I wouldn’t call myself a beautiful girl. Nor would I ever have considered myself the sort of beautiful child that grown-ups would coo at, click their tongues and make sweeping comments about me being a heartbreaker when I grew up. I’m more Bridget Jones than Gisele — always on the side of being “a little bit fat” and never quite polished enough.
I suppose I hadn’t really given it much thought for most of my life. There were always other more exciting, more important things to do and worry about as I was growing up and through my teens. It wasn’t until someone said this one thing to me one day in my twenties that entirely changed the way I thought about beauty — or rather, the way we have all been programmed to think about beauty.
I had just had an important piece of writing published, something I had worked hard on for a long time and which was all about self-discovery, self-love and a spiritual journey. A lady I worked with and hugely admired — and who was much older than me — came up to congratulate me on the success of having this work published. After complimenting the merits of my writing, she went on to speak well of my other talents and accomplishments as a young girl of 26.
Then, as she started to step away from the conversation, half lighting a cigarette between her very graceful fingers, she concluded, “And you know what the best thing about you is?”
What, what? I leant forward, eager and giddy from having all those praises impressed upon me.
“The best thing about you,” she said, crisply, “is that you’re not stunning.”
She was called away at that exact moment, so she turned around and marched off, leaving me standing, I believe, on the side of a road, slightly shocked but too dumbfounded to ask what she had meant by that.
I never did get to speak to her about this again. I think I spend a lot of time just feeling somehow grateful that she didn’t outright call me ugly. But while it took me a while to sort through the bark of her tone and the dismissiveness of her gait, I eventually realized that in fact, these last parting words were also a compliment, a good thing — I think. For all the bluntness, I think what she had meant — in her all-knowing way, nodding her head in a firm, brisk affirmation — was that in not being stunning, all the other good things she had to say about me shone ever brighter. I would be appreciated not merely for what I looked like but for what I was and the many things I could offer.
I think she meant that I was ordinary in the way I looked, nothing exceptional. And that was a good thing for it meant I would be more real to the very people I was hoping to reach by my work and writing.
So this whole thing became a bit of a head-fuck. So what is it then that the world wants? To be inspired by beautiful people? Or ordinary girls? Is it a good thing to be beautiful? Or a better thing to be not beautiful? What is it, at the end of the day, that people are most drawn by? And after they’re drawn to it, what makes them stay?
The world went mad for Bridget Jones when the book and the movie came out in the late 90s / early 2000s. Women loved the way she was so clumsy, so awkward, such a dag at heart. Women loved the way she was just like them when they were being their truest selves. More than that, we loved how unashamedly Bridget wore her clumsiness, her always-a-bit-fatness, her distinct lack of luck. At the time, she was probably the real-est character we’d seen in a long while on screen.
We also loved the author of the Bridget Jones books, Helen Fielding, for making the ordinary girl a star and for speaking of the real experience of what we felt was a real girl, struggling away in her twenties/thirties at the turn of the new millenium.
And now there’s the crux – the struggling. We love a good story about an ordinary girl, a girl that nobody gives a second glance to and her very real, awkward, stupid, laughable foibles. In her humanness and realness, she elevates our daily problems, struggles, shittiness into something more than ordinary; our daily toils and troubles became more a thing of celebration and of timeless stories. She helps us laugh at ourselves, rejoice in our quirks, feel openly embarrassed, feel honest about who we are, feel triumphant about what we can do, and discover empathy as we see her experience in ourselves and ours in her.
Is this what that old friend meant when she told me that “the best thing about me was that I was not stunning”? I hope so, for I certainly hope I can inspire people more by being who I am — even if it’s always 10 pounds heavier than I should be and with one too many freckles — than by what I merely look like.
So here I am, world — the not stunning girl, the Bridget Jones who will always be “a little bit fat”, who can only walk on stilettos with the grace of a penguin, whose dress always rides up in the wrong places, who only ever turns heads because she caused a huge racket when she tripped and crashed into the delicate ice sculpture by the dessert buffet.
And I should hope that this is precisely what endears me most to the people who meet and love me.
pix from The Guardian