Plain or pretty?
This is an article the Daily Mail commissioned in March but didn’t run:
PLAIN OR PRETTY?
I started out as a plump, cheerful child. I turned into a plump, frivolous adult. Now I find myself described as an apple-cheeked, smiley old lady. I’d be happier to have been be seen as a skinny, feisty child, a slim and serious adult, and a handsome octogenarian with an interesting literary past. But that was not to be, despite a lifetime of diets. It was however a state of affairs which made me write a good few novels with overweight, plain women as their heroines. I’ve always been on their side – they are the unseen majority. The attention of the world is always focused on the beautiful, skinny girl. The rest of us are ugly sisters, bit-part players.
I was born large, blonde and big-boned into a family of small beautiful women. My mother thought it was unlikely that anyone would marry me, and therefore I would have to pass exams, earn my own living and make my own way in the world. Or that’s what I thought she thought. She wouldn’t say as much – she was far too polite – but she would wince as she made my dresses on the sewing machine because shop clothes never fitted.
We were an all female family and my sister Jane and I were educated at all-girl schools without a male in sight. I was an ugly duckling. My English mother was described as the most beautiful woman in all New Zealand by its most famous poet. My tiny, elegant grandmother wore size four shoes; I wore sevens. My elder sister was as breathtakingly beautiful and slimly serious as I was a bulky giggler.
Vivvie, heroine of my latest novel, Before the War, is 5ft 11 inches, 38 bust, 34 waist, 40 hip; and that is in 1922 when the average girl stood 5ft 3 and and 31-24-32. She is an embarrassment to her small, pretty, fine-boned, snobby mother. Not that Vivvie is a giggler: on the contrary she is a bit Aspergery, and the novel opens with her off to buy herself a husband since no one else will marry her of their own free will. ‘In this she is very unwise indeed,’ I write. ‘She will suffer and be humiliated: but humiliation is her lot in life, as it is for most plain girls.’ For Vivvie is no Elizabeth Bennett, to win the wonderful Mr Darcy by virtue not of her looks, but of her wit and charm. But at least Vivvie has money and a rich daddy who can help her intended on in his career, so rather reluctantly, and referring to her as The Giantess, he marries her. So do I identify with Vivvie? Of course I do. Sheer scale is to be taken seriously.
There is a great injustice in the lottery of birth, and nothing we can do about it. Long legs are always good, stubby legs a disadvantage. A clear complexion helps, a muddy complexion hinders. And this being the age of the camera, the selfie, the injustice of looks is compounded. We survey each other on social media. We are more the observed than the observer. If we’d rather be born pretty than clever and good it is understandable. One seldom sees a plain female lead in a film or TV show. We’re all suffering from institutional lookism. And we’re all guilty of it, men and women both.
Pretty girls find it easier to get jobs than plain ones, are assumed to be cleverer than they are, marry wealthier husbands, and therefore live better lives and enjoy better health – or so research keeps telling us when we’d rather it didn’t. The phwoarh! girl works in reception and gets a rise in pay; her plain sister gets to lurk unnoticed in the back office. The fat girl meets her date at the cinema, the slims girl walks there with him, eye candy on his arm.
Looks matter. Last week scientists from Exeter University and the Harvard Medical School declared that a man’s height, and a woman’s weight influence their earning capacity: three fewer inches for a man, and an extra stone of body weight for a woman, lose both £1,500 a year in annual salary.
There was no shortage of reasons to drive one to feminism in the seventies – appallingly unequal opportunities, the prevailing myth that all women were supported by father, husband or brother; but the turning point for me was attending a casting session with the male director and producer of a TV drama I’d written, and watching them cast the lead by flicking through Spotlight and just choosing the girl they both most fancied. And they were amazed when I objected: female skill, talent, experience, intelligence meant nothing to them.
Women, some say – thin people, you may have you noticed, do most of the saying – enjoy the advantage of being able to diet extra stones away whereas men can never add inches to their height. But dieting is a strange thing. Diets work (you name ’em, I’ve tried ’em), but only up to a point. The Cabbage, the Cambridge, the Atkins, the Palaeolithic, the 5-2 – yes they all work for a time; the inches do slip away. But then comes a great urge to comfort-eat, so that what once was lost can again be found. Most of us revert within months to our comfortable body-weight. As the thin woman lurking inside every fat woman emerges she tends to do so with a painful and neurotic sensibility: successful dieters tend to end up depressed. Of excessive dieters, 25% have a history of suicide attempts. Health-wise all are better off , but the psychological benefits are potentially negative.
My own theory is that some of us need extra padding to protect us from the humiliations and terrors of just being alive and aware. Esther, heroine of my first novel The Fat Woman’s Joke complains she was born with nerve-endings on the wrong side of her skin, and that’s why she has to eat and grow fat in order to protect herself.
My latest heroine Vivvie, written nearly fifty years later than Esther, doesn’t bother to diet – brave girl – and puts up with being called ‘The Giantess’ by her new husband, Sherwyn. He (otherwise an alpha male) is as disadvantaged by his height as is Vivvie by her weight. At only five foot seven. he feels perpetual humiliation at not being taller. He nearly doesn’t go ahead with the wedding out of fear that people will laugh at a bridegroom so much shorter than his bride. But he does, and they do.
I have always been confused as to where I could be placed in the ‘lookist’ hierarchy. In my childhood all vanity was sin. The only mirror my sister and I had on offer was a small square above the kitchen sink where we brushed our teeth. My face always looked all right to me, but then we came across a copy of the man’s magazine Esquire and we could compare our actual measurements with what were presented as the ideal. My body, it appeared, was hopeless, whereas Jane’s was just about right. Mind you I was only thirteen and she was sixteen.
Being surrounded in my growing years by females both at home and at school I never learned how to flirt. I kept myself buttoned up at wrist and neck. At university a girl student ‘friend’ explained to me that the reason I had no boyfriend was that I wasn’t beautiful and made too many jokes. It was a dreadful blow to my self-esteem.
I thought I had some kind of moral duty to have my picture taken just as I was, not how I’d like to be, so I hardly bothered to brush my hair when photographers turned up. They made such faces, especially in the States, that I soon learned, and after that would have my hair ‘done’. I remember winning some big TV writer’s prize in the thirties. I bought a new dress: Prince Philip was presenting the prizes. As I went up to collect mine a thin, very elegant lady from New York – wearing a sort of sequinned skull cap over her hair – actually pinched me and whispered ‘But you don’t even care!’ I was hurt; I’d done my best. It was the third prize I’d won that night and the Prince said ‘We can’t keep meeting like this. There is nothing left to say. You say rhubarb-rhubarb and so will I.’ So we did.
Thirty years back I chaired the Booker Prize and was so obviously going to to be on very public view that I made a gigantic effort, went on a serious gruelling diet, and brought myself a glam white gown; I was all sequins, slender hips and bare skin. It worked, but it wasn’t half exhausting. Then only last year a photographer asked ‘which is your good side?’ I’d had no idea I had a ‘side’, but since then I’ve taken pains to show it – the right, I think he said.
I still can’t decide whether I’m one of the pretty ones or one of the plain one. Mixed, I suppose, like most of us.