Tag Archives: body image

A curious encounter

It’s Friday night, and we’ve arranged to meet a small group of friends for dinner. There’s one other woman, the wife of one of my partner’s friends – a film producer in her fifties whom I’ll call Bronwyn. I’ve previously been introduced to her but we’ve done no more than exchange pleasantries, and I’m looking forward to getting to know her better.

Within minutes, I realise that this isn’t going to be an evening for female bonding. Bronwyn’s conversation focuses almost entirely on her rigorous exercise regime, involving hex bars, circuits and a personal trainer. She makes eye contact only with the men; at one point she nonchalently drapes her arm around the back of my partner’s chair, even though she barely knows him. It’s a blokeish, possessive gesture that feels like a provocation – whether directed at him or me, I’m not sure.

Then, half-way through the main course, the Big Reveal: off comes her jumper to expose a tight vest top, more suited to a gym than a smart restaurant. We get an eyeful of muscle and sinew, coupled with sly glances at the men to make sure they’ve clocked her upper body (they all have – it’s impressive). The room is slightly chilly and there are goosebumps on her arms, but it doesn’t seem to bother her. It’s clear that she’s very proud of her physique and has dressed carefully in anticipation of this moment.

Finally, she acknowledges my existence: ‘Do you work out?’, she asks, with an arch glance at my soft belly and nascent bingo wings. It’s an opener that she knows will lead nowhere, and all the more irritating because there are lots of things we could have talked about. She has an interesting job and three teenage children, and she’s lived for many years in the city I love. We could have indulged in easy chat about work and family, and gone home feeling that we’d found common ground. But it’s clear from the outset that she isn’t interested in having that sort of conversation, still less in seeing where it might lead.

At the end of the evening, we pay the bill and get ready to leave. She does the two-cheek kissing routine and tells me how lovely it was to have a proper chance to meet me at last. Is she totally deluded or just going through the motions? I briefly consider telling her that I find her rude, vain and self-obsessed; instead, I smile broadly and concur, while resolving never to waste time in her company again.

Perhaps part of the reason she riles me is that she reminds me of my old self. While I was never very interested in exercise, my appearance was central to my self-esteem. Influenced, no doubt, by my tenuous relationship with an adulterous father, in my teens and twenties I gained affirmation from ambiguous friendships with men, regarding other women as potential competitors. I was the sort of woman other women didn’t warm to; I had a turbulent emotional life and quite a lot of casual, unsatisfactory sex.

All of that changed when I had children. Suddenly, I was in a world of women, having conversations about breastfeeding and sleeping patterns that now seem utterly dull but felt like a lifeline at the time. We met in cafes and playgroups, sleep-deprived and disorientated, hunkering down to share experiences and advice. Sometimes it felt as if we were survivors of a shipwreck, washed up far from home, coming together to figure out a survival strategy. I’ve lost touch with many of those women but I won’t forget their kindness and support, and there are one or two whom I still regard as close friends.

In the post-childbirth phase, many of my male friends drifted away, leaving me to doubt their original motivation. Perhaps I’m no longer seen as viable – or is it simply that middle-aged men tend towards apathy when it comes to maintaining a social life? Either way, I’m not really bothered; these days, I prefer to spend time in the company of funny, clever, complicated women.

The curious thing about Bronwyn is that she seems never to have grown to appreciate female friendship. Instead, she’s locked into a hyper-competitive, self-regarding mode of behaviour that most of us outgrew two or three decades ago. I’m annoyed that I didn’t find a subtle way of conveying to her that she was behaving unacceptably, but I also wonder how she has reached this stage of her life without finding a kinder, more nuanced way of relating to others. With her body-sculpting and her relentless flirting, I can’t help but feel that she’s missing out.

Dressed to impress – or frozen out?

The runaway success of Frozen, the Oscar-winning Disney cartoon, is hard to deny. On dressing-up day, the school playground teems with wannabe Elsas and Annas, primping and preening as they parrot their favourite songs from the movie soundtrack. Meanwhile, The Observer reports that spin-off merchandise is flying off the shelves, leaving parents desperately trawling shops and websites for overpriced dresses and dolls.

I saw the film with my children several months ago and found much to admire. Early on, there’s a cheesy solo by Anna about finding ‘the one’, provoking much eye-rolling from cynics like me who think they know what’s about to unfold. Then comes the clever subversion: the prince turns out to be a villain and the women are saved, not by a knight in shining armour, but by self-empowerment and their sisterly love.

But let’s not get too excited here. This is Disney, after all, and the film wouldn’t be the highest-grossing animation of all time without the presence of at least some familiar fairytale elements. So, inevitably, the two lead characters are bug-eyed beauties with impossibly cinched waists and hourglass figures, and there’s a handsome suitor waiting in the wings in the shape of the muscle-bound Kristoff. The message is clear: a woman can triumph in the face of adversity but she still has to look attractive to men.

Others have written much more knowledgeably than I could about the unrealistic physical proportions of Elsa and Anna and the message that sends out to the film’s young female audience. But what also struck me about Frozen was the sheer impracticality of the sisters’ clothing. Seriously – you’d pirouette across a frozen landscape in princess pumps and a full-length cape? Sashay up the steps of your ice palace in killer heels and a diaphanous off-the-shoulder number with a skirt split to the thigh? Personally, I’d have donned my Merrell snow boots and several snug layers, topped by one of those shiny padded jackets that make any woman over a size eight look like the Michelin Man’s obese brother.

But is Elsa and Anna’s preference for the stylish over the practical so very different from the attitude of real-life women? Let’s not even talk about our party outfits: what we wear to work is far more telling. Over two decades ago, I attended my first job interview in a fitted jacket, a tiny pencil skirt and pantomime heels. I could barely walk from the tube station and had to sit through the interview with my legs awkwardly crossed so as not to reveal my nether regions. It was a toss-up between embarrassment and relief when the dress code turned out to be jeans.

This heels-and-tight-skirt combo – which, frankly, looks a bit dated these days – is still favoured by many high-powered women: think Theresa May or Rachida Dati. But how easy is it to stride briskly along a corridor with a pair of four-inch spikes attached to your feet? Or to chair a meeting when the mere act of sitting causes your skirt to ride up around your armpits? Give it a moment’s thought and it’s hard to imagine a less professional get-up.

Let’s be clear: high heels and tight skirts are designed to exaggerate the shape and length of our legs, and thus to enhance our sexual attractiveness. There’s nothing wrong with that – indeed, women should have the right to wear what they want, when they want. It just seems an odd choice in the workplace, to the extent that you have to question whether there’s some external pressure at play here. We’re increasingly expected to shimmy up corporate ladders and smash through glass ceilings, yet many of us still feel we have to truss ourselves up like a fairytale princess ascending an ice-sculpted staircase. Are we doing it for ourselves, or in order to conform to a male fantasy that should have no place in the professional sphere? To quote from another Disney classic, ‘go figure’.