I can chart my life by the things random men have chosen to tell me about my body
There has been much talk of late, online and off, about how much male writers love to describe women, and how bad they are at doing so. There have been witty Twitter threads mocking such descriptions (“She wasn’t perfectly thin, nor voluptuously curvy, but what she lacked in general body shape she more than made up for with her breasts.”) US culture website Vulture.com recently listed h how 50 female characters were described in their screenplays (“Sarah Connor is 19, small and delicate-featured. Pretty in a flawed, accessible way.”) And it is a truth universally acknowledged that being an appalling sexist is no bar to a man being celebrated as a great writer of the universal human spirit, as the reputations of John Updike and Ernest Hemingway prove; two writers who preferred to describe women, not as whole individuals, but as disparate anatomical parts then specify how those anatomical parts made them feel.
These kinds of discussions are especially amusing for those of us with a connection to the women described by the aforementioned men. I’m named after Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife who he dumped about five minutes after becoming successful. Long after Richardson had happily moved on with her life, Hemingway celebrated her in A Moveable Feast in classic Hemingway style, writing about “her beautiful, wonderfully strong legs” and “her hair red gold in the sun, grown out all winter awkwardly and beautifully”.
But even if I hadn’t grown up as the namesake of some strong legs and awkward hair, I would never say that male writers, specifically, are especially prone to making weird comments about women’s bodies. No, this is something men do, whatever their job. Women swap compliments (“I love your dress!” “Asos! I love your Zara boots!”), a female lingua franca that is a way of saying, “I see you and I understand you, because I am like you”.
By contrast, when a man feels entitled to tell a random woman how he sees her face, her body, her hair, this sends a very different message. It says that women exist to be observed and appraised, that they are decorative background players while men are the lead roles. So a female stranger might ask me where I got my coat from, but a random man on the train will tell me that I should smile because it would really brighten his day.
In fact, I can chart my life by the comments men have made about my physical appearance. (Not included: daily insults from strangers on the internet. Thank you, modern world!)
Age 13: at summer camp in Maine, three boys sit next to me and see I am reading a page of Hebrew. I say it’s my Torah portion for my batmitzvah next month. “Don’t you mean your barmitzvah?” one of the boys says, and the others snigger. Barmitzvahs are for boys and the point is that I am so flat-chested I am basically a boy. I promptly enter a decade-long period I call The Padded Bra Years.
Age 16: I am on weekend leave from hospital where I am being treated for anorexia. I go for a walk on our local high street. “Oy, anorexic! Eat a sandwich!” a pair of men shout at me as I walk past the bus stop. I go home.
Age 19: at university, a boy is in my room and we are kissing. He pulls away and studies my face, soulfully. “It’s really weird,” he begins. “Like, you can look really pretty one minute, and then completely change,” he says. Thank you!
Age 25: I am working as a fashion writer for this paper and I’m talking to a male journalist at a party. “If you cover fashion then why don’t you sort your hair out?” he says. I tell him most of my hair fell out as a teenager because of anorexia. He is annoyed I can’t “take a joke”.
Age 32: I spot a man (a male novelist, as it happens) who I have met multiple times before and say hi. He looks at me blankly, then the clouds clear. “Oh it’s you!” he says. “I didn’t recognise you because you have one of those faces that looks different every time. That’s so strange!”
“And you have one of those male brains that makes you think it’s OK to tell a woman what her face looks like to you,” I don’t reply.
Age 37: I am nine months pregnant with twins, and London is in the middle of a heatwave. Less than comfortable, I go to a pharmacy for advice. “You look like something from a nature documentary,” the chemist laughs. My mood is not improved.
Age 38: I have emerged from maternity leave and go to a party where I see a male acquaintance. “You know, I think you look better with the baby weight, actually,” he says, apropos of nothing.
Age 39: I mention to a male friend that I am going to write this column. “Maybe you’ll miss those comments when you’re older and men act like you’re invisible,” he says. I assure him I absolutely will not