A little while ago, I read a post about the notion of the “Cool Girl”, and it really struck a chord with me.
“Does the ‘cool girl’ exist? It’s so exhausting trying to be her” was a fascinating insight into the internal struggles that women feel to try to embody an identity that is inoffensive, affable, and hits a few choice clichés of masculinized attitudes, gift-wrapped in a sexy body.
The post highlighted excerpts from the book “Gone Girl”, which I am eagerly awaiting to arrive from Book Depository, in which the main character laments that she is not a “cool girl.” She doesn’t love blowjobs and burping and videogames, and she has emotions, and sometimes they win out. The reddit post, linked above, explored how women are socialised to emanate these qualities without even considering whether they have merit. For many women responding to the post, the penny was dropping: they had been modelling their own behaviours and attitudes inadvertently to reflect the expectations of a "cool girl" put to them by a patriarchal world. To quote the passage from Gone Girl - "Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them... They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be."
Once the post itself started a ball rolling in my mind, I was able to distinguish a very specific kind of gender profiling in common media, and in particular Disney, where desirable women evince an aloof, extraordinary quality. Belle in Beauty and the Beast is an outsider despite her looks because she’s academic, which in the provincial-town context makes her worldly and thus, strange. Ariel looks beyond the prejudices of her people in her hunger to learn more about life on land. Princess Jasmine yearns to lose herself amongst the common folk, rather than living a cotton-wrapped life of luxury, which paints her as more human and pragmatic than conventional women of wealth and power.
The common theme, one slipped into our subconscious as smoothly as moral lessons and questioned even less, is that in order to be a desirable, interesting woman, we must first be exceptional. To wit – we must be told by others, and ideally by men, that we are “not like other girls.”
Perhaps this is what breeds many women to envy and loathe the accomplishments of others, rather than boosting each other up the ladder. I am aware of the controversial nature of this generalisation, but I believe it has merit. Women internalise sexual competitiveness before they are even knowledgeable about sexuality, because we are groomed to yearn for exceptionalism without every quite knowing why.
The revelation of this cool girl cliché has detonated a cluster-bomb of concerned introspection in my mind. Upon learning of this trope, I have slipped every aspect of my identity under to the microscope, determined to excise any part that may be contrived from insincerity. My ear-splitting burps, my love of Bioshock games, my predilection towards giant steaks, filthy jokes and punk music all came into question. I ruminated at length upon how these things can be compatible with the rest of me. Although I love and like these things about myself in earnest, it was terrifying to me that I could not be sure as to whether I had developed them for the right reasons. How to guarantee that in my mouthy, punky pubescent phase, I had not carefully contrived this persona for the novelty of being "not like other girls"?
I have angsted over trying to make a good first impression when meeting new people, for fear that I did not only need only be myself, but be someone better. For lack of time and interest in crafting an entirely new, inoffensive, affable persona, time and time again, I simply work with the crude tools that I have, and a persona that is simply my own. Generally, it goes over fine. And when it doesn't, well, that's fine too. Can't win 'em all.
It was after one of these introductions to a new social circle that solidified my confidence in my mind. I can freely admit that I may bear some of the hallmarks of a cool girl. I don't know for sure how they came to be, whether it was manufactured or authentic, but however these features arose, they are mine now. There is no doubt in my mind that I was always going to wind up somewhat similar to the person I am now. My personality has seldom changed from the three-year-old version of myself in old home movies, who paired dainty dresses with Doc Marten knock-offs, had a finger jammed up my nose with a cheeky smile a lot of the time, and proudly declared to the camera that I could do “blurps” on cue.
There was probably a cool girl deeply-rooted inside my identity, once. Someone who wanted to be special and exceptional. Maybe some of her qualities germinated, and flowered. But if that is the case, then whatever those qualities may be have been absorbed by the greater picture. My cool girl mannerisms are complimented, rather than contradicted, by my less cool traits. It is not cool to respond to ideas and debate with emotion, but it does not shame me. I will proudly identify as a feminist and have become better at assertively challenging ingrained cultural sexism. I still get giggly over the rare occasion when my underwear matches my bra. I have amazing friends, and no longer plump for any elitist “I get along better with boys” bias out of some self-serving need to feel above other women. I do not stress about making my friends based on gender, as perhaps a teenage version of myself would have preferred due to the influence and adulation of my older brother. Now I seek only common compatibility.
It is hard work undoing a subconscious desire to be above other women when that is considered a prerequisite to win at life. But by refusing to buy into competing with other women for the validation of men, I already feel less burdened. Rather than anguish over whether my girly qualities undermine my affability, I am reorienting my scope. The qualities that define my identity do not fall into a binary “cool girl” and “crazy girl” columns. The qualities that define me require no more classification than the fact that they are mine.
The Victorian police force, in conjunction with TAC, busted out a new promotional advertising campaign this holiday season in order to remind people that it's a bad idea to drive around with the top down after guzzling down too many cocktails at the work Christmas party, only to puke in the one pot plant that's actually plastic. You guessed it, the enemy of the summer of fun, 2013, is driving whilst intoxicated.
I have no qualms with this whatsoever. Drinking and driving is the kind of hobby that a Darwin Award candidate lists at a hobby on their eHarmony file, right before they hitchhike to a blind date. I'm all for any campaign that encourages people to drink responsibly and drive safely. It's not the seventies anymore, and "I'll just take the back streets" isn't cute.
That said, VicPo totally hired the wrong promotional team to get the message across this time. Envisage, if you will, a slow-motion, dark-hued, almost action movie-style cinematography, with a stern tenor intoning "This holiday season, the police are throwing a party" with all the ominousness of a Bond villain in the moments before a big reveal. That is the benchmark of silliness the advertisement sets, and it comes crashing down shortly thereafter. Brace yourself for a metaphor that is butchered so artlessly that it relinquishes any meaning that it may have had.
I can't wait to see how they cater dip and carrot sticks for that.
"There will be dress-ups-"
Cut to someone putting on that fluoro vest thingy that somehow never seems to make it into novelty Sexy Cop costume kits.
I must have missed the memo, but apparently hats are mandatory for parties now. Like, fedoras? Straw boaters? I feel suddenly underdressed.
"-Some people will get a written invitation-"
But how can that be when the party's clearly already started? And why does the bearded driver from the advertisement look so sad to receive one?
"Of course, they'll be keeping an eye on numbers-"
What do you mean, 'of course'? We just established that EVERYONE is invited.
"-And checking I.D.'s."
That seems somewhat difficult to do if you've already invited everyone. Which you did.
"There'll be loud music-"
Does this mean the police band 'Code One' is no longer being shut down as part of budget cuts?
Doesn't sound too bad, actually.
"-And lots of photos."
Emphasis totally not my own. You can practically hear the narrator congratulate himself on executing the perfect level of pathos right there.
