monday, 27 April 2015

Fitting the Image

It’s funny how small things can have a large impact, particularly online. There are plenty of actions we consider to be pretty throwaway – a picture perhaps, a status update or an observation poured into 140 characters and forgotten soon after. Often they flare for a second or two, snagging someone’s attention, before subsiding into the great big junk pile of all that is no longer ‘current’. Forgotten as the minutes tick forward or the clicks go by.

Yet it’s always gratifying to know that occasionally the fleeting can have longevity. Take this example. A wonderful and gifted friend of mine named Rebecca Pearson has been modeling since her teens. Aaaaaages ago (which shows how long it takes me to write up things on occasion) she posted a picture on her Instagram of herself at eighteen, with an accompanying caption about how skinny she was at that point. I saw it and commented on how she’d been beautiful then, but I thought she looked even more amazing now. Shortly after, I received a lovely email from her, saying how the collective weight of people’s observations, including mine, on how she looked better now had made her really pause for thought.

She ended up writing a brilliant piece on it all, which you can read here (and I’d recommend her blog in general as a fab resource for everything from practical information on modeling to some hilarious anecdotes about various jobs she’s done). She quoted me in it.

This was all many months ago now, but I’ve thought about it on and off ever since. I wonder if being a model/ former model/ sporadic model brings with it additional body image anxieties. Not only do you have all the famous figures society and the fashion industry deem to be beautiful, images of their lithe limbs and flat stomachs and lean frames hard to escape. You also have past pictures of yourself. I have a visual chart of myself from the age of thirteen onwards. Those six years of images document a slow but steady alteration from pre-pubescent girl to the shape I am today. That’s a kind of extraordinary trajectory, but it does have its downsides.

When I began blogging - and modeling - I had the kind of non-existent hips that meant skinny jeans sagged, older people would look at me and sigh “you could wear just about anything” (or swoop on me at vintage fairs going “I have a tiny dress no-one else could fit!”) and fashion magazines thought it appropriate to use me in editorials selling clothes to adult women. Incredibly unsettling, it was also the kind of figure that meant I would attract scatterings of 'pro-ana' followers on my blog. Although it was worrying at the time, in retrospect that deeply perrturbs me.

My weight was entirely healthy(ish) at that age. I ate tons and tons, did no exercise beyond PE lessons and had little comprehension of the fact that my clothes size had a kind of cultural currency. In fact, I’d get pissed off at people making any comments about my (lack of) weight, and would occasionally wonder what a life with boobs might be like.

Then I went through scoliosis, surgery, the last stages of puberty, the natural shifts in weight that  can happen throughout your teens - that general narrative of alteration with some unexpected twists. I’ve written enough about all that before, but there’s something else too. I only acknowledged (and I mean properly acknowledged) last summer that, at a low level, I’d been unhappy with my size for at least the last three years. Not in any destructive way, but in the number of times I’d see an image of myself and think, “hmm, I really am bigger than I used to be”, or look in a mirror and feel worse for the rest of the day, or burst into tears if something didn’t fit. That began to happen with much more frequency throughout the first half of 2014, and I felt pretty shit.   

All of that has subsided significantly since, and I feel very comfortable with where I’m at now. Yet you know what? I still didn’t want to put in those last few sentences. Why? They feel weak, foolish, self-indulgent. If this were a Guardian article, the commenters would be racing to tumble over their keyboards and tell me all the ways I’m wrong and narcissistic and irrational. Well, the last one’s right. It was irrational.

But knowing that something is silly won’t necessarily stop you feeling it. Knowing that there are much, much bigger problems out there may give perspective – but it won’t immediately vanish that sense of inadequacy away. We humans are complex creatures. One can accept that a feeling or way of seeing oneself is ridiculous whilst still remaining dissatisfied. And it’s oh so easy to write incredibly angry commentary on the bullshit of body ideals, and still have a self-image problem. 

Maybe, actually, it’s not something exclusive to models. Now we all have our own visual charts, and we live in a society where women are told time and time again that their worth lies in their weight (or lack of it), as though controlling the amount of flesh spread across your bones constitutes some kind of grand achievement.

For me, the message to come back to again and again (and one I’ve brought very strongly into 2015) is to view my body as marvelous – rather than a site of failure. Yes, I am not the same shape I was when I was fourteen. But that’s exactly how it should be. Now I eat really healthily, cycle, and have an active, independent life. And, more importantly, I’ve learned to inhabit my body properly. It’s a good one. It looks fabulous in heels and swing coats and sixties dresses. It has long legs, lips I can paint bright red, hair that will never properly be tamed.

