By Alice Dent
This week, I have an eye infection.
“Just so you know, I’ve got an eye infection”, I say to my unsuspecting course mate. We’ve never met before, but today we are working on a project together. She becomes my unwitting counsellor. “My eye isn’t usually like this, I don’t know how it’s happened. I’m so embarrassed!” I’m relentless in my justifications and explanations. Every person I happen to bump into, friend or otherwise, will be the victim of my self-deprecating tangent over the coming days. “I just woke up one morning, and one of my eyes was double the size of the other!” I was acting as though they would fail to notice of their own accord, my bloodshot eyeballs and swollen eyelids.
It was after hypothesizing the cause of my mild eye infection for the seventh time before lunch on Monday, that I realised I needed to halt proceedings and check myself. Why did I feel the need to tell everyone in my path? Instead of just accepting that I was a massive narcissist and being done with it, I considered the question further. I knew there was more to my incessant grumbling than thinking I was Cardiff University’s answer to Serena van der Woodsen: “Spotted at Cardiff Central, bags in hand: Alice Dent with a dodgy eye.” So why on earth do I care so much?
The notion that a woman’s purpose is to act as a visual object for the pleasure of the male gaze has been studied widely. Journalism students may be aware of Laura Mulvey, who contested that women hold an ‘exhibitionist role’ in society, with their appearance ‘coded for strong visual and erotic impact.’ I am not a Gender Studies scholar, but I am a woman. In my own experience, I can corroborate with the view that girls can and do feel a pressure to look a certain way, reinforced by the male-dominated environment in which we grow and mature. PE class in early adolescence was a breeding ground for this self-criticism. Grappling with the changing shape of your own body is hard enough, without having to compare it to your peers. One of my closest friends from home is 5 ft 11 and built like a supermodel; many hours were spent as a teenager looking into the mirror wondering why my 5 ft 3 frame didn’t quite match up to hers. It doesn’t help that from a young age we are encouraged to start modifying our appearance. Shaving our legs, dying our hair, wearing make-up to cover our acne-ridden faces. Whether you agree with Mulvey or not, it cannot be denied that there is pressure on young girls to exude a certain attractive persona. A 2016 study from Girlguiding UK found that a quarter of 7 to 10 year old girls ‘felt the need to look perfect.’ How awful is that?
My childhood years were filled with the consumption of American High School rom-coms. The cliché girl-looks-gorgeous, girl-gets-guy sort. Whilst I was an avid viewer, I could certainly not relate to them on a personal level. That is probably the point, though – I don’t think Mean Girls would have had the same glitz if it had been set in a Welsh comprehensive. The words of Jaz from Angus Thongs, “boys don’t like girls for funniness” felt like a personal attack. However, I still hung onto the hope that one day, I would undergo a dramatic makeover, become a lover of juice and kale and emerge from the rubble as a sexy Goddess who would make all the boys stop and stare. Suffice to say, that never happened.
I am now older and (arguably) wiser. I am coming to terms with the way that I look; I’m not striving to be 5 ft 11, and I’m certainly more content when I look in the mirror than I was when I was 13 years old. But despite my best efforts, this doesn’t always curb those feelings of self-doubt.
So, what is the answer? As of late I have been focussing on attempting to wear what I want, when I wish to, simply for my pleasure alone. It may not be a ground-breaking idea which will instantly topple the patriarchy, but slowly vanquishing the idea that you’re looking a certain way to please your male counterparts may actually revolutionize your day-to-day life.
It’s something I’m working on; I’m not purporting to be 100% immune to feelings of social pressure. But I am advocating the view that as girls we should own whatever look that we choose to. Uninterested in wearing makeup one day? Fancy wearing prescription-free glasses? Got the urge to shave your hair off? Do it if makes you happy. Post that selfie that you know you look fire in, without worrying if that boy that you don’t even speak to in your Modern History lecture will approve of it.
You are a strong and empowered woman irrespective of whether you’re most comfortable in your Pretty Little Thing playsuit or a baggy jumper and trackies. Why can’t you rock both? If you shave, moisturise and exfoliate your legs every other day (I salute you) or if you’re proudly growing your own winter warmers on your lower limbs, you’re equally as valuable, important, and beautiful. Screw what anyone else thinks, look the way that you want to and make no apologies for it.
It is now Thursday, and my eye infection is a distant memory. However, the next time I feel a bit worse for wear and begin to go down the slippery slope of self-doubt, I will remind myself of my own sentiment. Please keep in mind that this all comes from my own perspective: a heterosexual female, however, this message is applicable to every reader. Be proud of who you are and dress for yourself, because you don’t need approval from anyone else.