Beauty is a dangerous thing to discuss. I’ve had joyfully fierce debates on everything from climate change to corporate tax (I am fun at dinner parties, I swear) – but every conversation I’ve tried to start about beauty has ended awkwardly, abortively, leaving a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. Why?

I’ll start with the admission that rarely fails to alienate: I get told I’m “beautiful” a lot. Context and speaker vary; the expectations on me don’t. I ought to feel flattered, consider myself lucky. Often I’m told I act “unaware” of my beauty (as if it were a unarguable, tangible fact like my eye colour or age): this can be either a compliment or a complaint.

Beauty is privilege, and us liberal types regard a failure to acknowledge privilege with distaste. Reasonable enough, but if we’re too embarrassed or guilty to admit that it isn’t making us happy, we don’t stop to question where we’re conferring value at all. And whether or not wealth trickles down, the value system of the wealthy does – so we not only suffer in self-imposed silence, but blithely export our problems to those less fortunate. Does GDP correlate to wellbeing and contentment? Does a growth-based economy make sense in the long run? No, but the West continues to foist its dysfunctional aims on the rest of the world. In posing as the winners we encourage everyone to lose.

If the lucky women dubbed “beauties” never admit (and when do they?) that the privilege of “good” looks rarely feels all that good, no-one will pause to question the ideals our culture promotes. Twenty-five years ago (twenty-five years ago!), Naomi Wolf wrote in The Beauty Myth: “The pleasure to be had from turning oneself into a living art object , the roaring in the ears and the fine jetspray of regard on the surface of the skin, is some kind of power, when power is in short supply. But it is not much compared to the pleasure […] of the freedom to forget all about it.”

To be bluntly honest, I can count on one hand the times that being called “beautiful” made me feel good. On those occasions, the word had little to do with looks: it was an echo of love or desire or admiration that hit a much deeper nerve. The other times? It’s made me feel scared: the many warnings (unsubstantiated but affecting) that being beautiful made me an obvious target for rape; the times it closely preceded an offer of money (or a blunt demand) for sex. It’s made me feel guilty: for provoking men; for making other women feel insecure; for “wasting” my beauty by failing to emphasise or exploit it. (As if neglecting to flatten one’s belly, be hairless, or wear makeup were as insulting a disregard for one’s privilege as to discard a fridgeful of perfectly edible food.) And it’s made me feel lonely: isolated from other women through their hostility, distanced from men by the blinkers that “beauty” can impose. It’s ironic how invisible beauty can make you feel – at once frighteningly exposed (your face is a provocation) and maddeningly hidden, as if you’re stuck behind a soundproof wall or a one-way mirror.

I want to treat my body the way I’d treat a house that I alone owned and inhabited: acting a total slob, practical and efficient, a glamorous perfectionist, as the mood took me. Instead it can feel more like renting a room in a showhome. It may be your only home, but its raison d’être is not housing you. It exists primarily for the outside world, and secondarily for its inhabitant. Does this sound melodramatic? Try finding a woman with an untroubled relationship to her body and you’ll see I’m in good company.

And those are just the compliments. Then there are the beauticians, hairdressers, dentists, doctors who’ve passed judgement on my appearance – not out of any concern for health or hygiene, but on utterly trivial decisions I’d assumed were no-one’s business but mine. The aunt who gave me a detailed manual on fashion and makeup for a pre-teen birthday, whose advice I followed religiously until I realised it was much more fun to blow my pocket money on Bacardi Breezers than foundation. The grandmother who told me, aged nine, that she’d expected me to be a “plain” girl but I was actually turning out quite pretty. The friend who voiced genuine concern about my decision to stop plucking my eyebrows and bleaching my upper lip, fearing it was an act of subtle self-destruction. The times my mother – the most potent symbol of nourishment and nurture in my life – told me to curb my eating.

I don’t resent any of these women: their words hurt, but the message did not originate with them. Female beauty is not subjective. It is not the reflection of love from the beholder’s eye. It does not take many forms. The beauty myth that Wolf dissects “tells a story: The quality called “beauty” objectively and universally exists.” And as beauty is privilege, every person who has implied there’s something wrong with how I look had my best interests at heart.

