Subverting the "Perfection" Narrative

By: Felicity Edwards

On my last visit back to the U.K. to see my mother, we found ourselves curled up one evening, drinking hot chocolate and going through old photos of me from my childhood. Now, I’ve hardly ever thought that I was a shoe-in for a ‘little darling of the year’ pageant as a child, but as I giggled and groaned through the photos, which varied in levels of cringe worthy characteristics, I noticed a distinct difference between those pictures taken before I turned ten years old and those taken afterwards. The pre-ten photos of me, depicting a happy girl, her face smeared in chocolate mousse, frolicking in a swimming pool or pulling a gruesome face in a party hat, told me that, at that point in my life, I was just a child and that was enough. I liked foxes, chocolate, swimming, and Jacqueline Wilson books. I disliked broccoli, slugs, and double maths. I didn’t struggle with any of the worries, concerns, or pressures of adult life. What radiated from those photos was pure, unadulterated happiness and joy. I was feeling bloody great and wearing grins that always met my eyes. I was happy to have someone capture those moments and preserve it in time.

Then I flicked to the post-ten-years-old and teen photos and quietly regarded the shift in my demeanor and the nature of the photos. I recalled how, at that time, I’d started becoming more exposed and receptive to the incredible power of media, and specifically that which targeted women. My friends at school had graduated from reading teen magazines to publications such as Cosmopolitan and Grazia and were obsessed with the features. It was a sleek and shiny world of perfect hair and makeup, how to attract that cute guy, which clothes were the must-haves of the season, which diet and exercise regimes you should do for that perfect figure, and which angles in photographs were the most flattering. My perception of happiness and self-worth began to become based on this propaganda fed to me from the pages of magazines, airbrushed adverts on TV, and immaculate women in films. All these messages informed my concept of the kind of woman society expected me to become when I grew up.

        I saw myself pouting in these photos, slightly turned to the side for a sleeker figure, wearing lip gloss, and trying to make myself look as attractive as possible. This was the formula I began to use to assess the worth of my existence. It correlated with the point in time where my anxiety began to manifest, my eating became disordered, and my quality of life became constantly tumultuous. I recall going to my grandmother’s house. Her narrowed eyes looking me up and down, as if I were a piece of meat. Prime cut or piece of gristle? She decided on the latter, because I was “too chubby for my age”. I was so upset that I threw up my dinner in secret that night; this became something of a habit. Though my life at school continued as it had before, I felt that I was constantly failing at becoming this perfect, beautiful specimen I felt was expected of me. The pressure to live up to a perceived standard of ideal living was bearing down on me.

       In this twenty first century existence, I don’t read many magazines anymore. Instead, I’m bombarded daily via social media and websites with advertisements capitalizing on my insecurities, ones which many people in our society share. As I scroll through my Instagram feed, depictions of seemingly perfect lives brimming with smoothies, workouts, exotic travels, and blemish-free faces pass by. We all experience this modern version of photoshopped and staged perfection, and it sends out a message that’s completely separate from the reality we live in every day. Increasing numbers of millennials are susceptible to burnout and developing mental health disorders, and it’s paramount to stop piling on the pressure to ‘have it all:’ the dream job, home, body, and family/relationships. The pressure heaped upon us is absurd. I can only really speak from a woman’s perspective on this, and let me tell you: I’m frustrated by what I see and experience. The average woman’s life is not a goddamn yoghurt advert, where everyone’s beautiful and skipping about in a meadow with an inane grin on their faces and not a care in the world. This is a destructive and deadly message to everyone, because, contrary to what advertising and social media would have us believe, our flaws can be our strengths when we learn to see them that way. They are what make us human and relatable.             

         Instead of basing our worth on our bodies, our jobs, our financial standing and relentlessly striving for an idealised notion of ‘perfection,’ our journeys of growth consist of lessons learnt and small, personal victories. Rather than agonising over whether we adhere to the view perpetuated through the media’s toxic lens of what makes someone a successful and attractive adult is, how we act and behave towards those we care for and love, and especially how we regard ourselves, has much more meaning for our lives and whether or not our existence is worthwhile. It’s taken me awhile to get to a point where I have learnt not to buy into this destructive mindset and to be kinder toward myself. At times, I slip, as we all do, but looking back at those photos, I know which I’d rather embody: the smiling, happy girl with her passions and interests who has her whole life ahead of her, the battles, the victories, the weaknesses, the strengths and the journey of realising her wonderfully imperfect self.

WWBL Author