Recently, Laurie Penny, a journalist I respect for her unwavering commitment to making women feel less shit, published a piece on Rebecca Adlington entitled ‘Dear Rebecca Adlington, they’re the ugly ones’. It was an open letter to Adlington, in light of the media coverage she was having for supposedly getting plastic surgery on her nose.
It was spot on, but as any masochistic Guardian-reading feminist must do, I turned to the comments. Obviously, OBVIOUSLY a mistake, but there’s something about Adlington’s public attacks that I find deeply upsetting, so I was kinda hoping for a reflection of my own feelings. Have a little read, fist pump the air, feel weird about fist pumping the air because I’m in a public library, then go back to writing my Victorian essay.
What a shocker, but lo and behold, ignorance reigned high in the world of the comments. ‘Perhaps it’s her decision as to whether or not she has cosmetic surgery on her nose and not anyone else’s business at all?’ was the top comment, with other insightful notions such as ‘If she did it just because she thinks it makes her look better, what exactly is wrong with that?’
Yeah, how totally non-problematic that an OBE, world-record holding Olympiad feels the need to have a medical procedure to relieve the pressure from the mainstream press. How absolutely normal to willingly subject oneself to physical pain to achieve some sense of self-worth. It’s not like she’s a fucking gold medalist or anything.
Well, ‘pollystyrene’, who ever you are, the reason it’s other people’s business is because Rebecca Adlington’s totally justified decision to subject herself to something like this is just the biggest example of the way women are hated. Of the expectations that exist. Sometimes, I feel shit about my body. But then, I read pieces like Laurie Penny’s, I think about Adlington, and I remember, oh yeah, it’s all bullshit. It’s bullshit because no matter how successful you are, no matter how unbelievably talented, or impressive, or unique you are, you can still hate yourself because of the media. You can be the first British person in nineteen years to win a gold in swimming for Britain, and you can still end up disliking yourself.
Watching Adlington in ‘I’m a celebrity’ makes me teary. No matter how successful you are, our society still will not let you be happy because you don’t look like Amy Willerton– a girl so vacuous she seemed to be genuinely interested in explaining hair flicking to her fellow celebrities. I shouldn’t give her a hard time, though, because Amy is just another person under these pressures, except she’s on the other end. She conforms to the expectations, and is told she’s beautiful, and that’s what’s important. Don’t bother having a good old chat about the issues of perpetuating a homogenous and almost unachievable body image, just enjoy your soft silky hair as it flicks across your neck. Amy hasn’t won an Olympic gold, but she probably knows what Rebecca knows: you better be good looking, because even sporting success isn’t going to save you from self-hate.
Adlington’s difficulty with her body image is one of the most crushing things to watch. To think that you could be so objectively amazing, to be able to literally quantify yourself in gold, and still think yourself not worth anything because of people on twitter or publications like the Daily Mail is horrifying. It’s no doubt that this kind of publicity makes it hard, but I’m glad that dissenting voices exist. I’m glad that I found out about this because it reawakens my passionate hatred toward any niggling thoughts that I’m not worth enough because I have thigh fat. Rebecca Adlington shouldn’t have to subject herself to public scrutiny to make other women feel better, but she should know that there’s actually some good in the shit she gets. It reminds me that even the most impressive women of our age still get doubts.
I’m glad that this is my business. I’m glad that I’ve been reminded how women are nothing but a body to the media. Fuck you, mainstream press, for making women like Adlington feel body conscious, but fuck you also for making women who aren’t as talented, who don’t have numerous medals, feeling like their only achievement can be measure in the number of calories they’re not eating.
People need to stop pretending the sexism today is subtle and unimportant. There’s no ‘undercurrent’ of misogyny in our society – it’s right there, unashamedly, and as clear as Adlington’s talent.
By Ruby Lott-Lavigna
Written February 2014