A Beautiful Discourse

This week I have to head into uni and tell my personal tutor the topic I’ve chosen for my MSc dissertation, yet right now I still don’t have a clue. Well, that’s not strictly true. There are actually a handful of topics I’m intrigued by, yet I’m at the point where I need to figure out which one I want to dedicate six months of my life to. From what I’ve been told, this thing is going to be my virtual boyfriend ’til May 2019.

So where to start… Well, for one, I’m fascinated by sibling dynamics, largely, in part, to personal experiences that are way too private to ever blog about, but could potentially mark a strong starting point for a future scientific journal. After all, much as I know my friends love me, I also know they’re way too busy drinking prosecco to ever get around to reading that.

Secondly, I’m interested in exploring the subconscious mind. Those who know me well will know that I experience sleep paralysis; the feeling of being awake yet unable to move, occurring when a person passes between the stages of wakefulness and sleep. During these transitions many people sense evil, or even hallucinate. Some report a feeling of being physically touched by something they can’t see. All three of the above happen to me. And I’d really, really like to know why…

Finally, and I think perhaps above of all, I’m interested in social media’s effect on female body image, particularly in adolescence. When I was growing up, sure, we had fashion magazines, but I was never affected by looking at images of supermodels - they were the epitome of perfection, yet existed in an untouchable world far away from mine. Today however, social media presents similarly unblemished images to a number of impressionable young adults - on a daily basis. Whereas once it was only magazine imagery that was doctored to the point of flawless, nowadays your average (and I mean that in every sense of the word) smartphone owner can manipulate their look with the quick opening of a mobile app.

And it doesn’t really stop at social media. When making comparisons with my teenage years, way back when (yes, I’m that old - although I did relish the shock on my fellow students’ faces yesterday when I confessed my true age) I remember that everyone was pretty natural. What you saw was what you got. Today we have hair extensions, fake lashes, contouring, boob jobs, lip fillers, botox, lipo... The list goes on. I tease one of my best male friends - endlessly - about how many girls he dates who have ‘caterpillars’ instead of eyebrows. The trend for tattooed brows is one that will take more than a 20,000 word dissertation for me to ever understand…

What really intrigues me is the lengths to which today’s girls will go in order to emulate the look of the celebrities they admire, to compete with their peers or attract the opposite sex. Botox now starts at an incredibly young age, boob jobs too, with lip fillers and bum lifts practically the norm. If you don’t have the money to keep up, or if quite simply - like me - you don’t want to be artificial, then what’s a girl to do?

In terms of social media, I understand the call to look good. I’m not saying I don’t take several of my (rare) selfies in order to get the best of a (typically) bad bunch. But while I genuinely want to show what I’m up to, or show off a new outfit, a lot of girls are clearly posting images in order to accrue validation, and it does make me think. On one hand, their own self-esteem can’t be as good as they make out if they need to flash everything for a thumbs up but, in return, how many other girls are holding themselves up to impossible standards? Just look at recent accusations directed toward Scarlett Moffatt, regarding the weight difference between her instagram profile and paparazzi shots. How far will young girls go in order to fit an imaginary mould? And if they don’t consider themselves to be ‘instagrammable’, what effect will this have on their feelings of self worth?

I’m a grown woman, and I can completely understand how constant comparisons could eventually take their toll. I guess I feel a particular affinity to this topic for two reasons. 1, I happen to be the least photogenic person on the planet and 2, I hate to look overdone on the cosmetic or fashion front. With this in mind, a world that views and measures attractiveness via photographs or fakery is never one I’m going to feel comfortable in.

Sound vain? Well that’s ok, because I don’t mind admitting that I am, but my personal theory is that my vanity actually stems from the fact that I’m unphotogenic. I'm also constantly told that I'm not 'generic', which 99% of the time I feel is a good thing, but I guess there's a dormant teen in me somewhere, a tiny 1% that wishes I was just like everyone else. Anyway, over the years as I’ve seen more and more unflattering photographs, I’ve slowly become more concerned with fine tuning my own appearance...

For one, I’m obsessed with my teeth: obsessed to the point where a recent bad photograph has prompted me to book a re-whitening session, despite the fact their shade was recently complimented by someone who saw them in person. My biggest regret is that I chopped my hair off two years ago (I know, first world problems), and I’m saving up a huge amount of money to have a tiny mole removed from my face - one that all my friends swear they’ve never even noticed is there. In truth I have a number of things where I think, ‘Once I fix that, I’ll be happy’. But will I? Probably, until the next camera comes my way.

