Positioning oneself for optimum tanning on a Balearic beach requires some thought. My head should be in the shade to avoid the ageing effects of the sun; my legs placed to catch the full glare in the hope of acquiring tanned ankles. With gaze hidden by sunglasses, I can then concentrate properly on critically evaluating the bodies of the bikini-clad women who share my patch of paradise.
As women are not given to the male practice of parading around locker rooms in the nude, one rarely gets a chance to make comparisons with one’s peers. So to judge myself accurately, I indulge the instinct to judge others.
I pity the elderly women and their varicose veins, praying that my fate will not be so cruel. I scorn the younger ones and their concave abdomens; they won’t be so smug in another 10 years. They may not even be smug now, but I automatically attribute negative personalities to thin, perfectly tanned bodies.
The closest inspections are reserved for the thirtysomething woman and my eyes narrow in forensic examination if she has a child or two in tow. Unfortunately, my holiday resort is primarily populated by Germans and Scandinavians. They all appear tall and fit, with bellies that fail to betray their fecundity. As one such specimen passes me, only to reveal a touch of cellulite on the back of her thighs, the bitter satisfaction confirms that the object most in need of examination is my conscience.
This innocent woman probably spent hours despairing of her bumpy buttocks. What had she done to deserve my harsh judgment? I had searched for flaws with the zeal of a preacher searching for sin. I attributed blame for imperfections that no penance would redeem. A silent inquisition, I looked for the ultimate sinner in the 21st century: the woman who had let herself go.
The only redeeming feature of my imaginary court is that I count myself among the accused. The ravages wreaked by two pregnancies have put an end to my bikini days. While my thighs are intact, a million sit-ups and a diet of water and linseeds will do nothing for the appalling stretch marks left in the wake of my bumper babies. There is no cream in the world that can erase the pitted welts that disfigure me from the belly button down.
Apart from the physical scars, the psychological ones are those of shame and guilt. In the mental self-flagellation of the insufficiently groomed, I stand condemned in a world in which physical perfection is a matter of personal responsibility rather than good fortune.
The exact standard to which one should aspire is ceaselessly established by images on television, billboards and magazines. The ideal abdomen is taut, smooth and points inwards and upwards. It belongs to a person with no internal organs. The breasts are like grapefruit, perched high on the chest. The thighs are like sticks, shiny and straight.
Our awareness that these women are freaks who invest everything in surgery and personal trainers has no bearing on the effectiveness of the propaganda. Every woman I know has a body part she despises most in herself. Any random group of women can, with great animation, compare the harsh regimes they inflict upon themselves for their failure to match the MTV benchmarks.
Diets used to be about forgoing cream and Coca-Cola. Now it’s GI this, gluten-free that, fruit but no bananas, fibre but no wheat, and have you resorted to colonic irrigation yet? Confessions completed, they will gleefully turn to the subject of the misfortunate – famous or friend – who has failed to maintain a shape in accordance with the ideal.
Men waste no such time. If we are granted any sort of summer, Irish men will strut up and down our beaches with bellies proudly hanging over their baggy shorts. Their unwaxed backs are unlikely to be the topic of catty conversation. Does any man secretly fret that his wife might stop fancying him if he doesn’t shape up like 007? How lucky to be a human being and form no association between physical decline and self-worth. When men aren’t working, they devote themselves to relaxing. When women aren’t working, they’re working on themselves.
Who is it for? While it’s nice to retain the power to attract men, they are rarely the ones overtly advocating the standard. The judgment of which we live in fear is that of other women and ourselves. As Naomi Wolf famously argued in The Beauty Myth, we have been trained to impose ridiculous and unattainable standards on each other.
The energy that women apply to their physical appearance is pitiable. Most dedicate themselves responsibly to their jobs while simultaneously engaging in the intensive mothering demanded by popular child psychology books. It speaks to the effectiveness of cosmetic marketing campaigns that we feel under moral obligation to take on the added responsibility of maintaining an unrealistic standard of grooming. If we fail to look fabulous in public, we think we have failed as people.
Imagine what your average woman could achieve if she redirected her energy from watching what she ate to watching the stock market.
A generation ago, Germaine Greer urged: “Lady, love your c***.” I thought I’d start by trying to love my tummy. Lying on the beach, I gave it an affectionate pat and it wobbled gently. It wasn’t ready for exposure, but if I could love it, maybe others would too.