I could keep going, but at this stage I've made it 33 seconds through a one minute video and I'm going to need a scotch and Coke before I can even think about the next part. Which probably isn't such a good sign for how I'm interpreting these advertisements, because now my understanding is that drink driving is a police-mandated, glow-stick-riddled rave cave waiting to happen. And you, too, can have it... If you're just brave enough to reach out and crack that beer whilst flicking the dome light above your rear-view mirror for the perfect party vibe.
But alas, all cringeworthy videos must eventually come to an end. I hold out for the punchline. The overarching message. The one that will set me to quaking in my boots despite the audio, when isolated, promising a rollicking good bit of family fun. But wait, confusion! The slogan is "The Party's Over". And I am left confused.
This advertisement has inadvertently promised drink drivers some golden good times, and yanked this promise out from beneath them, not unlike that time I tried to do the "pull the tablecloth away without disturbing the food on top" trick. And like myself on that occasion, TAC have been left with egg on their faces.
If the police wanted to frighten people away from drink-driving, perhaps the prospect should not have been pitched as the kickass social event of the season. After all, the metaphor of the fun-sponge police officers coming by to break up a house party is so ingrained in pop culture, even I've caught myself in tipsy moments planning my escape from the venue in case the police rock up... and that's not even a thing in Australia.
To be fair, maybe it's because my parties aren't hardcore enough to be allocated police resources. A large portion of my Breaking Bad fandom was spent ruminating as to why Gus Fring have any interest in the meth world when he owns a lifetime supply of free fried chicken. I mean, isn't that the American dream? Alberquerque isn't far from Mexico, so you know that Los Pollos Hermanos' spicy chicken is destined to be the perfect amount of piquante. The whole drug thing, on top of that luxury? That's just being greedy. Although maybe that's my lack of street cred speaking.
But I digress. "The Party's Over"? Seriously? Way to alienate anyone who loosely likes the idea of "fun". One bad campaign is all it takes to undo any empathy for police officers that television shows like "Highway Patrol" work so hard to foster. The Average Joe's perspective flips from, "Geez, that hoon was acting like a jerk, wasn't he? The police really don't have an easy job." to "You wanna tread on my right to party? Screw you, guy!"
TAC misjudged their audience when they authorised an advertising campaign in the vein of a stern grandfather who has lost his train of thought mid-reprimand with this schizophrenic "We're throwing a party/the party's over" madness. And, like grandparenting, this moral lesson would probably go over better if it was framed more along the lines of something like this:
"Hey, we want you to have fun, but it can be dangerous out there, so just be careful, okay? Cool, love you."
I'm no statistician, but I'd bet money (one dogecoin. That someone else must mine for me because I don't know how to internet) that people would be more receptive to a message where they don't feel like they're being scolded by that one teacher in primary school who they hated.
If, to borrow a phrase from Mac in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the TAC approach was "laughs are cheap... I'm going for gasps!" maybe they should have gone for broke. I guarantee you, nobody would dare drink and drive after hearing the song "Limousine" by Brand New, and then hearing the story that inspired it. Though, to be fair, that's probably the equivalent of assuaging a child's fear of monsters under the bed by showing them American Horror Story, to show that there are far scarier things in the world than what's under a bed. Or perhaps it's just on my mind because I recently started watching American Horror story.
... Now I'm scared of the dark.
(A conversation with self:
"Did you just write over a thousand words relentlessly mocking a public health awareness campaign?"
"Hey. Not cool."
Whisper: "...I'm being a larrikin.")
Those who know me appreciate how much I like a challenge. I decided to double-major at university because giving myself a bit of flexibility and breathing room throughout my degree felt too slack. It's why as soon as I graduated, I applied for full-time work in an industry in which I had no experience, and began at the office within a few days of being offered the job. But this persistence to get my responsibilities out of the way before allowing myself any fun often means that once my duties are done, I'm grouchy from the knowledge that I have been working too hard, whilst simultaneously hankering for some new way to burn through my days because I'm bored.
Naturally, the challenge to write 50,000 words of a new novel in November through National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) seemed a perfectly sane idea for me to do within the same four weeks that I was already slated to both move house, and jet interstate for five days. I approached the challenge with military precision, dutifully packing up my laptop to tap away on the train to work each day, befriending the perky English girl that worked at the cafe near my offices so I could have a chai and a type in peace (although, miser that I am, I never returned after she overcharged me that one time), and ensuring that I was awake an hour earlier than I needed to be every single day so that I could hit the word count before 8.30am... and if I decided to write on the train home as well, so much the better.
To clarify: normal people do not do NaNoWriMo. Every person I met at the first social event of the season was lovely, switched on, and desperate to get started. That night, I stared at a sea of people in bunny ears, oversized band t-shirts and overalls, and saw, vainglorious creature that I am, my own emo-loving, pubescent awkwardness reflected back at me, ad infinitum. But the people I met that night didn't need to be normal. No good writer is. After an hour of chatting about our stories, and becoming increasingly excited by the diversity of minds around us, my friend and I departed from the meeting feeling genuinely bolstered for the month ahead. The countdown from then to November 1 was an arduous one. I couldn't wait to begin.
I didn't stay up to partake the midnight write-in. Heck, I didn't make it to another NaNoWriMo event, social or work-related, for the entire month. But the invaluable company of my fellow writers for one evening motivated me to push on when I felt my feet dragging in the dirt for every one of those thirty days.
My commitment to NaNoWriMo did not cease for anything short of calamity. I allowed myself one day off, and that was to move house. By the next day, I was writing furiously from the early hours of the morning with atonement on my mind, spurring myself as if I had something to prove for the absence. I wrote on the plane interstate, and tapped away furiously on my creaky hostel bed at 10pm on a Saturday night when seemingly everyone else in Sydney was partying at the nightclub just downstairs, making out with adorably-accented foreigners. But I had taken this trip with a very particular agenda, and I wanted my weekend's quota out of the way before the main event on the Monday evening.
I had gone to see the King of Fiction, himself, speak. He answered questions from the audience about the religions and minutiae of his world, and bantered merrily with the actresses from the television adaption about whether winter was truly coming. He held the entire Opera House in the palm of his hand, and we barely dared breathe, so desperate were we to catch his every word.
After the panel discussion, those who had paid six hundred dollars for the privilege of receiving autographs, having a chat, and being photographed with he and the actresses were instructed to line up on one side of the building. The cheaper-ticket holders were told that they could line up along the other side of the great Opera House for an autograph... if they wished to try their luck, and if the man himself felt so inclined as to hang around. It was evident that any autograph-dispersing on his behalf was utterly subject to whim, and not to duty. I contemplated not lining up for all of thirty seconds. Only when I recalled that I had nowhere better to be did I search for, and find, my friend in the line. By the time I reached the tail, it was already over a hundred people deep.
The people in the queue churned ahead of me silently, silent with a deferential awe as they approached the little table of the most renowned living fantasy writer on the planet. He signed each book placed before him with frenetic energy and within moments, the expectant fan would make for the front door, clutching their oh-so-cherished, autographed merchandise in shaking hands. As my book was handed over by an Opera House employee, I instinctively thanked the man himself for his time. He actually raised his gaze to look at me and my brain went crazy, urging me to be cool. I was so excited that I almost missed our entire conversation. He asked me if I had had a nice night, to which I replied: "Absolutely, it was amazing. I'm an aspiring author, and hearing you speak has made me want to go home and write like mad."
