When I was a girl, I was a little on the plump side. Comments such as ‘You’re like the side of a house’ or ‘You look like the back of a bus’ were occasionally levelled at me, although looking at photos of myself, I hardly seemed fat, just a little round. Once, playing cricket with our cousins, I swung and missed the ball and complained that I couldn’t see it coming. ‘That’s cos you can’t see past your stomach,’ said a cousin, when in reality it was poor coordination caused by meningitis. Little wonder, then, at 13, I developed the obligatory eating disorder and lost so much weight that green and purple bruises dotted my body, like Cate in Entitlement. When we moved off the farm and into town, I stopped running because the tarmac was a poor substitute for paddocks. My weight swung in the other direction and I slumped into self-disgust. Then, on going to uni, I was so stressed I was nauseous every time I ate something, so I largely stopped eating, and lost 6 kilos in 6 weeks. That’s when I discovered that I was in possession of an hourglass figure and that, after all those years of torment for being too bulky, I was actually beautiful.
I confess I felt a bit like Cinderella, and to a girl who was used to being unseen and unnoticed, except for being unattractive and disabled, this was magical. And then I learned about silk frocks and stilettos, and the charm of having a nice figure was magnified. However, over the years I’ve become increasingly ambivalent about my looks. It’s what men seem to appreciate about me most, and I feel as though I constantly need to remind them that the real me is the woman who learnt to successfully negotiate severe deafness, who got herself to America and England to study, and who has published two novels. At the same time, as someone who, because of an adolescence of ostracism, has never shaken off the habit of hiding her disability, it’s hard not to be relieved that beauty deflects attention from my deafness. Often I chide myself for complaining about it at all, for there are many girls who would want to be noticed while walking down a busy street. And at other times, again, there is still that unadulterated pleasure in wearing a beautiful dress that accentuates these looks that, by sheer chance, I have been given.
When P left, I was assailed with self-doubt, and ordered Susan Johnson’s On Beauty in the hope that it might shed some light on how an intelligent woman also blessed with looks (for Johnson has both) might negotiate her interactions with men. ‘Beauty is not neutral’ Johnson opens her essay, which shines with her usual lovely turns of phrase, such as ‘the enfeebled pearly light of the winter’s sky at dusk’ (7) in London, describing that unrelenting grey sky much more delicately than I ever could, while her observation that ‘a female version of beauty might involve a circle perhaps, a ceaseless graceful line that endlessly turns back on itself’ (30) might be applied to her latest novel, My Hundred Lovers.
Johnson cites her research on beauty in the British Library, that place where I struggled to stay focussed on my thesis, where I hated the bleak cold outside and where, at Starbucks across the road while I was drinking a coffee, the fourth youngest cousin phoned from Australia to tell me his father-in-law had died unexpectedly, and asked if I could suggest a poem for the funeral. Johnson refers to Proust, Ruskin, Hogarth, Aristotle, Plato (where are the women writers on beauty, I wanted to know – were there really none?), and describes the horror of war, with its absence of beauty, quoting an account of a lieutenant colonel visiting the concentration camps after the Second World War was over. It made my stomach turn as I stood in the crowded bus to work, waiting for the traffic to move outside the Gabba.
The essay became interesting when it got personal, and when Johnson described her own beauty, or how she felt the lack of it. Beauty is subjective, she concludes, and there are ‘vast discrepancies in our accounts of human beauty and in particular our own ambiguous understanding of our own worth’ (61). Here I found an echo of my own thoughts: how can one be assured of what one is worth, if one is liked predominantly for one’s looks? Ought I to be blamed for wearing a tight dress that shows a small waist, instead of a hessian sack that covers everything, particularly as a feminist who is wary of the relentless male gaze? And should I be more confident about my deafness instead of trying to hide it with a feminine frock and a smile? After all, it’s amazing how many people thing you’re listening to them if you watch attentively and smile prettily. Sometimes I feel caught up in a myriad of cultural currents that I just don’t have the skill to negotiate. Johnson’s neat and lovely volume, while it didn’t give me the answers I needed, did at least reassure me that responses to beauty are never cut-and-dried, and that I am right to be confused.
It is because of this history of ambivalence about beauty that I was absolutely fascinated by Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts. I picked the book up because I vaguely knew that some had thought it a good read and, more pressingly, because it was about sea creatures. My next novel involves a mermaid so I’m reading books on this theme to see how other authors have presented their material. I was completely unprepared for how good the book would be, and avidly followed its unfurling themes.
It is the story of Misskaella, shunned from her island town of Rollrock for being ugly. Her female sisters and peers grow up and marry, but she has no chance of that, for ‘no Rollrock man could look on me without scornful laughter or fear’ (65-66). When she discovers she can summon selkies, gorgeous women from the hides of seals, she takes her revenge. Men become intoxicated with the selkies and leave their wives, and the wives in turn leave the island.
As I read, I wondered if the novel would be an indictment of our lust for women’s beauty and preference for female passivity, but it veered away from this, becoming a meditation on homesickness, for the selkies missed the sea, and the men moped because their wives were unhappy. I liked that it wasn’t so black and white, and that it became a story about the sadness caused by longing, rather than a story entirely about punishment. And, although I was uncomfortable that the men were so consumed by these pretty, languid women, I was impressed that Lanagan still rendered the women with such humanity. They were beautiful, but they weren’t banal. Rather, they were otherworldly creatures, and her blending of their seal and human characteristics was superb, as in the following scene where they catch up for tea and conversation, and become more themselves:
Then one of them would sigh and cross from table to armchair or settee or fireside stool, or even settle to the floor. All the mam’s movements would suddenly change, slowing and swaying, and their voices would lower from so bright and brittle … Their talk would grow less proper, and have more sighs in it, and more seal: the high crooning, whistles and coughs of their attempts were always followed by laughter, or a shaking of the head (247).
If I can write as well as this in my third novel, I’ll be very happy indeed, for this is truly a splendid book – one of my favourites for this year, along with Anna Funder’s All That I Am and Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread. If you’re stuck for Xmas presents, buy it. Even if you’re not stuck, still buy it.
I turn 35 in January, and sometimes in the mirror I contemplate the gradual furrowing and folding of my body, wondering if I will actually mind ageing all that much: the weight of the male gaze will be gone, and I will grow into the person I always was. However, beauty, like one’s children, is something that’s on loan, and I think I ought to make the most of it while it lasts.