But what’s so great about our cultural beauty ideal, anyway? The qualities it lauds as “feminine” have little to do with femaleness. Let’s be honest – to be female is to be fat, to be hairy, to have a body that morphs drastically with puberty, pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause. But we treat images of female pubic hair as obscene, exclude breastfeeding women from public space, profess repulsion to uncovered fat flesh. Our culture shrinks back from representations of femaleness while fetishising a so-called “femininity” that is increasingly manufactured and fantastical. If it takes photoshop to create a beautiful photograph of a woman, and surgery to create a beautiful female body, beauty is no longer a quality to be admired but something to artfully construct. It is not something we see, but something we do.

If we interpret beauty symbolically, what does the West want from its women? Health, supposedly. But what’s so healthy about smoking to stay skinny? Or stopping eating altogether? Youth is venerated too. But this deserves to be questioned: who benefits from making sexual immaturity sexy? Isn’t devaluing age akin to devaluing life? And let’s not even touch that most controversial can of worms: race and beauty.

Beyond these broad symbols, there seem to be subtler and more insidious messages embedded in our beauty ideal about what our society wants from women. We applaud a female figure that’s slim, but not too muscly: could it be that we don’t want women to take up too much space, use up too many resources, or get too powerful? We romanticise faces that are symmetrical, delicate, balanced: are we afraid of women who demand too much attention, act unpredictably, stand out?

Perhaps this interpretation is paranoid; it’s certainly hard to evidence. But whatever the subconscious rationale behind our beauty ideal, it’s undeniably narrow – and, crucially, impersonal. We’re either beautiful or not: the core value judgement is not up for debate. I distinctly remember the moment the penny dropped for me, in my mid-teens. Until that point, everyone I loved was gorgeous to me, stunning, beautiful. It dawned on me that they, in official terms, were not. Features I found attractively striking – pointed noses, broad shoulders, moles, wild hair, plumpness – were really flaws or deviations. Worst of all, it became clear that to express an “unconventional” aesthetic preference without sounding like a liar was virtually impossible. It’s tricky, in our culture, to tell a “fat” woman she’s gorgeous without being heard as condescending; difficult to call someone with sharp facial features cute without it coming off as veiled mockery. But that doesn’t mean those aren’t genuinely your perceptions. It’s an ingenious catch-22: our cultural beauty ideal has managed to dictate the terms of every conversation we have about beauty. It’s become almost impossible to believe beauty could be conceived of differently, appreciated in other forms. What a sad loss for individual expressivity in a culture that claims to value freedom of thought and expression so very highly.

But if beauty is symbolic, can’t we shake off the flattened, impersonal symbolism of a whole society’s notion of beauty and start to replace it with unique, idiosyncratic symbols that are our very own? Could we reconnect our most personal feelings, of familial love and platonic affection and sexual desire, with our perception of beauty, instead of letting a cultural ideal dictate how we see the people we love? What if, instead of believing it’s necessary to be beautiful in order to be admired, we believed that regard is what endows people with beauty? That his large nose is beautiful because it belongs to him, instead of imagining that he would be beautiful with a smaller one. That her belly is sexy by virtue of being uniquely hers, rather than encouraging her to embark on a diet in order to become sexy. That our friends, family, lovers simply see in our faces and figures a reflection of the love and admiration they feel for us, instead of a set of flaws that they should encourage us to correct.

We can’t control how other people look at us, and we can’t choose who we find beautiful. But we can refuse to shut up about the gorgeousness of our unusual-faced friends, the sexiness of our weird-looking lovers, the beauty of our ageing parents and grandparents. We can refuse to shut up about the unacknowledged burden of being called “beautiful” in a society with a damaged and damaging relationship to beauty. And maybe our refusal to shut up will bring some beauty back to that much-abused word.