And George R.R. Martin said to me, "Then write! Never stop writing. Persevere, persevere!"
From then on, the challenge was not to simply "win" NaNoWriMo, but to write as much as I could and with as much energy as I could possibly muster. After all, George R.R. Martin himself had charged me with the duty.
The bare bones for my second novel, Love, Inc., was finished within a week of that moment. Though I harbour a subconscious terror that I am encountering a sophomore slump, I granted myself the permission to edit at a reasonable pace, one conducive to my time-poor lifestyle. I am no longer in a desperate hurry to prove that I can "finish", though by no means is that something to turn one's nose up at. Because the few throwaway words of advice from my favourite author reflect the equal blessing and curse of the writer: there is no finish line, no point whereupon we really feel that we have said enough. We write because the story is clawing at our insides, desperate to spring from the confines of our mind onto paper. And we want to be rid of it as if it were a parasite sucking us dry, because to hold onto it too long evokes the same dread as if we were squeezing an infant too tight. We love the story desperately, but until it is rendered in ink, it is not permanent, or fixed, or safe. To simply hope that we will remember its nuances is to guarantee forgotten details, or lost insight into the characters. When we are so cripplingly scared of putting our baby into words and rendering it vulnerable to criticism, we have already failed. The alternative is agony but it's the sweetest struggle there is.
Now that NaNoWriMo is over, I'm exhausted. Looking at my manuscript, which required an additional 7,000 words to pass my benchmark, I felt no desperation to churn the final, filler pages out. It is not the satisfaction of completion that motivates me, though it is an amazing sensation to see page upon page materialise by your hand. The process itself is magic. There is no feeling in the entire world quite like when the right words appear onscreen unconsciously, as if your fingers have been hijacked by a third party, and your characters are reacting to the world around them in ways that surprise even you. It's the writing that I hunger for, not the completed project. No matter how many books I write, there will only ever be one story: the one I am writing now.
So yeah, I guess I did conquer NaNoWriMo... but in many ways, NaNoWriMo conquered me, too. Because it slaughtered the pedant inside of me, allowing me to disregard deadlines or expectations of myself, and simply write. And given that the first tome of A Song of Ice and Fire was released the year that I was born, and the series shows no sign of being completed soon, I think my hero would approve.
Because everything on earth becomes trivial after the loss of a loved one, it only makes sense to go fully trivial, and bury yourself in the inanity of life. Rave at what really grinds your gears, only as long as they're at arms' length enough so as not to hurt you. Rail against the unfairness that small cars driven by female P-platers will almost always be more frequently tailgated than any other car or driver, that hangovers are getting worse, that music doesn't speak to you like it did when you were fourteen and every line from every song made you feel like you were going through a horrible break-up with someone you've never even met, but loved profoundly. And nothing, nothing is more trivial than lamenting that men are from Mars, and women are from Venus. So that's exactly what I'll do.
It's no secret that I'm a feminist. I'm okay with the title, though I'm not okay with the reaction that it elicits from other people. And if I wasn't entirely sure what being a feminist actually meant, I would be confused by my decision to be one, too. I absolutely adore silky, satiny, lacy underwear and shirk all undergarments in shades of beige with a disdain that Wall Street executives probably reserve for, well, poor people. I seriously contemplated buying a pink car, because the engine specs were decent, and as far as I recalled from my childhood, my Barbie never looked bummed out when I pushed her around in her giant, pink convertible. I got all giggly when I had the good fortune to meet Cosmo Jarvis, a musician so amazing that I foolishly struck up a conversation with him about the world's least-sexy topic... Reddit. Yeah. Talented and attractive people make me dopey.. If you were looking for quantifiers of femininity, it's safe to say that I'm a Girl with a capital G.
Being a feminist doesn't preclude me from these facets of my identity, which is sweet, because I wouldn't sacrifice them for any cause... well, except for the pink car bit, which ended up being an insane whim. Fun fact: most cars that come in pink are of a heinous shade, and can be bettered by other similarly-sized cars that aren't pushing for a twee "I don't know how to check my oil, I'm a girl!" demographic.
Being a feminist means acknowledging and accepting that there is something wrong with a status quo wherein women who are murdered receive less sympathy if they just so happen to be sex workers. It means finding it unsettling when female sexual predators are given more lenient sentences for the molestation of children than men, because "that's the luckiest ten-year-old-ever". It means believing that nobody, man or woman, should be mocked for asking for emotional support through a trying time.
On a tiny, trivial platform, it means understanding that some differences between men and women are inane, moronic, and unreasonable. It means acknowledging the sensitivities of the unspoken word and the implied negotiations between individuals, be they of the same gender or otherwise. In short: it means doing away with the fucking notion of the "friendzone."
For those unaware (or blessed by virtue of having never experienced unrequited infatuation), the friendzone is a simple concept: that if you play your cards incorrectly upon getting to know someone whom you are romantically interested in - that is, by not projecting your "best self" or someone else's self altogether - then you will be consigned to the friendzone, a dark and decrepit place in which you are forever to be seen as "nothing more than a friend." Every person who has ever been told "I care about you, but just want to be friends" by the object of their affection has felt the burn. Rejection is hard. But for some people, there is an inexplicable need to react to rejection with aggression. To denounce the spurning party for "only wanting jerks/sluts", allowing bitterness to taint any interactions with the object of one's desire until their intended paramour awkwardly extricates themselves from a poisonous man-o-war embrace. All the while, these sad, insecure people thrash around so wildly in the so-called friendzone that the entire friendship, which was a privilege and not a punishment, is decimated beyond repair.
Here's the dirty little secret to avoiding the friendzone: don't be an entitled jerk!
Sure, it's unfortunate when the person that makes you want to watch musicals and frolic in meadows isn't smitten for you. It's a bummer. Really. But guess what? That person was adult enough to be honest with you their feelings! They think you're a friend!! That means they want to be able to support you through ups and downs, as lovers and partners traipse in and out of your life through revolving doors, and hope for you to be a similar supporter for them on their adventure, too!!!
How can this kind of mutual respect and camaraderie seem like something "less" than dating when they're both completely awesome, albeit different, things?
This might be controversial, but I'm of the opinion that there is something far worse than the friend zone: being hefted bodily into the "girlfriendzone". You will know if you are currently in the girlfriend (or boyfriend) zone by the breadcrumb-trail of passive-aggressive implications that you're "leading [someone] on", or being resented if a friend or acquaintance's declarations of everlasting adulation aren't met with immediate enthusiastic reciprocity. In the girlfriendzone, "that's really sweet, but uh, that's not how I see you" is an invitation for the spurned to pursue you more aggressively, because whilst your words weren't encouraging, you didn't sound totally committed to the rejection. By contrast, stating plainly "I am not attracted to you" seemingly means "I'm literally a succubis, and the knowledge that I've broken your heart helps me get over the edge when I'm having evil, sinful bedtime hijinks with some other guy. Oh, and the guy is a handsome jerk. He probably plays some kind of team sport."
