The most famous song by one of the most famous bands in the world is an ode to self-doubt.
“You're insecure”, it begins. It's a funny - and vaguely patronising - assumption. But, even darker, it feels a bit like a command. "Don't know what for” the boys chime out, suggesting that you are far better-looking than you realise. "You don’t know you’re beautiful”, sing the five members of One Direction in joyful harmony: “that’s what makes you beautiful”.
In the autumn of 2011, the song was everywhere. Wherever you went, you would hear it, and even if you hated the song, even if you hated One Direction and everything they stood for, you would find yourself humming along. These songs - and the messages behind them - may seem like fluff. But they matter. They sneak their way into our psyche and stay there.
Amy Schumer, who parodied this song in her Comedy Central sketch show, has formed an enormously successful career around the “averageness” of her own appearance. Her film “I Feel Pretty”, received a huge backlash online. The joke of the film was that Schumer takes a knock to her head in spin class. She wakes up and - guess what! - she thinks she’s as ravishing as a supermodel. Most of the film's criticism was based around Schumer not being ‘ugly enough’ to play a character who is defined by her plainness. So Schumer, constantly weathering criticism for her weight and unconventional looks, makes a film about it. In the reviews for the light-hearted comedy film (light-hearted comedy film, guys) Schumer is accused of being too pretty, thin and white to say anything about the issue at all. Had Jack Black made the same film (guess what - he did!) it would be received entirely differently: as a goofball comedy, not a political thesis.
Seven years ago, Samantha Brick, a C list columnist for the Daily Mail, went viral for writing an article about her own irresistible physical appearance. In it, she played the role of Disney Baddie, writing bombastically about the “downsides to being pretty”, namely “other women hate me for no other reason than my lovely looks.” Brick, of course, was widely vilified, dismissed as nowhere near attractive enough to complain about beauty’s downsides. In 2010, Jessica Alba, widely agreed to be one of the most aesthetically blessed women on Earth, told GQ UK that "every actress out there is more beautiful than me. All better looking than me. I've seen them without makeup, so I know." Both women received wide criticism, from all ends of the political spectrum, for speaking candidly about their own appearance.
So, it seems, that women are not allowed to say they are beautiful (especially if they are not, according to general public opinion.) It seems, too, that women are not allowed to say they are ugly (especially if they are not, according to general public opinion.) Any kind of explicit declaration about one’s looks, whether you are gorgeous, ugly, or somewhere in-between, is imbued with moral meaning.
Jameela Jamil is an actress and TV presenter with a lot to say about 21st century beauty standards. Recently, she took a stand against celebrities like the Kardashians, who use their Instagram accounts to sell products like laxative teas promising weight loss to their hundreds of millions of (mostly female, mostly very young) followers. These products are often unproven to result in real weight loss, and their long-term health effects are mostly unregulated. These celebrities take advantage of the insecurity women feel as they scroll through Instagram, profiting from a dubious promise: buy this tea, and you can look like this. Buy this tea, and you can live like I do. Buy this tea, and you will have this power.
Jamil saw something she did not like, and used her platform to speak out against it. Jamil, as she is often, was criticised for biting the hand that feeds her by preaching body positivity activism while, simultaneously, being a Highly Attractive Lady.“If you aren’t “conventionally pretty” whatever that is or who got to decide what it is, and you speak out, you’re “jealous and bitter” and given no platform. If you do meet societal standards, you’re too pretty to speak up. Clever way to silence us ALL eh?” she tweeted, deftly outlining the beauty paradox. There is no ‘right’ way to escape these pressures. Whether we are gorgeous or not, thin or not, young or not, our looks are used to silence us.
Beauty, then, is a poisoned chalice. If stunning waifs like Jamil speak out, detractors will ask how she can critique the system that made her.
But not being attractive is worse. It is incredibly unlikely that, if a woman does not possess ‘conventional’ beauty, she will have a platform to express her views publicly at all. When we hear what a woman thinks in the mass media, it is most likely to be next to a beautiful photograph of them on p3 of the Evening Standard or in quote marks on the front cover of a fashion magazine. Physically flawless women - by and large - are the ones we care about, talk about, think about, and listen to in modern-day pop culture.
We can see evidence of this paradox in the ways women are encouraged to behave in their day-to-day lives. Women know that we should accept free drinks and meals, but act surprised and defiant. We should be desired but shy about our own desire, clever but not knowingly clever, funny but only accidentally, flirtily so. There is a still a shame attached to making an effort with one’s appearance - to put on makeup in public, to spend too much money on cosmetic treatments, to lie under a sunbed, to buy a laxative tea because Kourtney Kardashian told us too - so women are forced to be covert. We must be enchanting but without any evidence that we tried. We must be beautiful but unaware of our beauty, as though it happened by accident. But beauty almost never does.
Thinking about this paradox, that haunts women from the onset of puberty until our final days, can be depressing. It can make us want to throw up our hands and give up, not saying things because saying things is exhausting. But, viewed a different way, it can be liberating. If we are criticised for whatever we say and whatever we do, we may as well do what we want.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge, an actor and writer who has gained enormous success for creating female stories that embrace women’s idiosyncrasies, spoke on the podcast "How To Fail" about women losing ourselves in the ‘gloom of self-loathing’ as we age out of our beautiful years: “there’s a message from society...that’s teaching us to hate ourselves...I’ve always felt like that was a way of controlling us. And when I realised they were trying to control me that flipped my rebellious switch”.
We are afraid to call ourselves beautiful because we know that to own our value is to lose it. But there is power in certainty. There is a power in making a decision about what we are and refusing to budge. There is power in being fit and knowing it. So, on top of Women’s Marches and #metoo statuses and sharing petitions on Facebook, let self-love and self-knowledge - loud, untamed, obnoxious - be our act of disobedience.
Written by Matilda Curtis
Illustrated by India Boxall