Being Brave, Being Vain, Being Fiona

I have a complicated relationship with beautiful. I’ve always been more likely to be called “striking” or “interesting” than “beautiful”, and always more likely to be called “funny” or “smart” than either of those. In my heart, I know that is an absolute strength. If I had to choose between funny and beautiful, I’d pick funny every single time, no questions asked. I know that I’m so much more than beautiful, that a beautiful face pales in comparison with a kind heart, a strong mind, a creative soul. And yet. And yet.

Like many girls, my “interesting” beauty became a battleground when I was a teenager. The frizzy hair, the generous nose, the chest so flat you could build an airport on it, they all became markers for how different I was. And I spent an unholy amount of my teenagedom wishing that I could just be the same.

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It’s exhausting being at war with your own face, you guys. Eventually, there came a point where I was too tired to keep hating myself, so I decided I was going have to love myself instead. I spent time getting to know my body, because it’s impossible to love something that’s a stranger to you. I started to notice my details. The smattering of chocolate drop freckles. The cupid’s bow you could cut yourself on. The stretch marks curving around my hips like silver lightning strikes. I dyed my hair red. I started to wear the brightest lipstick I could get my hands on. I started to upload selfies with gay abandon. When I felt ugly, I wanted to make myself smaller. After so many years of that, feeling beautiful feels like a brave, tiny rebellion.

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It’s also terrifying. See, women are supposed to be pretty but we’re absolutely not supposed to notice that we’re pretty. And we’re certainly not supposed to take any pleasure from it. We’re not to know we’re beautiful. That’s what makes us beautiful.

*One Direction dance break, because even though the message of that song is trash, it’s still an absolute tune*

There’s a photographer called Alex Cameron, who takes the most wonderful photographs. The first time I saw her photos, I thought “I want pictures of me that are that beautiful”. I was immediately ashamed that I wanted that. How trivial. How frivolous. How vain. For two years, I watched her photos pop up on my Twitter timeline and every time I saw them, I turned the idea over in my head. I’d justify and argue with myself and agonise because I was still embarrassed to admit that I wanted to look at myself and love how I looked.

F5Last week, I got on a train with a backpack full of my most favourite dresses and I asked Alex to make me gorgeous. I twirled and giggled and wrapped myself in leaves and flowers. I gleefully agreed when Alex complimented my bright hair, my green eyes. I loudly exclaimed “I FEEL LIKE A FAIRY PRINCESS” about seventeen times.

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When she started to send me the photographs, my mouth fell open. She hadn’t changed me or airbrushed me. She hadn’t smoothed my personality over. My flyaway hair, my crooked nose, my goofy smile spilled from every single picture. All of my details, my gorgeous imperfections laid bare. I looked undoubtedly, unabashedly like me. Like no one else. I looked striking. I looked interesting. And I looked so, so beautiful.

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A Big Sister’s Duty: The Stuff No One Else Will Tell You

Today, I watched the Miss Representation documentary. If you haven’t seen it yet, please go watch it. It is so awesome, despite a really spacey, strange occasional voiceover.

Within nine minutes of pressing play, I was bawling my eyes out. Listening to a high schooler’s voice crack in pain as she described how her little sister cuts herself because she hates her body resonated all too clearly. As far as I know, neither of my sisters has ever hurt themselves, thank goodness. But the thought of the bullshit they’re going to have to endure just by virtue of being female is genuinely painful. With one getting ready to go to uni next year, and high school not too far away for the other, I know that they’re going to have to go through some pretty hard times, and that, being girls, they’re going to be told to think and feel and be certain ways, or face punishment.

So I’ve got a few messages for my two incredible, inspiring, strong baby sisters, based on my experiences of being a laydee, which I hope will help get them through the hard times.

Warning to family members: there will be discussions of S-E-X and other such girly things in this post.

fskLet’s start with your body, because honestly, that’s what lots of people are going to do. People will judge you because of your body, they will assume that they know things about you because of how your body looks, they’ll tell you that your body is wrong, they’ll use it as a weapon against you, they’ll assume that your body is theirs to touch and comment on.

Here’s what to do with your body in response to that: don’t change a damn thing. You are not your body. This is really tough to remember sometimes, because we girls have it constantly shoved down our throats that the only way to be worth something is to have a body that confines to somebody else’s conception of what sexy is. But honestly, your body does not define who you are. It’s just a vessel that carries your beautiful heart and brilliant mind around from one place to the next, and as long as you are keeping it healthy and strong (whatever that looks like!), then it’s perfect. Everyone always tells you to learn to love your body. I’d like to take that a step further and tell you to learn to love the whole of you. Love how your eyes crease up when you tell an awesome joke. Love how your wobbly bits shake when you dance like a crazy person. Love how you throw your hands around when you’re talking about something you love. You are so wonderful, and you have way too much to do in this world to sit in front of a mirror worrying that your legs are too fat.