When we consign meaning to our interactions with the opposite (or same, or non-binary, whatever you like) sex, perceiving other people as potential nemeses with whom we must negotiate a relationship through butted heads and gender warfare only perpetuates the adversarial nature of dating. If people see one another as mere conquests, begging to be taken, they disregard the other person's autonomy through necessity. Nobody likes being told who or what they are. Is it not utterly entitled and patronising to imagine someone else telling you that they know what's best for you, even as they refuse to consult with you about it?
If the friendzone is a sad, poorly-lit room hosting a Lonely Hearts Club, the girlfriendzone (or boyfriendzone) is a noxious pit of snakes over which people suspend each other with Bond-villain level wickedness, declaring the ultimatum: "return my affections, or become dead to me!". When I think of it like that, I sure know where I'd rather be.
I'll be the first to admit that I've been guilty of the self-indulgent "why don't they like meeeeeee" pity party in the past. Spoiler alert: it did nothing for me. All it did was ostracise people who could readily have been good friends, if I hadn't set my scope so narrowly that I figured romance was all they had to offer me.
I dated someone for four years. We were friends for many more before that, despite the fact that he had feelings for me. To this day I'm not exactly sure why, but people who didn't know either of us particularly well felt invested in the slight that my friendship had inflicted on him. I was called all kinds of cruel names for my supposed "selfishness" by people who had never actually asked him how he felt about our friendship. I was blasted for confining such a "nice guy" to the friend zone, whilst still being so presumptuous as to enjoy his company. Yet when we finally had a discussion about the belligerence of those accusations, I was reassured that my friendship was more than enough for him... until one day, we both decided that it wasn't. And I'm sure that for neither of us were those years of friendship a waste of time. Not surprisingly, all the mud-slingers faded into obscurity sometime after, where they damn well belonged. And if we hadn't dated? Then heck, he'd have still been a good friend for however long we may have remained friends.
Since re-entering the land of single people, I won't lie, it's been interesting. It's a merciless meat market out here, though I'm having a blast. But in getting to know people whose intentions aren't always of the PG realm, I have had to learn to assert boundaries in a big way. And from various nasty little girlfriendzone experiences, I know enough about my principles that when somebody tries to guilt trip me or assert dominance over my favour, I recoil. Vocally. I'm less soft and malleable than I once was, but I like myself better this way. The people I've discarded for befriending me with ulterior motives were never really friends anyway, so it's not as if I've lost anything of value.
So when your heart gets all fluttery at the sight of a message from your pal, but its contents are a lamentation of the ways her boyfriend is being mean, and she just wants to hang out and be allowed to feel her feelings with a friend, don't immediately assume that it's some sick game. Because this is someone who has trusted you enough to be vulnerable around you, and, implicitly or explicitly, is optimistic that even if the boyfriend goes one day, you won't.
And when it's framed like that, does friendship really feel like such a second prize?
A peer from University turned to me at the tail end of my degree and asked me why she never saw me in any of the core Biomedical Science units. When I snorted with laughter, and explained that my degree was Global Arts, and am profoundly unskilled in the ways of extrapolating data from the prodding of poor little lab mice, she was shocked.
"There's no way you studied Arts," she gaped. I doubt she even knew she did it, but she uttered the title of my degree with an inadvertent curl of the lip, and a curious gaze, as if I had a second head that she had not, until that moment, ever properly noticed before. The emphasis said it all; indicating the clicking-over of every nub in the cogs if her mind.
I can't say I blame her for being surprised. I'm not offended by the implied elitism of a peer who has structured three years around hardcore microbiological science, particularly in contrast to some of my more creative, but less analytical units. I could pass for a left-brain learner, if you didn't spend too much time with me. All of my closest friends in undergrad studied Biomed, or Science, or Psychology. I had a key to the Biomed Society Office, and ran the Activities portfolio for two years in a row. Once someone gets me to talking about the so-called "legitimacy" of the autism-vaccines link hoax, I can argue about due scientific process until my opposition has been backed into a corner, cowering against the onslaught of my rage. I could pass for a Science student, until someone hands me a test tube and expects me to do... whatever people do with test tubes.
As a recent graduate, I didn't have much time to plot out the definitive arc of my future. Given I am prone to overexcitement about things in the distant future, and race through the days of anticipation like an overclocked wind-up toy, perhaps the lack of forethought was a good thing. I had decided on a career path, and a Masters by coursework was going to get me there, and I was going to use that leverage to ease myself into a swanky government job. With all of the responsible stuff out of the way, I'd be a hobbyist author who never needed to starve in order to create.
But you know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men. (Warning: if you're not familiar with the term, maybe don't try reading Steinbeck as an introduction. You will feel feelings you have never felt before, and most of them will overlap with soul-crushing anguish.) But a bit of feedback on my penultimate undergrad assignment threw a spanner in the works: "I seriously hope you're considering Honours." My best-laid plans went awry. They went awry hard.
The notion of Honours had almost always made me want to gag. Intensive research, heavy self-directed learning, no exciting coursework options where a diverse spread of great minds explain the nuances in their logic... I have tried to create a witty denigration of the concept, like "Chlorophyll, more like bore-ophyll!" but the best I could craft with was "Honours; more like Horrors." Insert bah-dum-tish at your leisure.
There was a different factor, however. Something I had been bullishly trying to ignore: the prestige. Not many people can so easily stroll into Honours. Before I knew it, I had two offers sitting in my email inbox, smiling malevolently: the invitation to undeetake my Masters, staring at me with puppydog eyes in the hopes I would not abandon it, and the offer for Honours, wearing a shit-eating grin that said, without saying "It was always going to be me, baby." So I abandoned the former in favour of the latter, and lost my meagre 3 weeks of holidays chasing up supervisors, course advisors, and spitballing thesis ideas. "After all," I told friends and family, "A thesis is only 18,000 words. Even multiplied four times, that's still less than my first novel." (Don't worry, I used a calculator.)
About a week from commencement, I became overwhelmed and realised that, given my severe weakness for not being able to put off until tomorrow what responsibility suggests I should do today, I was saddling myself up for an arduous, painful tilt. There would be backbreaking loads of research, a forfeiture of all my spare time to write, an inability to make time for fiction writing, and all for a career path that was okay, but not necessarily my true passion.
Some people have a natural gift to do one thing, with perfection. I am not one of those people. I'm impulsive and showy and everything is my all-time-favourite-thing, if only for twenty minutes. And a year of research for something I felt lukewarm about, at best? Well, you can see what inspired me to run from that commitment with nary a backwards glance before I fell in too deep.
I deferred the Honours program with the expectation that I may come back in a year, but my indecision about my future tainted my ability every look forward to it. I began a full-time job. I started at entry level, and was promoted twice in the span of a year. I was immediately besotted with the variety, the challenge that comes with my work never being the same two days in a row, the solidarity of my colleagues, the support, the room for growth, and that's before even considering the cashola.
