What I learned at school…. By Bat Girl February 10, 2006Posted by Winter in beauty myths, body politics.
Another new voice here at Mind the Gap. This was written for us by a group member who’s a little shy about blogging generally.
As a young teenager, of dark colouring, I grew shiny black hair in all the normal and expected places. Biologically speaking this was good and a sign that I was healthy and thriving. But in the school yard, with the obligatory gym shorts and netball skirt, it was not good and it was not acceptable. It could be resolved with razors and hair-removal creams, if they existed in the house or you were brave enough to ask your mum for them, but it remained as a Damocles sword throughout my school career. That one day when I would forget to shave for P.E, or to scrape away the bikini hair for swimming lessons, was always waiting around the corner with a generous serving of ridicule and humiliation.
This ongoing worry was accompanied by an even greater anxiety- that of periods and feminine ‘odour’! Somehow, we all knew that periods were an issue of utmost secrecy and potential embarrassment. But, we also discovered an even deeper social secret- that when girls reach puberty they not only become sexually mature, they start to smell sexually mature! This is as normal and natural as hairiness, but at school ‘feminine odour’ was one of the worst social ‘faux pas’ you could commit. For me, this led to a heightened awareness of any slight niff that emerged in my near vicinity, and an intense anxiety that it might be me and it might be noticed by someone else. The ultimate horror being that one of the boys would loudly proclaim that someone smelt of “fish” – a public humiliation which was somehow deemed acceptable punishment by both sexes. By the end of secondary school we’d all learnt the rule. Women must not smell like women. We must, literally, smell of roses.
The importance of being ‘average’ also became clear in secondary school. Until then it had been predominantly the ‘fat’ children who had been ridiculed, with the occasional attack on the smelly or deprived. But as we developed through puberty it became increasingly clear that extremes were bad. Flat chests and big boobs were commented on by both girls and boys, and the latter created ‘entertainment’ for all during P.E and swimming lessons. I can even remember a male P.E teacher laughing with the boys whenever one of the bigger girls ran round the bases during rounders. We soon learned that B and C cups were good and anything else should either be flattened down or boosted up to meet the required standard.
By the time I left school I’d almost unconsciously adapted my daily routines and behaviours to achieve acceptance, or avoid humiliation. Having arrived at secondary school ‘au naturel’, and having rarely wasted a thought on how I looked or smelt, I walked out of those doors five years later with wealth of worries and distractions. Did I need to shave, did I look too flat-chested in this top, had I put enough deodorant on this morning, had I remembered to spray perfume up my skirt, did I have enough ‘supplies’ in case my period arrived unexpectedly, did I look fat in this outfit, did I look pretty enough, was I wearing enough makeup to hide that spot, did my hair look greasy and why did my thighs have to be so bloody big?
Since leaving school the discourse hasn’t changed much. The majority of women seem to accept these lessons without question and we are led to believe that the hairless, scentless woman is both normal and natural. Having been deprived of images of the natural female form, with the wondrous scents of female sexuality and the full scattering of hair that protects us from infection, we now live in a society which condemns and rejects those who stray outside the accepted ‘norms’. Any woman who wanders into a public place with visible hairy legs and armpits can expect at best a ‘frosty’ reception and at worst open aggression. Natural female odour remains a virtual ‘taboo’ and the way in which feminine hygiene products are now being advertised and marketed only serves to reinforce female anxieties about odour and cleanliness.
The diversity of female shapes and sizes has been rejected in favour of an extraordinary template, with a drive to be thinner, firmer and disproportionately large-chested. With the average woman in the UK being around 5 foot 2 inches tall and a size 16 it is an impossible standard for the majority and a full time job for the determined. While we’re distracted with diets, waxing and washing, the male population continues to eat well, be hairy, smell ‘manly’, and grow a middle-age spread.
But behind all this there is a private reality. We are all ‘imperfect’ (relative to the current standard) and yet the world doesn’t end. Women grow stubble and hair between shaves and most male partners don’t even notice (probably because they’re more interested in looking at other parts of our bodies). Most of us smell pretty womanly by the time we go to bed and it turns out to be a potent aphrodisiac. Other people rarely notice if we don’t wear makeup, and most shops don’t even bother to stock clothes for size 8 women with DD breasts. The ideal standard doesn’t naturally exist and the examples we see in pictures and on TV have been skilfully created by plastic surgeons and the wonder of digital technology.
What I’ve now learned as an adult woman is that the backlash against the impossible ideal is already here, in the diversity of women all around us. If we could just open our eyes and see what we really look like, and what is and has always been feminine and sexual, then perhaps we could begin to accept ourselves and each other. In striving to be small, thin, hairless and scentless we are striving to become more like pre-pubescent children than normal, healthy women. And if we spend our adult lives worrying and struggling with this impossible standard, trying to remove or hide what was naturally given to us at puberty, we will never be strong, healthy and focused enough to challenge the discourse we were so effectively taught at school.