Sunday, April 24, 2011

The depressing politics of revelation

I'm completely fascinated by the Nigella burkini story, even as I feel a bit guilty about this fascination. On the one hand, what a woman wears to the beach should be her own business. On the other hand, though, clearly it isn't, especially if you have a) at least partly made your career out of your cleavage, and b) you then go and do something extraordinarily non-cleavage compliant.
Part of me quite admires her. Like her, I have the kind of skin that is known as alabaster if it's on a celebrity, or milk-bottle white if it's on the rest of us. When I first grew breasts, my sister used to call me 'Traffic Light' because my nipples were actually pale green*. In the winter you can be pale and interesting, no problem, but it's a difficult colour to be when the sun comes out. Dangerous, most obviously -- but also uncomfortable. I can't just go to the beach. I need shade, and lots of it, or I will burn in moments. And even when I've got my factor 30 on, I worry... will I have missed a bit, will it have worn off? I have burnt the backs of my ears and the tops of my feet. I have burnt my knees *through a parasol*. The sun hates me, and I hate it right back.
But I like the water. I love the water. So I quite like the idea that there things you can wear to go swimming in when the sun would otherwise burn you to a crisp. We can't all be the Girl from Ipanema.
But it's not as simple as that, is it? There's also a 'don't look' thing going on which I find pretty uncomfortable. I can see that covering up can be liberating. The pressure on women to reveal their bodies, and for those bodies to be what IBTP neatly terms 'beauty 2k compliant', is greater than ever, and so is the level of artifice and effort involved in attaining and maintaining that compliance -- while, of course, propagating the myth that you were born this way.
And Nigella plays her part in contributing to this mythology, with her surely 'attended to' face and her cashmere-covered corsetry. She also spends too much time licking stuff suggestively off other stuff on national television for my taste, but that's neither nor there. My point is that I'd bet her beauty bill is higher than the average woman's salary, which is at one level also entirely her business, but at another is part of every woman's problem.
So you can look at her when she's been made up and touched up and is eating cake mix off a spoon in a fantasy kitchen, but not when she's off duty, then she retreats behind a full-length curtain of chlorine-resistant polyester.
And I don't think it's a good thing that the only naked female bodies we see are bronzed and hairless and sculpted into something that never occurs naturally and didn't exist even 30 years ago -- if you look at 70s pin-ups they look almost hilariously normal. Even if you've read your Beauty Myth, it's hard to live in this world... if you haven't then it's hardly surprising if you hate your body. This month alone we have been subjected to adverts from Olay for firmifying creams for women 'who aren't ready for surgery yet' and Dove deodorants that will 'beautify your armpits'. Armpits! And this from the brand that made a massive load of cash out of celebrating 'real women'. For shame.
The best beach trip I can remember was in early September, probably about 10 years ago now, where M and I went to Studland Beach. We ended up on the naturist bit, so we took all our clothes off. It's not the only time I've swum naked, I do that pretty much whenever the opportunity presents itself, but it's the only time I've swum naked in the sea in the daytime. The water was warm from the long days of July and August, but the sun itself had lost its power. I have rarely felt so comfortable in my own skin. It was like nature intended, only with an ice cream van. Everyone around me was that end-of-season-naturist conker colour, while I was still milk-bottle-white, but basically nobody was looking.
And that's the rare thing. I don't think there's a single thing Nigella could have worn to the beach that wouldn't have ended up in the Daily Mail with someone dripping poison over it. Her options are a) don't go to the beach, ever, b) spend her life in the gym, under the knife and not eating, so she can be a proper MILF, or c) wear what she wants and take the flak for it.
When it comes down to it I think Nigella's burkini is probably a version of c), so I say good for her and bring them on. But I also want to live in a world where we can hang out in our birthday suits when we feel like it, whatever we look like, and I don't see that happening anytime soon.
* This was just a phase. They're over it now.

Related post: Summer girls will

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Blogger Duncan said...

Sadly, I think for now birthday suits have to be kept behind the locked gates of the local naturist club or that occasional trip to the beach (or butterfly farm!)

Like you I'm always pasty white on such occasions (except when I try lobster pink as an uncomfortable alternative) but nobody cares.

5:35 pm  

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