But I'm a lifelong learner. I'm always hunting for some adventure. And just because I'm comfortable, it doesn't mean I'm done. I've merely delayed the question of what I want to do when I grow up for another day.
Career and academic options have crossed my mind, and I have dutifully disregarded them soon after. I've contemplated investigative journalism... but have, alas, become more and more jaded about committing to graduate studies in a bloated industry as the media monopoly throttles the most interesting parts of journalistic debate in Australia. I researched a journalism internship in Ghana, and it continues to cheep in the back of my mind, imploring me to do something risky. But I fear that this is merely the new branch of volountourism, where rich white kids go to somewhere "poor" and pose with turtles, poor kids, and other colonial clichés. I am wary of any program that will admit somebody with no prerequisite but for the few thousand dollars it would cost to go. There's not necessarily anything wrong with that, but it does beg the question as to what prerequisites these "global experience too-good-to-be-true" organisations do have.
There's always the option to undertake a degree in some realm of creative writing. But even I am enough of a realist to know a bad investment in my future when I see one. This is not to disparage on anyone whose career path has been moulded in this manner, bur rather to acknowledge my own shortcomings. The fact of the matter is that the book industry is discouraging at best, impenetrable at most brutally honest. There's nothing there for me. Editing and publishing are nice ideas, but in practice, I would tire quickly of reading the work of others in perpetual pursuit of grammatical errors and failure/ My sympathy threshold is too low to read a crappy manuscript without writhing in discomfort for its author. I can't study the hard and fast rules of writing without losing my lust for it. I'm not a formulaic person, for better or worse, and to have to nitpick every beautiful, perfect Oxford comma out of existence in somebody else's manuscript would be more than I could bear.
So what is an Arts graduate to do, after the dust has settled? I used to sneer at the lazy jokes about the uselessness of Arts degrees because I had a clearly-defined path in my mind. Now, they actually start to scrape at the sides. And I rage.
I rage against the baby boomers who refuse to retire to give Arts graduates graduate-level employment, and the digitisation of everything that makes genuine, honest freelancing accessible to so many people that one can't even give away their work for free. I rage against the university that gave me no vocational training, and the niggly little traits of my personality that exclude me, as if I have no choice, from chasing honourable pursuits like so many of my friends: ethics, squeamishness, an aversion to the corporate emphasis will likely always keep me at arms' length from conventional success. Because of these factors, and half a million others, a litany of exciting career paths beckon no more to me than the notion of sitting at home all day in beige-coloured underwear, eating cheese that's just that little bit too runny.
I can appreciate how privileged I am to have the freedom to abandon any one career path so easily, or two, if considering the academic one I discarded with all the fickleness of a sub-par student. Ever-present is the temptation to circumvent being a grown-up altogether, and merely stroll into the sunset with a bindle at my back. This is the fantasy that tickles me the most, right now. I have mapped a 24-month Around the World itinerary that encompasses all the irresponsible wayfaring a lass could ever want. I have set a financial target to activate the dream, which was only recently met in the wake of my most recent promotion. It is invigorating to know I could go at any moment, if I really wanted. But still I stay - working hard at my job, spending time with friends, grinding away at a trilogy. I like the space I am currently occupying. And the hardest part of being as spontaneous and ambitious as I am is accepting that there is nothing wrong with living in the present.
Truth be told, I'm happy. I'm flaky and uncertain, but I am only young. I have a whole realm ahead of me to explore. As soon as I crawl out of my own head and the hunger for adventure takes over, my degree is only going to be a stepping stone, bunched with dozens of other stepping stones, that leads me down the garden path to the grown-up I one day want to be.
And when I think about it like that, there's no science in the world that can configure away my optimism.
Recently my mother gave me the intellectual equivalent of asking me to help her choose a puppy: to collect for her a series of articles explaining why feminism still hasn't "fixed it all" yet, and why young people (read: not girls, ladies, or women, but any and all genders) still have an aching need for equality. It was so hard to know where to start, I became quickly overwhelmed. I'm constantly posting interesting articles about human rights and equality on Facebook, which presumably has lost me many a virtual friend in my time... though I couldn't say how many "friends" with which I had started, so it's not particularly upsetting. But I digress.
It's funny how gender equality, as a passion, snuck up on me. As a teenager I was extremely passionate about virtually every meaty human rights issue there was, but considered the feminist movement "done" after the suffragettes sorted out all the contraceptive/right to vote business.
Teenage me was a heck of a cynic. She balked from extreme binaries and loved to advocate for the devil. Many examples come to mind. After all, it is not the victims, rather than perpetrators, of physical and sexual violence who are blamed for their abuse. And it's not like men still capitalise on seduction guides that dictate on how to commodify women, appropriately belittle and intrigue them, and then push their physical comfort barriers because consent isn't about enthusiasm, but about ensuring that a man doesn't stop escalating physical contact until he can "make the ho say no." It's not like people still make jokes about outdated gender roles by telling an assertive woman to "get back into the kitchen". Nobody complains that men are emasculated by the existence of women in gaming, or engineering, or politics.
Oh, wait a minute.
Feminism still has a metric fuckton of equality to achieve.
Believe it or not, those examples are only the tip of the iceberg. That form of sexism is slimy and unpleasant, but relatively easy to identify and call as being overt. It's rare that anyone won't agree that it is deplorable that in Australia alone, one woman will die every week at the hands of a partner, or ex-partner. But the insidious undercurrent of sexism is what sees these stories become framed as "he was under so much pressure/he snapped/she goaded him/this is a men's mental health issue more than it is a domestic violence issue." Feeling your jimmies rustling as you read that contention? Boom. Point proven. People don't like to confront their own ingrained sexism. Heck, my fingernails gouged deep grooves in the floorboards of my mind as I was dragged, by logic, through a metamorphosis into proud feminist.
It's a harsh truth, but sexism is deeply rooted everywhere, even in the most seemingly "civilised" of cultures. It's in the millisecond-long pause before you commit to a gender-trope-heavy punchline, and the moment when a woman is heckled from a car and struggles to establish whether it should be flattery, or offensive. It's in the need for women to be amiable, polite, and never abrasive. Because to be abrasive is to be a leader, and a woman "acting like a man" is abominable.
When I discovered the Everyday Sexism project, it took a lot of self restraint not to bubble over with excitement as I read men and women recount moments that made them feel as if they were constrained by their gender to accept behaviours of others that made them uncomfortable.
I have the fortune of being seven years older than my younger sister. This allows me freedom to not worry about needing to impress her friends, all of whom have seen me slob around in a dressing gown so often that I suspect my sister tells them that I lost all my clothes in a suspiciously-concentrated fire. Simultaneously, she's razor-sharp, and we have some awesome conversations. But best of all, above any sisterhood: I got to have Christmastime tradition far, far longer than anybody I've ever met. And it's been ace.
