The beauty myth and me…

January 24, 2012 § 13 Comments


…or “The terror of eschewing Photoshop”.


I often feel like I’ve failed, somewhat, at being convincingly male because of just how hard I’ve found it to throw off expectations of idealised “feminine” beauty. Luscious hair. Pouting lips. Perfect skin. All the time – no exceptions, no flaws, no excuses. Despite knowing it for the bigoted bullshit it is. Despite not wanting to look typically female. It goes very deep. And it’s something I’ve been wrestling with since the photoshoot for Ashes and the gradual publication of the pictures (and very beautiful pictures they are too – all thanks to Robin Conway). Because we didn’t use Photoshop. I couldn’t, in good conscience, have asked Robin to use Photoshop. But seeing a real, lived-in face, rather than some smoothed-over approximation of humanity – and realising that other people are going to see it too – it’s frightened me more than I’d care to admit.


After several months of getting used to it, I would probably say that this is one of the best photos I have of myself. It’s just – right. And the first time I saw it the only thing I could think was: “Dear god! The acne scars! Dark circles! Incipient wrinkles! I can’t put this on an album – no one will listen if they see this face!” The sheer ludicrous sense that, on an album where I pretty much vomited up my guts for the world to see, the packaging on the outside should still be polished to the uniform blandness of what passes for attractive in the parlance of mainstream marketing.

I don’t have a particularly deep point to make with this post. Just to say that, well – it brought home to me just how much work we have to do to fight against a beauty myth that makes us feel so ugly. That I never want my future children to look at a picture of themselves and judge it, harshly, in comparison to a computer generated image of what a human being “should” look like. That people you might not expect to see themselves as ugly might well do, at least some of the time. And that I’m trying.

Ah, and a continuation. Thank you to everyone who emailed/commented/messaged – that and some sleep has helped to clarify what I wanted to say. Which is this – ahem:

It makes me angry beyond belief the ways in which kyriarchal “beauty” standards are pounded into our heads so hard that they begin to form barriers between ourselves and what we actually find beautiful. I think I had assumed that I’d left them behind a long time ago – because of what I find beautiful in other people, because of the art that I adore, because of the way I experience the world. And then I look at a picture of myself and all the things I thought I’d unlearnt come crashing back. That I can’t extend the same courtesy to myself as I would to a stranger – that of looking at them as a whole and unique person, not as a (failed) embodiment of some form of fixed and “ideal” beauty.

If this were a picture of someone else I wouldn’t have hesitated to call it beautiful, for precisely the reasons commentators have flagged up – because it’s honest, and vulnerable, and strong, and real. But (and maybe I’m stretching a point here) – I often feel that, in so many areas of what we might call progressive politics or ideologies, we leave ourselves last. We retain that distorting lens of what we’ve been taught, not what we actually think. So – we celebrate a diverse range of body shapes, but tell ourselves we’re too fat to be attractive. We think gender fabulousness is a great thing – and then worry we’re too different to be accepted. We know that kyriarchal lies are, well, lies…and then listen to them, echoing around us, making us feel ashamed/unworthy/less than.

I’m so very, very fucking sick of it. So, as a step in the right direction – here is a list of things that, apparently, aren’t beautiful – which I think are. Not as abstract objects divorced from the humanity of the actual human bodies they’re part of – but because they embody our humanity. Some of these things are part of me, and some of them aren’t – but an enormous “bugger off” to anyone who thinks they need “fixing”:

  • rolls of fat
  • ribs that you can count
  • cellulite
  • body hair
  • wonky teeth
  • acne scars
  • scars in general
  • wrinkles
  • broken noses
  • nipples that are “too big” or “too small” or asymmetrical
  • bellies
  • genitals that don’t look like the ones you’re taught to think of as “normal”
  • Moobs



So, obviously, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Please add your own in the comments. And now I’m going to have a cup of coffee, look in the mirror and tell myself that I’m fine the way I am. If I say it often enough I might just start to believe it.

§ 13 Responses to The beauty myth and me…

  • J McK says:

    “That people you might not expect to see themselves as ugly might well do, at least some of the time. And that I’m trying.”
    Not a lot I can say to that. I personally think you look amazing; scars, dark circles and all. I think a face that looks lived in has character, and that photoshop can fuck off. But, sadly, I can’t tell people how to feel about themselves. CN, you’re awesome. Stay awesome.

  • Goblin says:

    Quite possibly this comment will demonstrate nothing more than me being a bit odd, but to me, the little signs of faces being lived in, of people who’ve lived and grown and had the courage to let life scar them and *keep going*, are actually what I find beautiful/think of as beauty. The idiosyncrasies. The strengths and vulnerabilities that show. A lot of people in the public eye who are supposed to be ‘beautiful’ I tend to find, well, dull. Bland is the word. (As an extension of this concept,I tend to find people with physical – or in fact emotional, but that’s another story – scars powerfully attractive. And chosen marks. Tattoos, eyeliner, etc etc.) I mean, that shot when you’re full face to the camera is absolutely mindblowing simply because you’re *not* trying to hide any of it. I admit that you had a lovely face to start with,but still. It’s the fact that you can look straight at the viewer without trying to hide that *is* beautiful. Not to sound like Keats or anything – hah – but isn’t beauty always about truth (honesty) on some level?

