LOUISE O'NEILL: How could we stop caring when we're taught that a woman’s inherent value is tied up in her physicality?

I am going to Copenhagen this weekend for a book festival.

The only issue with this is that it involves the two things I hate most - leaving the house and packing. I’m currently trying to figure out if the four outfits I’ve packed will go with the same coat, boots, and bag, and I am losing the will to live.

But as I was trying on a dress that I thought might be suitable for Saturday’s panel discussion, I had this strange realisation. I rarely look at myself in the mirror anymore.

Obviously, I do when I’m applying moisturiser and brushing my teeth, but other than that - nothing.

Even when I’m washing my hands or coming out of the shower, I simply avoid my reflection.

This is partly because I’m busy, I know. I’ve just started my next novel and I find this period all-consuming. It’s all I can think about, at times, these characters and this world that I’m trying to create, wondering how I can flesh them out and make them come alive.

I also think that when I moved home to Clonakilty, I drew a distinction between my public persona and who I am a person.

I’m often genuinely surprised when someone in town mentions a radio interview or a chat show appearance because it feels to me as if those two worlds are so distinct that they should never collide.

With that, I developed a uniform for my life in West Cork. Leggings, an oversized sweatshirt, Adidas sneakers, a nice coat to make me appear less lazy. Hair washed and scraped back of my bare face.

I don’t need to look at myself. It doesn’t matter.

I’m trying to figure out if this… erasure of my physicality, for want of a better phrase, is a good or a bad thing. As women, talking about the body can sometimes be a difficult thing. Our bodies have often been the battleground.

The body is the site where sexual violence occurred; it is the recipient of starvation tactics, self-hatred, dissatisfaction. We spend so much time thinking and worrying about our bodies, about how much space they are taking up, about how attractive, no, acceptable, they are.

Should we care? How could we stop caring, when we have been taught since birth that a woman’s inherent value is inextricably tied up in her physicality?

Should we be striving to love our bodies, just as they are right now? Or should we not care about them at all?

Is caring about your appearance an act of self-love or complying with the patriarchy’s obsession with the female form? I don’t have the answers, but I’m bloody exhausted.

I suppose the reason why I’m interested in this is because I used to be obsessed with looking at my reflection. (There is a reason why the entire school in my first novel, Only Ever Yours, is covered in mirrors, from floor to ceiling.) I starting having issues with food and eating when I was somewhere between 14-15, and for years afterwards, I would stand in front of a mirror and wonder - am I fat or thin?

Am I pretty? Am I good enough? I had no sense of what I actually looked like, I needed external validation - mirrors, weighing scales, clothes sizes - to tell me the truth of what I was.

When I was in India in 2006, I was perhaps the thinnest I ever was, and I was utterly fascinated by it. I know the cliché of anorexia is that sufferers wear baggy clothes to disguise their weight loss but I didn’t do that.

I would stand in front of the mirror in a slip, marvelling at what I had done to myself, what I had manged to carve my body into.

Sometimes it frightens me to think that perhaps I will never love my body as much as I did when I was incredibly unwell, my heart struggling to beat, to keep me alive.

What does it say about me, about our culture, that at a time when I was so close to death, I felt like I was, at long last, clean. Beyond reproach.

No one would be able to look at me, at my collection of bones, and call me “a fat bitch”, that most reliable of insults drunk men throw at women who have turned down their advances in nightclubs.

Maybe no one would look at me at all, and that would be even better. Then I would finally be safe.

That’s what you’re doing to young girls when they hear you talk about diets and fatness and weight and how much celebrities really weigh and how Mary next door has really let herself go, has she no self-respect?

Or when you tell girls to smile as you pass them on the street, when you touch their bodies without consent, when you roll down your car window and shout ‘nice tits’ at someone who just wants to go about her day without being reminded that her body is public property.

You’re making them afraid.

Today, I stood in front of a mirror, trying on a dress. I realised that it had been a while since I had looked at myself, and I wondered what I was hiding from.

I don’t hate my body today. I can see how healthy it is, how much energy I have. It is a tool that allows me to run and swim and dance and play.

I am grateful to it for working so hard to keep me alive. I don’t hate my body but I don’t love it either.

Not yet. But I’m trying.

How could we stop caring when we have been taught since birth that a woman’s inherent value is tied up in her physicality?


ENTER: I’m a judge for Cork Simon’s Young Writer’s Awards, where students are invited to compose a 500-800 word essay, short story, or poem about the homelessness and housing crisis. See corksimon.ie/youngwritersawards for more details.

READ: Something in the Water by Catherine Steadman. Chosen by Reece Witherspoon for her book club, this is a gripping psychological thriller.


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