3 May 2018

Body confidence and unlearning the male glance

10:12 pm on 3 May 2018

Don’t fuck with the Chi.


Chelsie Preston Crayford

Chelsie Preston Crayford Photo: Ryan Alexander Lloyd

Today was a hard day at work.
Generally my body confidence is reasonably intact – something hard won if you are a woman, and only intensified by being a shape/colour/age that is not considered desirable by the media.
Before we go any further, let me say I realise this does not describe me. I know I have a decent amount of body privilege and get it pretty easy in this respect. Aside from its shape, my body is also white, cis-gendered, young and able, which means I am right at the top of the fickle hierarchy of beauty privilege. Nevertheless, the pressure to be a certain size and shape is massive in my industry - acting.
I am vehemently against it in theory. I lament the lack of variety and realism in the female bodies seen on our screens. I criticize the ever-present male-gaze, relentlessly informing the way women and their bodies are portrayed (if I ever see a feet-up slow pan of a beautiful woman again I’ll scream). I applaud artists like Lena Dunham (Girls), Jill Soloway (Transparent) and Issa Rae (Insecure) for their revolutionary portrayals of real women who are various shapes/sizes/ages/ethnicities/states of gender fluidity and still have the gall to be naked and love sex. I am angry. And I am vocal about it.
Yet in practice I still find myself at work wanting to change my shape in order to look better in clothes that don’t suit my body type, or wanting to apologise when a lovely garment doesn’t look good on me, or wanting to get smaller so I can feel safe in the knowledge that my body will be less problematic in front of a camera.
If I bow to this pressure, I end up perpetuating the harmful and dated standards that I’m so wildly against, subtly giving other women the message that they are too much or not enough, or worse, both. This is the very definition of internalised oppression.
The most sobering example of this was when I found images of myself on a teenage girl’s “thinspiration” tumblr. Disturbed and concerned, I contacted her. But I soon realised nothing I could say would undo the years of conditioning and self-hatred her young body had absorbed, especially when I had undeniably absorbed it too.
This glossing of the female image does more than just tell us our bodies are wrong. It tells us WE are wrong as women. It permeates into what we expect of women in our stories and our lives. How real they are. How much of them we really want to see. How much we can tolerate of them being grotesque or raw or messy or intense before we need to look away. It feeds into the silencing of women’s voices in our art and our culture, meaning the experience of being a woman will continue to be largely framed in the mainstream by men; that framing then internalised and enacted by women. It’s a ruthless cycle. Just like periods (but we’re not meant to talk about those.)
Body confidence has very little to do with how your body actually looks, and everything to do with what you choose to see in it.
My body serves me incredibly well. It is healthy and strong and has done miraculous things like running Round The Bays with ZERO training and growing a person inside of it.
It goes through phases and fluctuations just like every living thing. It has taken years of unlearning but I refuse to do anything other than love it. I am tired of doing my body the disservice of relating to it primarily for how it looks - enabling others to reduce me, and themselves.
If I’m to show my daughter she is more than the skin she’s in, I must live it. I must use my involvement in my industry to fight for the portrayal of real women, for women by women. I must call myself out on my own internalised pressure - or put more plainly, vanity - and admit that it might be doing harm to others. I must encourage the productions I work on to do better. I must use my voice so that my daughter will never doubt the sound of hers.
So to the skin-tight pencil-dress requiring half an hour’s worth of engineering and 1000 layers of spanx that tried to fuck with my chi today, I say a very hearty GO FUCK YOURSELF.

Homepage photo credit: Johanna Cosgrove.