And even better, I have so much more presence than I did as a scared, skinny young teen. Now I get to march around, look (and finally feel) confident, and damn well make sure people notice when I stride into a room.

This dress is a special one - bought by my grandma in a NY thrift store for $20 when she was a struggling actress (back in the late fifties). The shop assistant assured her that it was Balenciaga, donated by one of a number of wealthy benefactors of the shop. Although we have no label to prove it, the spider's web levels of intricacy definitely suggest something of couture level. It now fits me in a very different way to when I wore it back in 2009, and I think it looks a lot better - mainly because I can inhabit it properly, and make it mine. It's worn here with second hand shoes and vintage jewellery (the necklace also came from my grandma). 


sarahevans27 said...

dear Rosalind, I've been following your blog for a few years, but I don't think I've ever commented. I felt compelled to today, because I wanted to let you know I really appreciated this post. As someone who's recovered from an eating disorder and struggled to accept my body's fluctuating weight and new size, I can really identify with your journey of learning to accept and love your body in all its shapes and forms. Anyways, I just wanted to say I'm glad you're in a good place with body love/acceptance. :) Thanks for being so honest and sharing.

Melanie said...

Having entered the invisibling 50s, I've noticed more than ever that the thing that is most attractive in people is character, bolstered by style. I liked reading your thoughts on changing perceptions of how you view yourself. And Rebecca's piece. Whether it's Balenciaga or not, that's a stunning dress with an invaluable history.

rebecca pearson said...

Dear Rosalind -

Hello! It's Rebecca Pearson from Modeltypeface, (the writer of that post Rosalind is talking about).

Well - it's incredible to hear that my words can have an effect. Wanting to affect people is the most important reasons we feel compelled to write, so it's validating to know.

I can see we've had such similar journeys, body image-wise - the waifish New Face, the pride in other achievements but the almost involuntary pinch of sadness at our growing bodies.

Isn't it interesting how we've grown in so many other ways, yet that inevitable maturing of our bodies can still pinch?

Anyway, ramble ended. Your words actually helped ME through a little crisis in confidence in my own body! So I'm going to walk into my castings like the powerful woman I am, with your words freshly emblazoned on my ever growing brain!

Rebecca x

Vix said...

A fantastic read, Dear Ros. I think your final summing up says it all, our bodies are marvellous, although I do think its only after going through life changing surgery and the subsequent recovery that often makes us realise this.
That dress is fabulous whoever made it. xxx

Ivana Split said...

I think it is really worrying how many people feel unhappy or uncomfortable in their skin...and until that changes, this really is an important subject.

This morning I feel quite uncomfortable in my skin, but not because of the way the look. I'm in a horrible amount of pain that just won't go away...and if I take pain killers, then I won't be able to do any work. I might be tempted to feel angry at all those people that have their health and risk it or lose it for the sake of the size of their hips...but I'm not because I know it is not that simple.

As you have pointed out, knowing that something is silly, knowing it on an intellectual level, doesn't necessarily change how we feel about it. It is a journey everyone must take and it is important topic to talk about.

Women in particular are very sensitive to the challenges of accepting themselves and the way they look...and it may be because people judge us more on account of how we look...but perhaps it is primarily because we're the first one to judge to ourselves?

Often skinny people are judged harshly..and there are people who are naturally very thin....under pressure, they sometimes try to put on weight which often doesn't work and what is worse they're made to feel bad about themselves. Why is to hard for people to accept that there are many different body types out there? Where does this need for criticizing other bodies comes from?

My sister in law often talks about a late cousin of hers that had a specific type of Chron disease (not the usual type I have) that is rare and those suffering from have no hope of living to an old age...or middle age or anything past their youth. People would always criticize her for being an anorexic. How terrible it must had been for a girl that knew she was going to die and there is nothing that can be done about it to constantly be exposed to that kind of talk!

Many patients suffering from Chron like myself say it is the worst part, that everyone always assumes they're junkies or anorexic...but even if they were anorexic, what would give people the right to criticize them? isn't that a disease as well? a horrible psychological disorder that often ends in death.... Shouldn't we sympathize with those people that suffer from those disorders? They're suffering, their lives are in danger. The fact they're doing it to themselves, means that there are in desperate need of help.

I really think that making comments about other people bodies is unacceptable. If we are truly worried about somebody's weight, we can take them aside and have an honest talk with them (taken that we actually know that person)...if we don't, I don't see how we can have that conversation (we're not professional therapist after all).