When I was sixteen, our family went for the annual family photo with a mall Santa. It's been a tradition in our family for over twenty years, and the album captures, in one snapshot a year, my every awkward teenage phase of my life. But age sixteen was a special year, and not in a jolly way. Because Santa took one look at my mother and I, and insisted we sit in his lap, whilst my sister, aged nine, stood to the side.
You thought I was kidding? Hell, no. We still have the photo, complete with awkward-as-fuck grimaces.
When I think back on that moment now, all I can feel is revulsion. Revulsion that some disgusting old dude in a fleecy fake beard exploited a happy family moment so he could get a sneaky grope in the one context where nobody wants to shatter the suspension of disbelief, and call out his bullshit in front of a child.
That is everyday sexism.
When I was walking through a narrow doorway at 8pm in a pub, and some guy going through the door the other way shot his hand out and groped my crotch for one, fleeting moment. That was everyday sexism. Not because he liked the look of my body - I doubt he even gave me a second glance before that moment - but because I was a woman who dared exist in a public space, arrogantly exuding the confidence of someone whose body is my own. He clutched at my pelvis not because it did anything sexual for him. He violated my space, and then the space of the girl next to me a split-second later, because he wanted to feel the power of depriving me of mine.
When I was walking down a residential street one beautiful summer's day at age fourteen and was flagged down by some stranger in a car who told me that my "legs were hot" and asked if I'd get in and go for a coffee with him. That was everyday sexism, too... but at least he had the good grace to drive off quick-smart when I blurted out my age with shock and condemnation dripping from every syllable. And it pains me to add this disclaimer, but no, there is no chance on earth that Scarlett circa 2005 looked even remotely close to over 18. The need to clarify that as some form of self-justification is part and parcel of the pervasiveness of everyday sexism.
It is in my ex-boyfriend curling his lip in offence at my desire not to take somebody else's name. It is in political enemies of my employer crying "who will do the work when she is on maternity leave?" and then, "she isn't taking maternity leave! What kind of mother abandons her family like that?". It is in the jokes of my friends who praise the windy campus of my alma mater which causes the skirts of pretty girls to fly overhead, as if the internet is not rife with women who would happily consent to showing your their underwear, and all else under it as well, without violating their comfort zones. It is in men being told that they need to don a stiff upper lip, because crying is for women and being vulnerable is for homosexuals.
Or maybe it's something as simple as: "Women have got it fine. Feminists just being pissy because they're too equal now, and they're making things up to elevate themselves above men."
I guess what I'm trying to say that if any of this strikes a chord with you, I'd encourage you to talk to your friends and family about the everyday sexism that they have experienced, or witnessed. It might actually surprise you how much of the things you say and do are dictated by gender roles. And there's no better time to call this shit out.
After all, who wants to live in a world where a teenage girl could ever start a story with: "Have you ever been groped by Santa?"
There's something peculiar about aspiring authors. It's unique by contrast to almost every other profession, aside from perhaps how American Psycho depicts Wall Street bankers. An illogical paradox granted that success does not require hierarchical beat-downs of one's competition, as is common in other industries, but rather an intelligent channelling of creativity and appropriate marketing. It is a scourge on the creative world to bear witness to the insane jealousy between struggling artists, who see not only their peers as inferior to them ("I can't believe she got an agent with such a cheesy story, when mine is so much better!"), but already-successful authors too ("Audiences really are getting stupider if that's winning prizes.")
Such toxic envy is baffling to me. Sure, the green-eyed monster stirred in my belly slightly when a peer was signed by an agency that doesn't even accept manuscripts, and was thereafter picked up by Random House. But it took no effort to put the jealousy from my mind and be happy for her. The magnitude of her success is audacious. She was the only author that her agent signed in the last year, which is testament to the quality of her work. Opportunity didn't fall into her lap; she wrote something, and pitched it well, and she reaped the rewards of being good at it.
There are many people more qualified to write than I am. Some have undertaken Creative Writing degrees, and have years of editing experience, but it's not always that easy. I've met many people who say they "should" be an author, but have written nothing. I feel for them, because the muse can be fickle sometimes. But when someone from such a background turned his lip up at me and said something to the effect of, "I'm working towards producing good writing. Maybe you should have considered getting an education in the industry to produce better work too," I peaced out pretty hard. I know it likely stemmed from insecurity on his behalf, but that's not my problem and his childish reaction did not incline me towards feeling sympathetic.
Elitism about what constitutes "good writing" in the published world irks me more than much else. I can't justify the prevalence of tall poppy syndrome amongst aspiring authors towards those who know success. Writing blogs relentlessly tear strips from people like Dan Brown and E.L. James, but to my mind, their work has a valid place in the world. Because it's making readers out of people who would not pick up a book otherwise.
I love to read. I've read hundreds, maybe even thousands of books, and even if the narrative is absolutely killing me, I'll generally try to commit to the end. Even when a book, in my respectful opinion, sucks, it doesn't mean I can't see the merit in it for other people. My taste is not the barometer for all that is sacred in the literary world.
So when people refer to Dan Brown's books as meaningless pap, I can't help but cock an eyebrow. I appreciate that some people prefer to read dense, non-fiction accounts of history rather than tearing through Rome chasing assassins, but I'm not an academic of Roman history. I'm a fiction reader. And people are supposed to have fun with those types of books, because regardless of their failures to be realistic or historically accurate of whatever, at their core, they're entertaining. What's more invigorating than conspiracy, or subterfuge, or a world of intrigue that could easily slip into our own? I don't mind winching my suspension of disbelief a few degrees higher for some books. It's the non-restrictive nature of fiction that makes it so fun.
Admittedly, I haven't read 50 Shades of Grey, which was gifted to me for my 21st birthday in a swathe of gag gifts. The spine remains uncracked, and the cheeky troll face my friends glued into the corner of the front cover continues to leer at me, inviting me into a world where nobody understands the difference between BDSM and rape, and everybody murmurs.... well, everything they ever say.
Just because 50 Shades of Gray does not interest me, it doesn't mean I can't appreciate its value. It was picked up by a publishing house after being self-published, which is essentially unheard of. Whilst I take issue with some of the interpretations of kink, which blur the lines between consent and non-consent, I suppose it is engaging conventionally disinterested readers with literature again. At least until the film gets made.
If the power-dynamic of authors, agencies and publishers is framed like a nuclear family, then authors would have to be the children. Jealousy is what causes them to grapple with spiteful sibling rivalry, perpetually trying to usurp all others to land some parental approval. But in reality, other authors are not to be blamed for someone being kept at arms' length from their dreams. This blame lies with the agents, the ambivalent parent figure who chain-smokes whilst reading dense academic theses, looking up only to criticise the story of a fairy princess that the child has written in crayon. And though the author may have worked hard their manuscript, an agent will not lavish praise where it is undeserved. Nobody likes their work to be denigrated. In my humble opinion, this is why people equate the success of other in the literary world to their own failure.
