At some point around five years ago I went online shopping for new pants, as you do, and was jolted to see plus-size models in their knickers on the Marks & Spencer website. When I say ‘plus-size’ I mean, of course, women whose bodies are like mine. Like the classic Dove ‘Real Beauty’ campaign that kicked off this trend in 2004, the brightly-lit M&S photography featured clustered swarms of overweight women laughing in seam-free underwear, rolls of puckered flab and writhing thighs in shades of coffee, rose and milk.
The trouble was that I had spent decades very deliberately not looking at myself in my underwear, and this sudden representation felt both intrusive and, somehow, extremely unkind. These bodies - and my own - seemed grotesque. Forgive me: I grew up in the ‘80s, when anorexia was aspirational. I know we’re not supposed to talk like this.
For years, women like me wanged on about body positivity, size 0, Photoshop and unattainable idealism. (Convening task forces on these issues comprised about 90% of what the LibDems did in government in the early 2010s.) But I, at least, was paying lip service. I didn’t think anything would change, and I didn’t think it was very important. The popular wisdom in the ‘80s and ‘90s said that sales fell whenever images of ‘bigger’ women were used in advertising or on magazine covers, and that certainly reflected my own aversion to those images. I performatively tutted and sighed while believing that this was just the way the world was, and who cares anyway?
And then a different generation of women came along, women who had - at least in some ways - grown up in a healthier and more representative media environment. When they reached adulthood and started buying stuff with their own money it was revealed that the body positivity movement had, actually, achieved something. And it’s turned out to be quite a big deal.
Over the past decade or so the straightforward representation of not-slim women has moved firmly into the mainstream, from in-store displays and home page images to on-screen talent and billion-selling pop stars. Heroin chic has become the preserve of luxury goods, which makes it a handy heuristic: if all the models are size 6, you can safely close the tab knowing you can’t afford anything on it. (Wolford, a ‘heritage’ brand selling extremely expensive tights, clings to the ‘80s soft porn aesthetic of naked shaved pudenda and metre-long legs of impossible skinniness; compare and contrast with Millennial favourite Snag.) The amnesty is extended not only to fatness but to scarring, ageing, hair where it ‘shouldn’t’ be, blemishes, blotches and sweat. It’s an astonishing turnaround, conceived and executed at speed.
Speed, and a kind of brightly coercive falsity, are common attributes of Millennial cultural blitzkriegs: rather than arguing things should be a certain way, they simply insist that they are a certain way. We are told that told that very plump people are ‘rocking it’ when we privately think they are not rocking it, not really. (Although now we are much more likely to keep those thoughts on the inside of our heads, where they belong.) And there’s not much interrogation of whether attractiveness is a worthy goal, of whether the really admirable people are those who are actively uninterested in rocking it. All of this thoroughly distracts us old folks; we’re so busy squabbling with the premise that we don’t notice people seizing the TV stations.
But in this case at least, the outcome has justified the means. Body positivity has been an admirably complete Millennial success. It’s practical and useful, simple and inclusive. And it has had a significant real-world impact, forcing a material change in the way women experience the world and the relationships we have with our own bodies. Each time I go out to buy jeans and end up looking at suboptimal views of myself in the ghastly 360 mirrors, the thought comes a little stronger: well, this is what my body looks like. It’s an entirely accurate reflection of my choices, and of the life I’ve been lucky to live. It’s not perfect, but it’s absolutely fine.
When it comes to facial beauty, though, it seems we’re more resistant. This is the train of thought that sent me back to the BBC’s four-part adaptation of Fay Weldon’s Live and Loves of a She-Devil, first broadcast in 1986 at the height of the Jane Fonda eyeshadow-and-aerobics tyranny. She-Devil is the story of Ruth (played by newcomer Julie T Wallace), a meek and thrillingly ugly housewife whose husband Robert (Dennis Waterman) falls in love with the wispy and pretty Mary (Patricia Hodge). Ruth’s ugliness is her defining quality, and the motor of the plot. She isn’t just ‘not pretty’, or ‘a bit funny looking’; she is repellent.