I want to change. By all accounts, I’ve come to the right place. Former students, current students, even the highly idiosyncratic school website promise that a long stint here will “change you totally” – at least as an artist, if not as a person. But when is it going to happen? I feel like the same old me, except a little less comfortable in my own skin, and a little more impatient to wriggle out of it. But how? Alice, just before she left, said that training here changes you like an artist carves a sculpture: the unnecessary excess is chipped away until you’re left with a tidier and truer version of yourself.

I find Alice’s image deeply appealing, but I struggle to believe such change will happen for me. And the infuriating thing with change is that you fundamentally have to believe in it, in order for it to happen. Having faith in something which hasn’t yet proven itself to exist isn’t a comfortable position for my cynically atheist brain. I want to see the money on the table. And to make things worse, I’m starting to fear that if I write the words ‘change’ and ‘believe’ once more this blog will become cheesier than an inspirational meme. Fuck.

I do think it’s true, though, that change demands a down-payment of blind faith. It’s election year back home – and admittedly, my main engagement with it so far has been asking my mum to print out forms (I like to maintain a healthy tension between responsible organisation and infantile reliance on my parents at all times) – but it seems to be an interesting one so far. Not thanks to anything the main parties have said, but because for once it feels like there might actually be something to play for. British politics has been dominated by a sense of resigned despair for so long – a feeling that nothing really changes, and nothing really can – but the Scottish referendum and the recent spike in Green Party membership suggest that something is different this year. Maybe we don’t need Russell’s revolution after all – party politics could still matter.

George Monbiot recently claimed that ‘change arises from conviction,’ exhorting left-leaning Brits to ‘stop voting in fear. Start voting for hope.’ While this hope may be for a rosier future, the ‘conviction’ it needs is rooted in the past: the strongest argument for the possibility of change has to be that it’s happened before. Radical (and positive) socio-political change has happened quite a lot, if you think about it. (It’s just a shame so much human energy has had to be poured into fighting injustice and downright stupidity over the years – imagine what we could have achieved! We could all be living in high-tech energy-generating tree houses…zipping around on hovercrafts…communicating via telepathy by now!) Examples such as women’s suffrage are so often used to guilt-trip the ballot-shy: people died for your privilege! How about a more positive spin: if women won the ‘hardest of all fights’, surely we can win the rest of them too? It’s hard evidence for the doubtful that even the unlikeliest of changes can occur.

Philippe has quipped that it makes his job difficult when students are bad on some days, good on others. And a good performance will often elicit a ‘what happened?’ He jokes, but I wonder if we really do feel obliged to remain consistent for the sake of others? In an acting class some years ago we did an actioning exercise, playing with quick-fire changes of intent. I caress you, I reject you, I beg you. At the end, my partner looked slightly shaken. ‘That was just like talking to my ex-girlfriend,’ he said, ‘terrifying.’ Do we fear that changing too much, too quickly, would baffle and alarm those around us? And so we reign ourselves in, slowing our transformations to a politer pace?

It’s relatively easy to shrug off change in an acquaintance, because you can always reason that your first impression was false, or that you didn’t have the whole story before. But the better you feel you know someone, the harder this reasoning is to use. Most of us, for instance, have experienced the gutting realisation that our parents are not invincible, infallible beings (though great with printers). It’s a thought as thrilling as it is unnerving: we never know another person entirely. And even if you could learn everything about a person, they might always go and change.

So perhaps it’s not the real-or-imagined perceptions of others that restrain us most, but we who do it to ourselves. Because it feels a little dangerous, admitting that you don’t know yourself inside out, that such a thing is impossible. The alternative, while safer, is far more boring. I guess the only option is to resolve to keep chipping away at the sculpture, no matter how much each strike of the chisel hurts.

Letting Go

I could try pretending to be cool about this – but since no-one who knows me will be remotely convinced, I’m not going to bother. I was childishly, gleefully thrilled that people liked my first post! While it’d be disingenuous to claim I wrote it without expecting anything, I didn’t know what to expect, and I was pleasantly surprised by the positive feedback. But for every kind word that made my heart leap a little, I also started to feel a creeping dread. Fuck, I thought, now I’ve got to do it again.

