Always wanting to be liked

Janice Turner on the difficulties of being young and female:

The young woman’s burden is always wanting to be liked. Not caring what others, especially men, think about you is the secret bonus of age. But girls crave approval. For my generation the bar was low: be pleasant and pretty. Now the arenas in which perfection must be achieved are manifold: school, career, looks, sexual allure, often of an extreme pornified type. 

It’s kind of a tricky combination, if you ask me.

This week The Crown actress Emma Corrin posted pictures of her body, thin to the verge of skeletal, her breasts bound flat with tape. This was “very new, very cool”, she wrote. “It’s all a journey right.” Immediately famous people like Paloma Faith plus the official Netflix account rushed to say how much they loved these photos and Corrin’s statement that she was now non-binary: “pronouns she/they”.

How does “she/they” work? Is either one ok? Are you expected to alternate? Follow an arcane but undisclosed formula? What?

You could strap me to a ducking stool and I would still deny that breast-binding is progressive. Because I have lived through too many other ways women’s bodies have been scarred by fashion and mental illness. I remember heroin-chic models fainting backstage because designers craved sharper lines. I’ve seen self-harm, through razor blades or surgeons’ knives. I know anorexics — friends and daughters of friends — always the clever, perfectionist girls, attaining control by existing on a single cube of cheese. And breast-binding screws up female organs, can damage your ribs, limits activity and the very oxygen women breathe.

Breast-binding is very like anorexia, when you think about it. Creepily like it.

I’ve seen true androgyny too: young, butch lesbians, Bowie in a dress, loathed by everyone’s dad. If only being “non-binary” was equally cost-free.

Well, it is for men: explore your fabulous side, like Sam Smith, in nail polish and heels. But a gender clinician tells me the non-binary girls she sees, who bind their breasts often as a prequel to surgical amputation, are quiet, subdued, full of angst and discomfort: “They’re just sick of being the awkward ones at family parties. They just want to disappear.”

“The world gets harder and harder,” Hilary Mantel wrote of female saints who starved and self-abased. “There’s no pleasing it. No wonder some girls want out.” Eyes burn into prominent young women, in bodies they so rarely wear with ease. We should not ignore their distress signals, let alone cheer them on.

But the magic words change everything.

8 Responses to “Always wanting to be liked”