This doesn’t mean I’m telling you to burn your dresses and snap your eyeliner pencils. Wanting to look good is awesome, as long as you are doing it on your terms. Don’t let anyone else define your beautiful, ever. Look however you want to look. Wear plum lipstick at 11am. Go out barefaced in your raggiest old jumper. Buy that teeny tiny little dress you love. Wearing lipstick doesn’t make you an attention seeker. Wearing a leather miniskirt doesn’t make you a slut.

On that note, it’s time to get super serious. I really don’t want to talk about sexual assault, because I wish that it wasn’t a problem. But 1 in 5 women in this country have experienced some kind of sexual violence since they turned 16, myself among them, so we have to talk about it. Like I said above, some people think that your body is theirs to touch. It isn’t. Unless you want them to, of course (more on that later). No matter how you are dressed, how drunk you are, how many people you’ve had sex with before, what you’ve done with the person before, NOBODY is allowed to touch your body without your consent. Don’t think that you’ve led anyone on, or feel pressured to act a certain way because of how you’ve acted in the past, or because you’ve already said you would do something. You have the right to refuse, every single time, and if someone goes against that, it’s sexual assault. I don’t care if you’re blind drunk, wearing nothing but a tinsel bikini. This does not give anyone the right to sexually assault you. This line of reasoning is such total bollocks that I can’t believe it still exists, but it really does, so let me just throw a stat out for you: only 9% of rapes in the UK are committed by a stranger. You are 9 times more likely to be attacked by someone you know in a situation that you thought was safe. So don’t ever be embarrassed to set limits, know that anything to do with your body is your choice, and if something does happen to you, don’t you dare ever for a second believe that it was your fault.

Okay, onto (gulp) consensual sex. I’m not going to tell you not to have sex, because let’s face it, sex is fun, and it’s totally normal, and it’s a natural part of growing up, but I would like to offer one teeny bit of advice. Wait and do it with a man or woman that you feel really comfortable with. Not because it has to be special or because losing your virginity to a random person means you don’t respect yourself. Shockingly, I think that a woman’s sexual experiences are nobody else’s fucking business, and anyone who thinks that they are in any way relevant is a flaming idiot. Have as much sex as you want, with as many people as you want – whatever you are happy and comfortable with. But the reason I’d say you should wait for someone excellent, and this is something that no one will ever tell you, is that the first time is so very fucking awkward. It hurts a lot, and your body does loads of weird stuff, and so does your partner’s, and you really want to be with someone you can laugh with when your bodies press together and make that weird farting sound, rather than wanting to immediately die. Oh, also, always pee afterwards. This is another thing that no one ever tells you until you’re laid up in your GP with a horrifying urine infection. But that’s more mechanics that actual advice. And as Forrest Gump would say, that’s all I have to say about that.

Alright, that’s enough sex talk for one blog, let’s get back to you. Society tells people that women shouldn’t have a voice, and both men and women internalise that message. You will find that men interrupt you, talk over you, don’t take you seriously and use the mere fact that you are a woman to discredit you. And a lot of women buy into this too: they take men more seriously, think negatively about ambitious women and say things like, “Oh, I just get on better with men. There’s less drama”. Every one of these things is designed to make women shut up, and keep us in our place. To hell with that. You have a voice, so don’t be afraid to use it. Don’t be afraid to put yourself forward because some stupid societal structure tells you your opinion isn’t worth anything. I hate these structures, so I try to use my voice to change them. And if that makes some chauvinistic asshole think less of me, so be it. I speak up, so that the world will get better for you girls coming through. Pay it forward and speak up for the next generation. Don’t you ever listen to someone else’s idea of what you should be. Don’t try to be anything except yourself. When you write goals and wishes, focus on doing things, rather than being things.

One last thing and then I promise, I’ll shut up for a while. Be kind to other women. Don’t buy into that rubbish that tells you that ambitious women are manly, or successful women are bitchy, or pretty women are stupid and slutty. This is tough, because these stereotypes are pushed hard, every day, by a £71bn per year business. But we can be smarter than them. Just remember, we’re all complicated people, who are trying our best. Let’s be excellent to each other. I love you. You’re going to move mountains.