My first instinct was to run, panicking, back to the first post I’d written and try to figure out why other people had liked it. This is never a good tactic. Aside from all the perils associated with lapsing into that kind of solipsism and trying to second-guess your audience, trying to recreate a past success never works. Even if version 2.0 managed to be technically identical, it would lack a crucial ingredient: spontaneity.

‘Success’ is a big word, but the positive moments I’ve had so far at school have come when I’ve least expected them. There have been days when I’ve felt awful, physically or emotionally or both, and have had to drag myself onstage. Usually, this leads to being rubbish onstage and feeling even worse. But occasionally – very occasionally – something else happens.

I had one such rare moment last week, during a neutral mask exercise that entailed, um, being a tempest. (I’m fairly sure that was the exercise – Philippe seemed reluctant to commit to clear instructions. Some teachers would tell you to ‘be’ water, he’d said, but I am not so idiot.) I certainly felt like a total idiot, wafting my arms around while desperately trying to conjure up images of a raging sea. My entire frame of reference seemed to consist of swimming off the North Norfolk coast, and watching Titanic, and neither felt hugely inspiring. Well, it can’t get much worse than this, I thought: I guess I might as well have some fun. So I did. And when Philippe banged his drum a few minutes later, I fully expected to be dismissed with an Absolutely orrible – adios immediately! But he let me stay, and I carried on having a great time until all my muscles were burning and I could hardly breathe and then I spoiled it all by reciting the Homer like a TGV.

There’s much to learn from this experience. I think I understand a little better what Philippe means by giving something as an actor – not least because, after a week full of tempest and fire exercises, I have spent the weekend moving like the tin man and groaning in agony every time I bend over. And it definitely proved Marina right about the value of taking risks onstage. (Thank you.) BUT. Now I have to do it again! And I don’t know if I can. Is it possible to go onstage free of expectation and willing to give up control, every single time?

I suspect that it’s easier to free yourself from inhibition at physical and emotional extremes. Being a tempest, writing a blog about being rubbish at everything – in different ways, both are acts of abandoning dignity. But what about subtler states of being – playing a bubbling stream, say, or writing about having a moment of being not so rubbish and then being gripped by a terror of never being able to repeat it? Those aren’t acts of total abandon – they require some delicacy, some control – and I don’t know how to marry those qualities with the wilder, freer state I briefly enjoyed. But maybe my central assumption is wrong. Maybe to express those subtler feelings/ characters/ ecological features is still essentially an act of revealing, rather than of restraint. And maybe such expressions simply require a greater trust in ourselves: that those levels of nuance and complexity exist in us too, and all we need to do in order to reveal them is let go a little.

In real life, I often find myself clinging onto especially good experiences. I want to recreate them, and worry that I won’t be able to – that I’ll forget their vital ingredients unless I identify and preserve them. But the same problem arises here: even if you could pickle fun, or fascination, or sexual chemistry, the very process of preservation would rob them of their spontaneity and surprise.

Everyone knows that the best nights out are the ones that begin dully or with few definite plans, and end with you pelting Hoola Hoops at your mates across a church hall at three in the morning. That the best conversations start on doorsteps – mid-goodbyes – and end hours later, awkwardly perched on the pavement, when you’re desperate to pee and crippled by pins and needles. That the best sex happens when it really isn’t supposed to.

We know these things, but still we feel compelled to record, analyse, relive. Maybe it stems from a need to prove it wasn’t just a fluke: if we understand the causes of our favourite experiences, we can take credit for them. Deep down, though, we know that holding onto these moments gets us nowhere, because the best things always happen when you least expect them. In a way, you can have more fun as a sort of recipient or vessel of experience than as a generator of it. As soon as I’ve had this thought, I realise it’s one of the least helpful conclusions I’ve ever reached. It’s totally paradoxical. How do you nurture an attitude of passivity, aspire to be a vessel? How do you make yourself give up control? I’m not sure you can. Maybe the key is to stop trying to nurture anything and just let go.