Unusually, the makers of the TV show did not cast a pretty actress and get her to wear a fat suit and minimal make-up. They cast Wallace, a towering woman with a lantern jaw and an enormous frame, and asked her to gain three stones. (Ruth’s hugeness - her height and her prop-forward physique - is shown as being part and parcel of her ugliness.) Then they gave her a monobrow, a moustache and prominent hairy moles.
The relish with which the series portrayed female ugliness - the ugliness of a relatively young woman, not an old crone - was dynamite in the public consciousness. Wallace was a media sensation after the first episode was broadcast, with people clamouring to see what she looked like in real life. I find myself wanting to say here that Wallace is actually gorgeous, but that’s not really true (although she is perfectly fine-looking). And then I find myself wanting to delete that last sentence, because Wallace must have had a gutful of all of this at the time and I’m not usually the kind of arsehole who goes out of her way to be rude about people’s looks. After some thought I’ve tried to get around my own discomfort by adding that bit in brackets about her being perfectly fine-looking. But in doing so I’ve undermined my point, which is that we find it almost impossible to talk easily about ugliness or represent it, to comfortably acknowledge this fact of life in the way we’re beginning to acknowledge fatness. So. Wallace’s casting illustrates the creative commitment that makes She-Devil worth watching. She was brave to take the role, and the show-runners made a powerful choice when they cast her.
She-Devil is an uncomfortable mash-up of revenge fantasy, thriller and dark comedy, which was unusual in 1986 although it describes about 75% of what’s on Netflix now. It has longueurs of the kind you simply don’t get in dramas these days; every scene could be cut by two-thirds, and all around you there are great chunks of dialogue falling like masonry. But it’s compulsive because it unashamedly revels in its account of the experience of female ugliness from the inside. In Wallace’s unforgettable declamatory monotone, Ruth asks: ‘How do ugly women survive? We harden and we wait to grow old. We make good old women, us dogs.’
When I watched it the first time I hoped fervently for the makeover scene that I was sure must be coming. I love a makeover scene; they are incredibly satisfying, like speeded-up video of someone putting up shelves or tidying a messy room. It all speaks to our deep sense that beauty and order is the way things are supposed to be, that ugliness is a mistake that can be rectified with a little application. But She-Devil insists on Ruth’s ugliness throughout, pushing through the audience’s discomfort and resisting our preference for an easy solution. There is a moment of transformation for Ruth, but she is transformed by rage and her new identity is about power and control. In her new incarnation as the She-Devil she is all purple eyeshadow and Studio Line frightwig, and she is still as ugly as the day is long.
Ruth embarks on a twisted long-con of impersonation that will deliver revenge on the delicate Mary and the faithless Robert. She adopts a series of costumes: sober and mousey, permed and dramatic, a helmet-haired power suit for the business she sets up with fellow-freak Miriam Margolyes. She remains hideous at every turn, her bristling moles thrusting greasily through the foundation. But at the end we learn Ruth does indeed want her makeover. She travels to California for dangerously complex cosmetic surgery that turns her into Mary’s double. Hodge plays Ruth for the final few scenes, although Wallace continues to deliver the terrifying voiceovers, including the one that ends the show: ‘From now on all will bend to my convenience, including nature. Nature gets away with far too much; it has to be controlled. I thought it was a matter of male and female but it isn’t; it never was. It’s merely a matter of power.’
Where was Weldon - who died earlier this year - going with this? The most likely answer is that she wasn’t going anywhere in particular. My favourite interpretation of Weldon’s intentcomes from the academic and literary critic Lorna Sage, who died in 2001 and whose brilliant memoir Bad Blood is an object lesson in not giving a fuck about shame, reputation or other people’s stupid feelings. Sage said Weldon was a chronicler of chaos who aimed only to observe and document the swirling power shifts of the sex wars. Despite a lifetime of pointed femin-ish commentary, Weldon wasn’t trying to teach us anything. She portrayed ‘wicked problems’ with no clear solutions, and like Germaine Greer seemed to delight in annoying everybody.
