Impossible Beauty

Helen McDermott speaks about an issue that haunts both young and women in their midlife. As women we constantly criticise how we look and this can have damaging effects on both our physical and mental health.

When I met my good friend Judy for lunch the other day as usual the conversation turned to how we hated our looks. Who the next PM might be, soaring energy costs, strikes and climate change were set aside to make way for the hot topic: why, despite our mature years, we wished we were a few stone lighter, wrinkle free and able to fit into clothes we wore when we were younger.

Judy’s in her eighties, I’m in my late sixties and we both agreed that disliking ourselves as we are now is ridiculous and, frankly, stupid. Why should it matter that much when we have our health and plenty of really good friends?

My lack of confidence in my looks started early. I trained to be a ballet dancer. I was a tiny seven-year-old when I started at ballet school but by the time I was ten instead of growing upwards I grew outwards. I wasn’t actually fat, not by ordinary standards, but ballet school standards were different: any hint of a pair of breasts or a puberty stomach caused frowns and heavy sighs. So at meal times I was consigned to the dining room for “fatties” with a big D on the door, D standing for Diet. Thus we were segregated from the other sylph-like beauties who were everything the school wanted.

Being told so young that they were fat it came as no surprise that several of my fellow diet-roomers went on to develop anorexia. Sadly, some never recovered. I stopped eating for a while as well, but when my hair began to fall out and my periods stopped I was frightened enough to start again. I admit I used to love it when people remarked how thin I looked!

So I was one of the lucky ones although starving myself meant messing up my chances of having a family, not that I actually wanted children. For a start, they would have made me fat; what’s more any child of mine might have grown up to be like me.

As the years passed I learned to deal with my dislike of my body. I managed to get work in the theatre as a singer and dancer (not ballet though), but I was constantly aware of being fatter than I should have been.

I remember going to Biba in London and seeing all the teeny-weeny clothes hung on the rail. I was only size eight then but felt like an elephant. I did try on a pair of Biba boots and couldn’t even get them over my calf, not that I could have afforded them anyway but it was a bit humiliating.

In my early twenties I managed to get a job in television. You could say that for someone who hated how she looked this was the last place I should work, but I made it. First I was a continuity announcer, in vision, linking between one programme and the next. Every word I spoke, every outfit I wore, my make-up and hair style were scrutinised and often criticised. Was it ideal for somebody like me? Why did I put myself in the public eye? The answer’s simple: I needed to work, I needed the money. Who could turn down such an opportunity even if you do hate yourself?

Fortunately there were no such things as social media in my day. Of course I got letters, some complimentary, some complaining. Generallythough, I was blissfully unaware of whether people liked me or not.

It was a great job to have; I felt very lucky. Also in those days the work was live. The web and YouTube were in their infancy so I rarely had to see myself on a recording. If there happened to be a photograph or recording taken I was more concerned about looking fat rather than anything I said.

I worked for a couple of TV companies before working my way up to becoming news anchor, a job I did for over 20 years. I used to believe that by the time I reached midlife I could relax a bit over my appearance and be more confident in how I presented the news and perhaps be taken more seriously. Sadly it was not to be. It became obvious that on reaching the grand old age of 40 I was going to have towatch my back. I didn’t look like that fresh, bright twenty-year-old anymore. How dare my eyes have those bags under them, how dare my hair start going grey? How dare I put on a couple of stone?

Of course it was my fault that I began looking my age, and so at the age of 47 I was no longer wanted. Skill, experience and maturity no longer counted. I was told that my contract would not be renewed, and anyway hadn’t I been lucky to work for so long as I had?

It was the company’s prerogative to employ on screen who they wished. But when I suggested that since I was coming off-screen because I was frightening the viewers I might be of use elsewhere it became obvious that I was completely surplus to requirements.

I did ask what, being “let go” after 27 years, I might be able to do. One oily charmer in management suggested that I could go and work in Tesco, not that there’s anything wrong with Tesco mind you.

So, my TV career ground to a halt and I went to work in radio (having got a good face for it) and then for a while on local TV, while it lasted. They certainly didn’t care what I looked like, indeed they capitalised on my appearance.

Since my time in television there have been moves to get older women on the box, but there seem to be very few who are allowed to look as they are. Role models for mature women today are, like yesterday’s Twiggy, not really helpful in my view. Sure it’s wise to keep fit and healthy but how many of us can spend our days working on a body like Carla Bruni or Davina McCall? How can we do hours and hours of exercise when there’s washing, shopping, cooking, etc to be done, and in my case caring for a husband who’s not so well?

The pressure to be thin is nothing new. When I was a teenager in the seventies all we girls ever talked about was trying to look like Twiggy. THE place to shop then was Carnaby Street even though most of the clothes were too small for the average sized girl. Trendy shops were geared for young, glamorous and tiny women, while the magazines were full of very slim, very gorgeous girls.

Of course, it wasn’t how a fair few of these girls looked in real life; their bodies had been slimmed down photographically and any facial blemishes were banished in the same way.

Being thin meant you were beautiful; being thin meant you could be successful and famous.

There were girls at my school who were naturally slim and gorgeous – and they knew it. I really think they relished it when a teacher would single me out in class, poke my tummy and say loudly that my mother was feeding me too well. I wasn’t the only target. Those girls would snigger behind the backs of others in the class who were slightly less than perfect. For some of us victims it led to a life-long obsession with food.

Let’s face it, if you weren’t slim you’d never get work and what was more no boys would ever fancy you.

There are very few of us who can spend most of the day exercising, living on a lettuce leaf and trying to look amazing for our age, because that’s what we need to do. Who cares that Davina McCall might look ten years younger when we know darned well that looking like that takes up most of her day. What’s it for?

A cognitive therapist pointed out that my own obsession with how I looked was a waste of time. Why? Because who was going to be looking at me anyway in my advancing years? If I was doing it to attract the opposite sex then forget it; blokes would most likely be more interested in younger and prettier women than me. Harsh words from that therapist but he was right. If, on the other hand I was rich…

I should like to believe that women are becoming more readily accepting of how they look. However, a young woman I worked with in the theatre spent most of her time posting photographs of herself on the web; enhanced pictures, of course. The sad and silly thing about this was the fact that she looked lovely enough without needing some app or whatever to make her look better, or so she thought.

We need proper role models who look OK for their age and circumstances, and who are healthy and get on with living. The next time my friend Judy and I meet up I’m going to muster a few strong words for both of us.

By Helen McDermott

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