The envy does not truly stem from a feeling of injustice, that the wrong authors are being picked up. It is instead a systemic bloat wherein a competitive industry is inundated with talent, and slush, alike. So-called "hacks" like Dan Brown or E.L. James do not strike gold in the publishing world because agents somehow loathe the craft of writing and want to drown the world in pulp. Authors need to accept agents and publishers know their stuff. If one's work isn't to a standard worthy of praise, it should only fuel the fire to work harder.
Whether they like it or not, literary snobs need to face up to a hard truth: good bad books are good for books, full stop. They encourage the industry to produce content, forces authors to be more innovative in their work, and encourage people who might not otherwise read to pick up a book. It can be a bitter pill to swallow, the revelation that the only way to be better is to dust oneself off, solicit the bejesus out of the manuscript, and stop seeing the success of others as an indictment on oneself. It's scary to render one's heart and soul in ink and put it on the line for criticism. But if it yields some form of success or other, what right should anyone else have to say that you don't deserve it?
I've learned something amazing, recently. It probably isn't anything novel to people who spend a lot of time around young 'uns, but despite the fact I am one of those people, I'm still surprised. My contention is simple: kids have the capacity to be goddamn brilliant.
Yes, I'm fully aware that this isn't anything special, as far as revelations go. But as a loosely-defined "adult", a label that is wantonly discarded whenever my parents declare that "the children get first choice of dessert", I spend a lot of time chatting to kids on their own level. I've au paired in France, worked as a Disney Princess for birthday parties, and grown up in an eclectic Italian-Maltese family with cousins out the wazoo. I am perfectly comfortable talking with children on their developmental level.
But when a child talks to me on mine... well, frankly, I get a little giddy with excitement.
Let me set the scene. Chilly morning, caught in the lull between Autumn's descent and Winter's rise. Sheepskin moccasins, as ugly as they are comfortable. A newspaper article that states, much to my surprise, that Chelsea Manning, still known to the world back then as Bradley, is being brought to trial leaking classified military documents to Wikileaks. Manning is a divisive figure for many, particularly on my most beloved cesspool of Reddit, where many left-wing Americans still fire up with fury at the mention of her name.
To set the scene further, let me introduce my cousin: a beautiful, doe-eyed little dreamer, who sits beside me on our dimpled, brown leather couch that can be found in virtually everybody's home, and asks me about the person in the picture.
I'm a firm believer that children can ask no question undeserving of an answer, though admittedly this might just be borne of my stamina in not being around them the full, exhausting 24/7. I did my best to explain the nuts and bolts of the case, without insinuating my own stance on it. Given my passion for social justice and international politics, it probably comes as a shock to many that I managed to have such a conversation without preaching.
It would have been easy to detail why I had come to the conclusions that I had, but it was a deliberate decision to refrain that saw me listing nothing but a general summary of the facts, in a manner palatable for a young person to digest. I wanted to use this opportunity to teach her how to think, not what to think. And it was so much more rewarding than preaching my own ideas. She sifted through all the information in her sharp little mind, and developed her own unique opinion... and it made perfect sense, because it was steeped in fact, not hyperbole and a desire to please me.
Her questions became increasingly complex, and soon I was explaining a litany of other factors involved in Manning's case. Before long, I found myself explaining the purpose of Wikileaks, the relevance of Julian Assange, how embassies operate, the basics of extradition, and the ethics of releasing military information to the public at large. Question by question, she unravelled everything I knew about the issue, and even cautiously queried about America's allies. Yes, she knew the word "ally".
After a long pause, she tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear and turned to me.
"Why didn't she send the information to America's allies, so they could tell America to stop doing whatever bad things they were doing? Then the information wouldn't be given to everyone, and they couldn't say she was giving it to America's enemies."
My answer was less sophisticated, by way of a dropped jaw. At age ten, my cousin had independently developed her own interpretation of international diplomatic pressure.
And then, because apparently she hadn't boggled my mind enough, she stumped me double by asking what I knew about "Israel's war".
I suppose it's the ultimate human vanity to want to have kids just to make them into miniature versions of you. I've always raised eyebrows when people talk of their excitement to have a little person moulded in their likeness. Yet as I was being challenged by her thoughtful, interested questions, it was tempting to tumble headfirst into such a trap. The world didn't need it, but if I had wanted, I could have begun a campaign to mould her into a tiny Scarlett, equal parts social justice-mad and tempered by logic.
But I resisted the urge. I gave her the facts, and when she wanted to know my opinions, I made it clear that there was no right answer, and I could easily be wrong.
When the conversation concluded, she gave me a huge hug and said, "Thank you so much for helping me understand. I want to know all about this stuff when I grow up, like you. I really loved learning about all this."
I guess have it both ways. I took such great pains not to convert her into a mini-me, but by virtue of being the only person in the extended family with an all-consuming passion for this stuff, I guess the decision wasn't mine to make. Because she is like me. She's better than me. And it would be the utmost vanity to think I had a single thing to do with it.
You know when you're knee-deep in work, and you feel like despite ratcheting up the "crazy scale"* more and more everyday, you're just failing all over the place at being a normal human being? I'm talking about that feeling that the minute you achieve something small, you realise your achievement was a globule of spit in the great roaring bushfire of your workload.
In my world, it goes: you get your readings for classes under control (whoops, speaking of which...), you have to rush off to one of your two paid jobs; or pop into a Google Hangout/meeting for one of your two volunteer jobs; or your father accurately describes your bedroom as a "brothel", (which, fun fact, is a legitimate synonym for "messy"); you have a class presentation to make in the same week as three lengthy essays are due; your gym membership is going to waste because you went and fell down the stairs and messed up your foot so you limp like a cross between a bad pirate impersonator and Bigfoot stuck in a bear trap; and you haven't washed your clothes (or yourself) for a suspiciously long time... and, most unforgivable of all, it's taken you five days to watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones.
Well, that's the level of pandemoniac I rock on a regular basis. I know it all may be manageable if I were to drop maybe one or two of my four external time commitments that fall loosely beneath the category of "paid/unpaid work", but in truth, I am in my element. It probably has something to do with the adrenaline rush that comes with teetering on the precipice of madness. I enjoy knowing that I've got more commitments than I should be able to handle, but the wheels are refusing to fall off. I'm the little engine that could, motherfucker. Toot toot.
Many of you probably know the amazing pop anthem of energetic apathy, "I Love It." You know, the one about driving bridges into cars or some such business. It is the victory song that I wish I could have written myself, if I'd had more than three years of recorder lessons... and before you get into it: yes, I am aware that the minimum primary school requirement for recorder lessons was one year. For some misguided reason I thought that I had picked the one musical instrument would never fade into obscurity.
The thing that I love so much about this song is that it has maybe all of six different lines, which I simply can't seem to recall when I'm enthusiastically rocking out. I riff the lyrics without a self-consciousness or capability, and ten out of ten times, the words mangle badly. But I don't let that stop me, because I'm stubborn as a mule, and "I Love It" is my victory song!
And sing it I did upon the moment wherein I tapped the final sentence of my novel, and pressed the image of the floppy disk that signifies a bygone era.