Balenciaga or not, the dress is a treasure and it looks wonderful on you....the link to the 2009 shot didn't work, but I loved what you wrote on this subject. Our bodies change with time and that's a normal process. This Spring I'm really struggling with Chron (perhaps I'll need surgery) and I joked with my husband that I expect him to love me even if I end up being skinny and lacking the curves he's so attached to because I loved his skinny ass for years:)

Gareth From said...

Great post, as I've now come to expect from you, Rosalind. I think comparing yourself to your former self is definitely something that's just as dangerous as comparing oneself to celebrities or whatever people hold up as the ideal of beauty.

For me, this line from you absolutely nails it, "knowing that something is silly won’t necessarily stop you feeling it."

You obviously would never look like you did at 14. But that doesn't stop you comparing; that's not silly, it's just human nature. Realising this is a waste of time and emotionally draining, however, is so liberating and it's great to hear you're now embracing who you are fully.

And let me tell you, this isn't something that just affects women either.

I used to play professional rugby when I was 18 - I was 15 stone and had a six pack, due to training for 5 hours every day and having a really strict diet.

Now I no longer play rugby, I have no need to look like that and have no desire to do what is required to look like that. But it definitely doesn't stop me looking in the mirror and comparing myself to how I looked 10 years ago.

It took me a good few years to come to terms with this! But once I did, it's very liberating.

And as an aside, you look gorgeous in these pics. Your dress is fabulous and that's such a gorgeous necklace.

I look forward to reading your next piece x


I have found that with the older that I get, I have certainly become more comfortable and confident in accepting my body. I think that sometimes we have to go through the storms to appreciate the rain, so to speak.
The dress definitely looks couture to me, I love the spiral-like handwork, and you look fantastic in it! x

Sofie Marie said...

Great, honest writing as usual :) I particularly relate to your description of being a slim teen, and those anecdotes- all of which I am still often used to, as someone with a figure that remains very small.

I suppose in some ways then my experience differs from yours- it's one of having to deal with a lack of large change, never feeling as if I 'grew up'/'transformed' or in my more dark thoughts, never getting to be percieved as 'womanly' (whatever that even means!).

Thats not to say I'm not comfortable in my body- I generally am. But I do wonder how easy it is to say such a thing, when to a great extent I have 'beauty privelege'. I also wonder how easy it is to think we are comfortable in our bodies until our anxieties about them are challenged- I think this is were clothes become quite important because in them we can mould bodies to an extent. When we try on clothes and feel they don't 'flatter'/'fit', we are faced with our anxieties head on.


ps I also just read this on body positivity and it has another interesting angle

Lola Byatt said...

I can only admit this in the safety of your comments box because for similar reasons that you mentioned above, I'd feel way too silly to admit them on my blog. My outfits post have stopped existing on my blog because I hate the way I look. I know that it is silly to think like this but I can't get rid of that feeling. I avoid mirrors, I find the slouchiest clothes I can find and stew in my own self pity. I know that there is a cycle that I need to get on board with....dress up, make an effort, take confidence in the way you look, appreciate your body and sooner or later my brain will be rewired into appreciating my body as it is rather than longing for the body i had a few years ago. I really admire you for speaking openly about this, it doesn't make you weak at all. There's no denying that you're beautiful, you can put on pretty much anything and you'll look amazing. I am sure you make heads turn wherever you go but what I admire you most for is your writing. I've mentioned this a hundred times already but it's what I come to your blog for. I go through your archives and can appreciate your improvement and i marvel at your ability to construct the most beautiful sentances. The reason why I mention this is because it helps me mentally.It's where I want to focus my energy, to improve myself in other ways and not think too much about my looks. I was chatting with a friend the other day and she was complaining about her acne, it really gets her down and she was making herself feel worse by comparing her skin to famous people and how she wished she could have amazing skin like [insert famous person]. I pointed out that most of the time we think we only like someone for their looks/amazing style but it always goes deeper than that. we just don't realise it. I asked her to give me one of her heroes and she answered it was marie curie. I don't really have very much to say about marie curie's face but I can say that her research on radioactivty changed the science world for better, she was the first woman to win the nobel prize and the only woman to ever have won it once. She discovered two elements! Her credentials are endless and not one of them really focuses on her looks. That's not to say we can never appreciate the physical attributes of a woman. I just think it's a good thing to acknowledge the other qualities we admire, to remind us.