Saturday 3 December 2016

'When I think too much about how I look, I'm in trouble'

Do women writers need to look a certain way or have they just been snookered by the beauty myth, asks author Mia Gallagher

Published 16/05/2016 | 02:30

Beautiful pictures: Mia Gallagher's first novel stemmed from her time life-modelling in Portlaoise prison
Beautiful pictures: Mia Gallagher's first novel stemmed from her time life-modelling in Portlaoise prison

I love writing about my characters' physicality; how they feel, move and look. It helps me understand them, how they affect others. I'm also interested in roles - what marks someone as a woman, a father, from a certain ethnicity. What happens if you choose a role you're not (apparently) born into - transition, say, from one gender to another? Who decides if you've 'passed'? The same person, or thing, that tells us what's 'beautiful'?

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I was never a pretty little girl. From four to 11, my image of myself is gangly, uncoordinated and eager. I was first told I was beautiful at 12, by the daughter of a family friend. It felt strange. My friends and I had just started comparing ourselves - unfavourably - to each other, our mums, magazine images. I remember one pal saying, "Well, we're not pretty, but our figures are okay", only for the other to shake her head sadly and argue the opposite.

I was bullied in first year at secondary school because A. I wore glasses (a misguided decision triggered by a fit of hypochondria); B. I wore unfashionable clothes; C. I was a swot; D. I was middle-class; and E. I rode a bike. Even three of those crimes would have been forgiven. Five was inexcusable.

That year was miserable. During the summer, I ditched the specs, took in my flares and fell in (unrequited) love. Next school year, my friend Sharon and I traded compliments every morning. "You look lovely." "So do you". And there I was, at 14, snookered by the beauty myth.

Today, we've never had so much control over how we appear, or been so powerless in how our images are used. Some feminists argue that selfies are supremely empowering for teenage girls; others say they're just another way of sucking young womanhood back into insecure, underachieving narcissism. I'm not sure where I stand. But I know when I think too much about how I look, I'm asking for trouble.

Do women writers need to look a certain way? Recently, I Googled three of my favourite living writers - Jennifer Egan, Kate Atkinson and Haruki Murakami - along with keywords 'attractive', 'beautiful' and 'appearance'. I assumed I'd find articles mentioning the two women's looks, but not Murakami's. I was wrong, though not altogether.

With Egan and Atkinson, 'attractive' and 'beautiful' described their homes, their writing, their characters' moral qualities and - with Egan - her use of physically 'beautiful' characters to ask tricky political questions. With Murakami, some articles did mention looks - but not his; instead, those of his female characters, and women generally.

'Appearance' threw up only one result about the writers' looks (Atkinson). That's good, isn't it? Though it doesn't explain why a woman was singled out. Or why Murakami and his reviewers talk so unquestioningly about 'beautiful' women - while Egan, Atkinson and their reviewers don't?

The writers' online images include official headshots and candid, non-posed snaps. In the candid pics, the writers generally look tireder, awkward, caught. All the publicity headshots are carefully composed, but Murakami's recent ones seem to be suggesting a more candid feel; stark black and white, deep lines. He looks aged, slightly worried.

In contrast, Atkinson's and Egan's official pictures are all softer-focussed, more highly exposed. The two women look out with an enigmatic 'smize' - Tyra Banks' word for smiling with your eyes. (I know, because I try to do it when I'm being snapped.)

Egan is 54, Atkinson 65, Murakami 67. Some rule about roles seems to be at play here. Is it okay for Murakami to present himself as older, but not the women? Why?

Recently I heard Evelyn Conlon, that marvellous, older writer, say she never understood the term 'good looking'. How can you tell, she said, until you talk to the person?

I love that: that it's only up close, seeing the spirit animate the flesh, that you understand real beauty. Of those three writers, I've only talked to Atkinson, and I found her humanity gorgeous to behold. No photo could ever do it justice. But will I remember that, next time I look into a camera lens?

Writer Mia Gallagher lives in Dublin. She won the Irish Tatler Literature Award for her acclaimed debut novel HellFire .

Her grandmother Lisa Gerhardt was born in Berlin and moved to Ireland in the 1930s. Mia's connection with Lisa, and her need to make sense of the German 'side' of her ancestry, was one of the key influences in writing Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland.

Exclusive extract: 'She can feel the smear of his gaze on her naked back'

It would  make her laugh if she wasn't so f**king tired. She is fumbling with the keys of the hall door when it's pushed open from the outside. The movement is sudden and should surprise her, but the heat has slowed everything, including her reflexes. Spears of light outline a silhouette. The Poet. She's not sure if he really is a poet, but the name fits.

He's dishevelled in that Irish way - she knows he's Irish; she's heard him talk on the phone - long-haired, bearded, with a distracted look in his puffed-out eyes. Today he's wearing dirty jeans and a scruffy T-shirt printed with an overblown Celtic motif.

Through the cotton she can smell his sweat, mixed with something chemical. He sees her and, in a sloppy, fluid movement, leans against the doorpost so she'll have to walk past him to get out. With the beard, it's impossible to tell if he's good looking, or even what age he is; she's assumed he's older than her, late 20s, early 30s.

In idle, dangerous moments, of which she's had too many recently, she's started to make up things about him. Imagining he has a weak chin, which is why he's covered it up with all that hair. Or some shameful congenital defect - a missing testicle, or six toes, or an extra nipple beside his bellybutton - which has forced him to take refuge in the bottle. Otherwise, it would be all too predictable. Pickled Irishman takes a fancy to mysterious English stranger. His gaze drops to her breasts.

She pushes the bike forward, deliberately wheeling it over his foot. He grunts.

His breath is pungent, a mix of alcohol, cigarettes and sugary tea. His mouth twists to speak, but today of all days she really doesn't have an inclination for conversation.

She walks out. The heatwave encloses her like a glove. The front door is still open behind her and she can feel the loose smear of the Poet's gaze on her naked, halternecked back as she bumps the bike down the crumbling steps. Come, come, sisters. Come, come the revolution. It would make her laugh if she wasn't so f**king tired.

Extracted from Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland by Mia Gallagher. Published by New Island Books €14.95

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