Hadley Free­man

I can chart my life by the things ran­dom men have cho­sen to tell me about my body

The Guardian - Weekend - - Contents -

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

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