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What I learned at school…. By Bat Girl February 10, 2006

Posted 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.



1. Laura - February 11, 2006

Great post – my school experience was exactly the same. I have known many women who wouldn’t go out in an evening without waxing legs, arms, armpits, getting a brazilian and fake tanning from top to toe (often over a period of days as preparation for their big night out). If only they could see how pointless and ridiculous this is they would have so much more time to enjoy their lives and their bodies…I only hope that one day they, like I, will realise this. I used to spend a full hour perfecting my bikini line with a combination of plucking, shaving and creams everytime I visited my boyfriend…now that I spend only 5 minutes for my own benefit – surprise surprise – my sex life has not gone downhill and I don’t spend half the time worrying about whether I have a symmetrical line or not (yes, I was that paranoid).

2. Maia - February 12, 2006

Another amazing post, your blog is so fantastic.

It does make me wonder what difference it makes going to an all girls school (which I did). I think if it had been a rich mono-cultural girls school it would have intensified everything (everything I’ve heard makes rich mono-cultural all girls schools are eating disorder central). But while there was some body policing going on, I don’t think it was this bad, or maybe I was just oblivious to it.

3. spiral - February 13, 2006

I really liked this post because it made me think about my stepmother, a woman who defends these feminine ideals harshly: When I stopped shaving my legs, she declared I was being “unhygenic,” and she called me a hippie. She got mad when I didn’t curl my hair growing up, and she got even madder that I never seemed to have enough period supplies, which was made worse in her eyes because of how heavy my periods were. Some of us are so acculturated to these ideals and rituals, rituals that do tend to infantilize women (especially shaving), that they become iconic of being woman. Aye, aye, aye.

4. Naiades - February 16, 2006

Who ever came up with PE knickers anyway? they seemed like an instrument of torture to me at the time. I feel annother feminist burning coming on, I wonder if they seel them at primark?

5. Anonymous - June 18, 2006

You were lucky, being able to wear gym shorts for school sports. At my school it was bikini-style ‘athletics briefs’, which would have necessitated even more waxing or shaving, were it not for the fact that if any girl wasn’t 100% hairless her ‘friends’ would call her a yeti in the changing room and she’d get whipped with shower towels or otherwise bullied into submission.
Plus, our playing fields were on a cliff overlooking the North Sea, one of the coldest places in the country, and we were running about doing cross country in the middle of winter in basically our undies while the boys were in tracksuit bottoms – and they say we’re the weaker sex!?!

6. Anonymous - December 7, 2006

Just wanted to add though, women do not naturally smell like fish. This goes back to the old days when women were thought of as “dirty”.

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