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Saturday, 14 April 2012

On Scars

It was slightly surprising - but not altogether unexpected - that on the weekend when my book The Sex Myth has its first excerpt and interview in the Telegraph that "feminists" would immediately take objection. Interestingly though the shape this appears to have followed, rather than an actual criticism of work I have done or books I have written, is a number of nasty "terrible skin" remarks about me from lady columnists who really ought to know better.

It speaks volumes about the preoccupations of critics that when faced with a woman whose attitudes, thought processes, and life experience are almost orthogonal to their own their first response is to criticise her looks. I am not conventionally attractive, but to paraphrase Steve Martin: when presented with all this, that's the best you can come up with?

Last year I wrote a commentary on the ubiquitous blogging that was going on surrounding the bullying of feminist bloggers. As I pointed out then, bullying does not only happen to feminists, and some of the people who were getting group hugs out of being the victims of trolling have themselves trolled other people. (Top tip: just because you write above the line doesn't make you not a troll. @'ing someone in to your insults of them on Twitter? Does.)

So to make explicit in case it was not clear: I will never ridicule someone I disagree with because of their looks. If you can't craft a sensible argument against someone's thoughts and actions and have to go for the low-hanging fruit instead, you have failed at rational discourse. And arguably also failed at feminism.

I wrote previously about the experience of having facial scars on my original blog but have since taken that content down. However Emily Hornaday archived it and so I reprint it here. If you are someone who is going through a rough time confidence-wise, please know that while haters never, ever change, how you feel about yourself will. It really does get better. (Update: I have also written about this theme for Guardian Weekend magazine.)

mercredi, janvier 13

Let me tell you about the best gift I ever received. And it's not a bit of sparkly jewellery, or a shiny car, or even a thoughtful trinket of affection.

I'm talking about my scars.

I had terrible acne as a teenager. By the age of 16 it was so bad a dermatologist said it was the worst she'd ever seen, which, ya know, is not super encouraging. At the hospital where I volunteered mothers pulled their children away from me, convinced I was plagued with something contagious. Strangers avoided making eye contact.

It was so bad I could not wash my face without bleeding. Many mornings I woke up stuck to the pillowcase. And oh yeah, it was only on my face. Not one blemish anywhere else on my body. To this day, I still never have seen a photo of anything like it - apart from some daguerrotypes of smallpox patients.

It was a very long, and very expensive, journey to improving my skin - remember, this all went down in America where having a disfiguring condition you have no control over is not covered by health insurance, and duh, there's no NHS.

Long story short a lot of Roaccutane and Dianette did for the acne. And more importantly here's what I learned:

1. Beauty is fleeting. Thank fuck for that.

I had a narrow escape from being just another boring blonde - not to mention an early release from the cycle of self-hatred and frantic desperation that plagues many women as they age. Corollary 1a: The larger part of how people perceive you is how you present yourself.

2. People can be hurtful to strangers. That's their problem.

My best childhood mate had spina bifida. She walked on sticks and refused to use a wheelchair for reasons I only started to appreciate years later. Looking like a medical oddity gave me, for a very brief time, a very small taste of what she encounters every day of her life. It made me pity people who equate someone's appearance with their value as a person. This generalises magnificently to strangers judging you for, in fact, anything at all. Corollary 2a: The most vocal critics are often the most insecure.

3. Other people have things you don't. Big deal.

There is no such thing as the Most Beautiful Woman in the World (sorry Buttercup). Who cares? What is considered desirable is not especially worth getting hung up on. You may not be a six-foot Amazon so will never have legs up to your neck - but for all you know, that same supermodel would give her left arm to have your hair. This concept generalises to wealth, success, talent, and intelligence as well. Corollary 3a: Envy of other women's looks is a zero-sum game, and uses far too much time and energy to be bothered with.

4. Quality of love is not a function of attractiveness.

Elizabeth Taylor, for instance, has been married eight times. Beautiful people have dry spells and get their hearts broken like everyone else. The most worthwhile and loving relationships in my life all happened after my skin problems. And for what it's worth, I've been fortunate to date some pretty nice, smart (and attractive) men in my time. See Corollary 1a above.

5. Confidence doesn't come overnight.

It also doesn't happen in a vacuum; it requires nurturing. As with anything else worth having it's work. But let me tell you, it is so worth the work. A mate recently told me about a magazine 'happiness quiz' in which one of the questions was, "are you comfortable with your body, and do you exercise regularly?" If you can see why this should not have been a single question, you're on the way. Corollary 5a: Confidence happens when you let it happen. No one gives it to you, which is great, because it also means they can't take it from you.

6. When someone says I am beautiful, they really, really mean it.

There is something about knowing someone sees you, quirks and all, and likes what they see... something rare and kind of overwhelming (in a good way). 'Beautiful' is one of those words (a bit like 'awesome') that has lost meaning in being overused as a generic affirmative. We call all sorts of people beautiful in one sentence and tear them down in the next. I'm happy to be different enough that anyone who uses it to describe me sees more than just hair and makeup.