    Ofc, I might be just weird.

  • Clouds says:

    Tattoos. The idea of airbrushing away a “flaw” that the owner of the body themselves put there is ridiculous to me. And I love tattoos – I love to look at them, hear the stories behind them. Likewise facial piercings.

  • Taz says:

    Society frowns upon the monobrow, but Frida Kahlo was my first crush and I’ve had a soft spot for them ever since.

    And stretch marks.

  • Taz says:

    And baldness.

  • Alex says:

    CN, to me you truly look very handsome in that picture. Objectively, yes – but also because for me (and many people I think?) attractiveness – be it in a person, an object, a building, a piece of music, etc is so tied up with emotion and, for want of a better word, content. I find that particular image of you very moving, because of the emotional content and honesty it portrays. In that way, it is also an excellent fit for your album of beautiful, moving, honest work.

  • Chaz says:

    Beauty is truth, truth beauty. Keats may have said it first but it’s still true. I understand what you mean about self imposed beauty standards you feel you have to conform even subconsciously but would never dream of enforcing on another person though.

    Personally I really do think scars are beautiful. I think any outward mark of an inner battle beng fought or won is beautiful. Scars, lines of pain all of it they all tell stories they all show/give an indication of things that cannot usually be seen and they have the potential to be amazingly powerful.

  • Kerry Andrew says:

    I am getting to the age where facial wrinkles are beginning to appear and it sometimes makes my whole self-belief crumple! Women in their 30s/early 40s are portrayed in the media as matte-smooth and it is such an unrealistic example to set. It just isn’t possible to say ageless forever. Men ARE allowed to look lined and therefore distinguished, lived-in and wise, yet our lined ladies are not seen as attractive, aged ladies not being coveted in our world society; so Kate Winslet/Rachel Weisz-types must be airbrushed to within an inch of their lives in the media. It’s preposterous! When MPs (Louise Mensch) are having facelifts in their mid-thirties you know something is very wrong with society. She should not feel she has to prove herself as being taut-of-face-therefore-better (not that I’m am anything like a fan of Tory MPs). Hhm, this is just an unfocused rant, but now that they are here, with me, on my otherwise pretty decent face, I obsessively scan media images to look for the wrinkle, and feel happy when I see them. Actresses from ‘The Killing’ are my idols and help me resist Googling Botox!

    PS You look FABULOUS in your photos xxx

  • Rei says:

    Scars. Tattoos. Stretchmarks. (No, seriously! They’re like patches of willow-patterned skin, what’s not to like?)

    It’s all very well to call these and all of the things listed on this page “flaws”, but really all they are is signs that the body and the face that you’re looking at have been lived in. Beauty is not just what’s there, but how and why it’s there.

    You are more than fine the way you are, CN. Stay you.

  • cnlester says:

    Oh, stretchmarks, I forgot about stretchmarks. They’re just gorgeous. It broke my heart when a lover was ashamed of his – as Rei says, “patches of willow-patterned skin”. And they look magical in candlelight.

  • Natalie says:

    what a wonderful post. your thoughts are sincere and true; i was especially hit by the paragraph about how we extend our open-mindedness and ‘there is beauty in everything good’ mentality to those around us but not ourselves. what a strange and unhealthy habit. for the record, even though it isn’t the point of the post, you look gorgeous, by any and all standards, in that photo.

  • I think when we look at ourselves, we’re often worrying about what others will think in a way we don’t when we look at others. Which brings the kyriarchy crashing back into place because that’s exactly what we’re worrying about.

    Getting worries about ongoing oppression out of our heads is hard, especially when a variety of oppression keep happening to us! It’s almost like there’s a worryingly rational reason behind it or something and we don’t always know how that’s connected to what we see because of it.

  • […] CN: It must be admitted that I’ve been googling ‘Morscerta’ to no avail, but hopefully I’m getting the correct read on this question. I think first I’d say that, though some people will obviously cross over, and lines of diagnoses are rarely all that strict, it’s important to remember that bodily dysphoria relating to sex/gender doesn’t appear to be the same as body dysmorphic disorder – they don’t present in the same way, and they can’t be treated in the same way. I just want to put that out there because I know that many people have tried to challenge or soothe my dysphoria as though it were me ‘just’ have body image problems: “oh, but you’re so beautiful/lovely/thin” etc. (which would also be a bullshit way of approaching BDD, for the record). I’m afraid I haven’t been able to find any pieces on the intersection of BDD and being trans that aren’t either grossly transphobic or questions for resources themselves – if someone knows of any could you please leave a link in the comments? I don’t have BDD, so this may be useless – but I did write a piece awhile ago about body image/beauty myth issues (which have affected me a great deal) – here if it helps. […]

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