Bad and Happy

A couple of weeks ago, inspired by Philippe’s words of advice to the second-year clowns, my roommate inscribed the words BAD + HAPPY on her inner wrist in blue biro. She was considering getting them permanently tattooed, but thought better of it in the end. (I think in part because I pointed out that the word ‘bad’ might read differently in different circles, and wouldn’t necessarily give the impression of a happy-go-lucky theatre student to everyone she met.)

It’s something I’ve been struggling with ever since I arrived in Etampes last month: how to feel glad to be here (in France, at school, onstage) in spite of the knowledge that I’m not doing anything well. It goes completely against the grain for me. I hate being seen as incompetent above almost anything else. Being good at stuff has always been my ‘thing’, and the rest – liking myself, being liked by others – has somehow seemed to depend on it. Why should my colleagues want to spend the evening with me if I’ve been useless at work all day? How could my crush be reciprocated if that show I directed just bombed? So the twisted thinking goes. Without being good, how could I possibly deserve to be happy?

Philippe said something in our class today that got me thinking. It was prompted by someone else’s question, but came at a timely moment – just as I felt myself slipping into the familiar slump of Idon’tknowhowtobebetteratthisandIamsodepressinglybadIjustwanttogohomeanddrinkwinenowplease. In order to be beautiful onstage, he told us, you have to have a dream: that you’re a beloved actor, performing to a thousand (or at least 700 – any less won’t cut it) adoring spectators.

I realised then that I’d been kidding myself about becoming braver here. I’d spent so much of this first month paralysed by fear, that reaching the point of volunteering regularly-ish for exercises in class actually felt like being courageous. But there’s being onstage, and there’s being onstage. And what I’d mostly been doing was skulking in the shadows: trying to get through exercises as painlessly as possible, without being too ridiculous, so that afterwards I could tell myself I’d been brave and got up there and done something. I would learn stuff, just at a comfortable pace, getting slowly but steadily less bad. In reality, all I’d been getting was an increasingly colourful array of criticisms.

This week, two of my classmates have asked Philippe to clarify what he wants from us. I don’t want anything, came the reply, on both occasions: I’m the teacher. It’s not my job to want anything. His job, he said, is simply to watch us do things on stage, and pass comment afterwards. He doesn’t mind if we’re good or bad. We’re the ones who want something from the process.

The first weekend here, the lady behind the counter at Etampes station had to repeat the ticket price three times before I understood it – and then I put the money in the wrong part of the sliding tray (don’t ask). A few minutes later I got myself stuck halfway between the carriage doors and had to be rescued by the guy behind me, who tried to show me how the (totally counter-intuitive) doors functioned as I scuttled off in embarrassment. And later that afternoon, a toddler ran into my shoulder bag at the park, fell flat on his face and started wailing, while I attempted to apologise profusely to his mother in broken French. All I’d wanted was to spend an uneventful day acclimatising to life in France and getting to know some of my classmates. But I was so flustered by trying to speak French, and trying not to come off as too spacially or socially inept, that I spent a lot of the day making a complete buffoon of myself.

If it’s true in life that desperation of any sort (and in my case it’s usually to not look like an idiot) invites the opposite of your desires, it’s probably true onstage too. Anyone can be average, Philippe said today, but to be beautiful you’ve got to have that dream. And if I’m really honest with myself, lately I’ve been replacing the dream with a desire to just get away with itdriven, I suspect, by that desperation to not look like an idiot. Perhaps being afraid of being bad – being sad about being bad – is the quickest path there is to averagedom.

I wonder how long I’ve been kidding myself that I’m being ambitious and daring. After all, it’s not that hard to do it superficially: quit your job, move abroad, volunteer for that scary exercise you haven’t quite understood. It’s doing it in your head that’s the hard part. It’s silencing the voice that says: right, I’ve been prancing around in this mask for at least a minute now – can I go home yet? – and replacing it with… well, I’m not sure yet, to be honest. But I know that I’d like to start finding out.