Of course, many people hate photographs of themselves, seeing only their flaws and none of the plus points, yet in my case I’ve actually had professionals agree with me. Once upon a time I used to model, reaching the heady heights of national bridal magazines - oh the glamour. Back then I’d always be disappointed with how my shots would turn out, with many a photographer and agent accepting defeat and admitting I was right -  my face just doesn’t translate to 2D. For example, I have sharp bone structure, yet my face often looks boxy and blunt in pictures, not an angle in sight. In life I’m often told I have a cute smile and lovely eyes, yet captured expressions tend to look somewhat demonic. Maybe I’ve actually been possessed by one of those invisible entities that visit me in the night, who knows?

The aforementioned, caterpillar-loving male friend tells me he’d rather have a girl who looks fabulous in person, but in this digital age which is more prominent, our real persona or the idently that lives online? Today we see the majority of people in 2D more than we do any other incarnation, which makes me wonder about the image that becomes imprinted on the brains of those we rarely see. Last year was the first time this thought entered my head, prompted by the fact that I began seeing a guy who lived in Germany. Trust me; long distance dating is definitely tough when you look better in real life yet rarely see each other.

I’m not saying I’m the most beautiful girl in the world face-to-face, but I can hold my own. As noted above, my thing is that I don’t like to look too ‘done’; be it make-up, clothes, or hair, but that’s not to say I don’t go in for any enhancements. I subtly highlight my locks and take advantage of the odd filter or two, but I typically think less is more, so it’s not like I’m ever going to go wild, just to measure up. If I look tired, I won’t choose a face-bleaching filter just to look flawless. I won’t photoshop my figure if I feel I’m having a fat day, and I’ll only get a boob job if my assets go south once the kids have popped out. In light of this, I figure I’ll be completely f**ked if our online personas really do start to reign supreme - or not, depending on which way you look at it. But hey, if that is the way it goes, at least I’ll be off the hook re the pain of that post-baby boob job...

This is the way my mind can work - and I’m a fully formed, normally functioning adult. (Although some would probably beg to differ.) If even I can struggle at times, then how is a still-developing teen supposed to feel in the face of constant ‘perfection’? How will she feel if she fails to measure up on film? This last week, for example, a friend sent through a particularly evil batch of photos taken at a recent party we attended. On the night in question I felt pretty damn good. I loved my outfit, my hair was in place and compliments were graciously received, my favourite coming from one girl who claimed I looked like a beautiful porcelain doll. On the images, however, the only doll I resembled was the Bride of Chucky.

Luckily, I’m old enough now to remind myself that I’m used to this. It happens - but I’m not sure I would have been so good at shaking it off when I was younger. Which goes to show that confidence is definitely all in the mind; it comes with experience, an understanding of who you are or who you want to be. Admittedly, I still have some way to go myself in terms of not feeling at all upset when I see pictures of me sitting anything but pretty alongside girls who photograph beautifully... But by the time I’m a psychologist, I hope to have this nailed. I’d love to help younger girls figure out how to grow their own confidence; how to feel proud and hold their head high, unconcerned with comparisons to anyone else.   

Now before I stop rambling, I have to admit that occasionally I do come across a photograph I like. The same friend who sent the ‘ick’ images also took a selfie of us that same weekend. Miraculously, I liked this. In his pic the sun was shining on me, my loose hair looked really blonde and my teeth pristine white. I wore barely any make-up with a vintage-style sundress. It was all so quintessentially me, yet the thing I liked the most was that I looked really happy.

Incidentally, later that same eve there was one point where I wasn’t so happy (long story), something that did not go unnoticed by a fellow party goer. She was a complete stranger, yet bluntly informed me that I was stunning and should therefore never have anything to be upset about. Obviously life doesn’t quite work like that (after all, we know even Helen of Troy had a bad day or two) but it did make me think about how being happy and content is really the best filter in life, the image I want to portray above anything else.

While I go to work on my smile/check the date in the diary for my whitening session, for now I’ll be content enough knowing that writing this post has helped me refine what I want to focus my dissertation on/who my ‘boyfriend’ will be until mid-next year. If I can help someone struggling with feelings of inferiority, low confidence and body image issues, then maybe my own vanity won’t have been in vain…

See, I do have a lovely, selfless side sometimes. Incidentally, that same weekend (it was a busy one) another friend did tell me, “You’re the loveliest girl in the world. Until you’re not.” A bit of a mixed compliment there, but I’m taking it as incentive to be more hot than not - in personality that is, and maybe one day that will even translate to camera, even if my cheekbones don’t.

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