Perhaps this is why She-Devil feels like a counsel of despair. Weldon gives Ruth two options: to accept her fate as a dog and wait to grow old and hard, or to conform to society’s beauty standards. Is it a victory, to transform yourself into something the world is happier to accept? Ruth thinks she has won, but enduring great pain to obliterate your own face seems like a defeat to me, while adopting your rival’s face is just paying homage.
Subscribe to The Metropolitan to get essays like this delivered free to your inbox every Saturday morning.
With bums and thighs and bellies Millennials have demonstrated the transformative power of self-acceptance, but when it comes to facial beauty the fundamental problems remain: the quixotic unfairness of beauty and ugliness, and our compulsive, unbidden and entirely disproportionate responses to them. For centuries we have believed that women’s essential natures are revealed in the extent to which they are beautiful or ugly; now we are beginning to extend that madness to young men too. People in the UK spent around 10 million euros on cosmetics and personal care in 2021 (about half a million of that was me). In the ‘80s we obsessed over make-up, the powders and paints that conceal; now the vogue is for ‘skincare’ that promises to improve the quality of the canvas, bestowing an expensive ‘glow’ and beauty that comes ‘from the inside’. Cosmetics websites, which necessarily major on women’s faces, rejoice in androgynous bone structure and great sprays of freckles and wild eyebrows, but they never show ugliness. Whatever you’re selling, ugliness alone resists representation, exempt from the Millennial amnesty.
In a way this is odd. If you’re in the business of commissioning compulsively memorable visuals, ugliness is right there. The image of Wallace as Ruth was extraordinarily potent, much more so than any picture of a pretty woman. (Think of Quinten Massys’ famous portrait ‘An Old Woman’.) When I say Ruth was thrillingly ugly, she really was thrilling. Her image provoked an almost physical response, revulsion and fascination but also empathy and solidarity. Few women have not at some point felt themselves to be ugly, and few women watched She-Devil without willing Ruth on, every step of the way. Given the sensation the series caused it seems odd that the trick that has so rarely been used since, but perhaps grotesque women are just too hot to handle. (Ugly Betty (2006-10) was not ugly, she merely wore braces and spectacles.)
The least painful exchanges in She-Devil come when people - usually old people - take a matter-of-fact approach to Ruth’s appearance. ‘I like ugly people!’ says one elderly man; ‘they’re in touch with reality!’ Not many people are willing to tackle the topic so freely, perhaps because it’s so difficult to do it without fishing for compliments or inflicting personal cruelty. The issue remains in long-term quarantine, surrounded by a bright ring of warning. Weldon’s jaunty nihilism offered no solutions, but the choice of subject alone made She-Devil a roaring popular success. For a brief, electrifying moment we looked ugliness square in the face.
For more ‘80s portrayals of women:
See Mary Eagleton’s wonderful article about critical responses to Fay Weldon: https://academic.oup.com/cww/article/11/2/259/4080713
Weldon’s sympathetic account of Ruth’s transformative surgery feels like an intentional reference to what we then called ‘sex-change’ procedures, but in her last years Weldon was to be found firmly on the gender-critical side of this argument, to the surprise of absolutely nobody.
Loved this piece. I'm also fat, totally benefit from this "millennial success" you mention, and appreciate the plain old utilitarian-ness of seeing clothes on similar bodies to mine before buying them. I would love to check out this show, which my American self had never heard of before.
I find some of it overdone and cloying at times, though. Why all the gosh darn constant obsession with our bodies (positive or not) in every possible venue at all times? Call me an idealist, but I was taught it's what's inside that counts, I truly believe it, and I'm trying to teach my kids that a person's appearance is often the least interesting thing about them, once you really dig in.
I feel very uncomfortable with the Snag ads. I'm fat, but ordinary fat, small-time fat. The images for Snag (I have lots of their tights) feels fetishistic. Lots of truly enormous women wearing not just tights but border-line porno. Exploitative.