Yes, dear friends, readers, acquaintances, stalkers, and that one random family member who might accidentally stumble across this post whilst practice-Googling my name to make sure that my cyber-footprint is concealed to protect me from baddies:
I have finished "Softly Screamed the Devil".
Upon raw completion, it clocked in at a solid 345 pages in length, but its girth has shifted frequently with each of its, thus far, six full edits. Writing a book is hard, no doubt about it, but editing is work. The time-vacuum kind. The "can't multitask doing this" kind. Therefore, I'm all about it.
Despite my life being fifty shades of cray on the time-management front, I'm loving nigh on everything. Admittedly, I'm not shameless in the way an author should be when it comes to pitching my own work, so the next insurmountable obstacle will be to let people who aren't my Nonno or my agent actually read it. But that can be "tomorrow Scarlett"'s job. Today Scarlett is busy.
*Not crazy-hot, just crazy. Because if you saw the split-ended, curtains-wide-open fringed, pimply yet dry-skinned mess I have become, your first thought would be "Damn, girl", but for all the wrong reasons.
To the acquaintance who suggested I was bulimic because I sometimes went to the bathroom after lunch;
To the mother of a high-school boyfriend, who asked me when I was going to get my pigeon-toed walk fixed;
To the girls who mocked the way I spoke, likening me to the pedophile from Family Guy, until I left a party in tears;
I'm sick of the way that self-loathing, and all the heady analyses it incites, has seeped into every facet of civilisation. This new era of hyper self-criticism is not limited specifically to women, though they are the predominant victims. People from all walks of life can be found second-guessing individual features their appearance, noticing something about their body, and then, in the split second after, trying to make a judgement of something that does not demand it: "Wait, is this 'good' or 'bad'?"
And it's hard, isn't it, when fashion changes too fast to even keep up with the ideal body? The 80's was the age of the heroin-chic look, which requires no explanation. Those of my generation are probably more familiar with the very carefully constructed trope of exoticism, where cookie-cutter white girls were supplanted by cookie-cutter Hispanic and black girls. It's not my place to say whether this shift was a good or bad development for minority women, because I don't have the lived or academic experience to be sure, but I can appreciate how hard it is to be perceived as exotic. There are so many extra clauses to accommodate. For women, it's generally a need to be top-and-bottom heavy, but with a tiny waist. Blowjob lips are a plus, but hairlessness is a prerequisite.
Though I'm undoubtedly the palest family member of my Mediterranean lineage, I can assure you this on behalf of my extended family: these specifications are near-impossible unless you've already conquered the genetic lottery... and even then, you'd have to solicit a little help from your local beautician to get the hair thing under control.
It seems nobody remembers that give or take some decades, a century, and a totally different geographical location, (since Australia was not yet the land of bush-pigs and convicts), it was chic to be pale and rotund. Just as Rubens. Pale skin exemplified a charmed life, where one was not required to labour in the sun. To be large was testament to your wealth, because you weren't starving.
But centuries change, trends change, and people internalise shame for things that should not make them feel ashamed. This live in an era where even "real beauty campaigns" make people self-loathe further. Why else would these shoots comprise entirely gorgeous models with flawless skin, teeth and hair who dance around at 170cm and size twelve, harbouring the pretence that they represent the stretch-marked, mole-smattered, flat-arsed masses.
Nobody questions the purpose of nasty, paparazzi-style analysis of other peoples' bodies much anymore, either. It's become a standard that we've accepted and internalised as part and parcel of humanity. There's a far more sinister, below-board bullying that pervades social interactions between millenials. It doesn't have a name, but it's easy to spot: a subversive critique of another person's appearance or mannerisms under the guise of friendly banter. It's a way of blindsiding someone, leaving them self-conscious, winded, and pathologising their every feature. I've been on the receiving end... and boy, it hurts.
Teenage me was a dancer, and extremely skinny despite an overzealous habit of devouring two or three king-size Crunchie bars a day. I can't count how many times people asked me whether I had an eating disorder to my face. Admittedly, some of those people might have been jealous and just wanted to bring me down a peg, but what irked me the most about these remarks was that if I objected to having my body policed by someone else, suddenly the fault was mine. After all, I "couldn't take a compliment".
Having friends who have grappled for enormous chunks of their lives with eating disorders, I would never want to perpetuate somebody else's shame-cycle. To be dressed down for objecting to someone being overtly rude is just beyond belief. And yet some people are so offended by somebody else taking offence to their offensive statement. Do you see the predicament here?
I was lucky to have an amazing mother, who kept my self-perception in check by reminding me that my body would eventually "catch up" to the size it was meant to be. If she hadn't, I would have been horrified to one day wake up on the wrong side of 50 kilograms. It's scary to imagine becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy of self-loathing that other people so desperately hoped I would be. I'm not arrogant enough to think that I was above falling into such a snare, because although the constant critique of my body was upsetting, it fed into itself. What I didn't expect was how deeply self-conscious I began to feel when it... well... stopped.
I didn't throw the yoke of scrawniness off until university, which should have been exciting, right? Except that there's something about those negative feedback loops that makes you feel like that even if you don't agree with them, you should. I tuned into seemingly subconscious thoughts that fluctuated between "I have boobs and a waist, hurrah!" to "blergh, my thighs rub when I walk" and "my arms seem to be the only ones on earth that don't look slimmer when I do that stupid hand-on-hip pose for photos." Like that was the sum total of what my body was capable of. What a sad thought process.
It's so strange to think all I ever wanted were curves, but that when I got them, the line between "ideal" and "fat" seemed to blur in my silly little mind. I joined a gym (fun!) and a had brief flirtation with calorie-counting (less fun), and long before my weight shifted, something else did: my self-perception. Because this body, with or without a box-gap, is the only one I've got. I've realised that pathologising perfectly normal parts of my body is exhausting, not to mention self-indulgent. And for all my research into stupid fitness regimens and diets, I've realised that none of it matters if I have enough self-esteem to refuse to buy into it.
So it comes down to the only question that actually matters: can I be happy the way I am? I think I can.
I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a voice in the back of my mind that had spruiked its discontent at the idea of me accepting myself. But I try not to heed it anymore, because it's a product of the world around me. It's not what I really believe.
When I realised all of this, I made assertive, though truly terrifying, changes, such as flat-out refusing to compare my body to those of celebrities anymore. I seldom weigh myself, and value my body instead by how I confident I feel when I play dress-ups, and how bendy it will let me be in yoga classes.
But my reckless pursuit of self-satisfaction did not end there.
My lifelong project is to prune myself of poison. That means cutting out self-loathing thoughts and cancerous connections as they arise. If I'm being cheeky, I'd call it trimming the fat. After all, what's more detrimental to your self-worth than people who make you hate yourself?
So to the person who pointed out flaws I didn't know I had: get ssssssssssstuffed. With as big a lisp as I can muster, my left foot pivoting inward, and both my middle fingers raised high.
Author's note for the curious: In the year or so since writing this post, I have shed 8 kilograms, a viper nest of friends, and a boy... and I've never been happier.
Scarlett Hawkins writes novels... But in her spare time, she writes rants.