Read four exclusive extracts from Stylist’s new book, Beauty Reimagined, by inspiring women who give social expectations the middle finger.
BODY-POSITIVE ACTIVITIST AND MODEL
“I was 16 years old when I decided to grow my facial hair. I made the decision after my GSCEs and let it grow out over the six-week summer holiday. So when I returned to my school in Slough for the sixth form, I was a girl with a beard.
It took several years for me to reach the point where I felt able to do this, and it was bullies that had pushed me to that point. Indian people can be quite hirsute anyway, and I have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which is a hormonal disorder affecting one in 10 women worldwide. The condition affects how your ovaries work and the side effects can range from irregular periods and infertility to excess androgen – high levels of ‘male’ hormones in your body. This can mean that not only do you lose hair from your head, You might also have excess facial or body hair.
I didn’t actually realise that I had facial hair until I started being tormented for it. The bullying started in primary school – just casual taunts at first, like, “Harnaam’s got a moustache.” I was in Year 6 when I remember looking in the mirror and thinking, wow, I really do have unwanted hair.
The bullying stepped up in secondary school. In my early teens, it was a case of just trying to get through the day, keep my mental health intact and not get beaten up. I was pushed against lockers, I was cornered and had balls kicked at me, I was stabbed in the hand with a pen… I even received death threats. They said they were going to burn my house down while I was sleeping. I suffered fat-shaming as well, including having food thrown at me (weight gain can also be a symptom of PCOS).
These experiences led me to have panic and anxiety attacks in school. It was around then that I started self-harming. I hated my body and I wanted to punish it because my body was the reason that I was being bullied. It was also a way of releasing energy and trying to gain control.
People who have not been through self-harm might find it hard to understand, but I just wanted to feel.
At my lowest point, I felt suicidal. I actually felt that the world would be better off without me in it. Then I had an epiphany: how dare I allow myself to feel like this when my bullies are happily going out and having fun? I reached a state where I felt like I’d been through everything. I’d heard every negative name you can imagine. There was nothing that anyone could say any more that was going to shockme. I had hit rock bottom and there was nowhere else for me to go. I had tried so hard to remove my beard every day and I was still bullied so I decided to try embracing my natural body. I thought, well, if you’re going to bully me, I’m going to give you something to bully me about.”
ACTIVIST AND ACTOR
“Hollywood affects your mind and beauty standards in ways that you may not even be aware of. The same thing happens in the media industry, and in advertising, but Hollywood is particularly devious. It’s on purpose, it’s calculated, and they do a really good job.
For me, my hair was always tied into job security, and I resented it. I always had my hair blow-dried, because then I wouldn’t have to deal with it for at least a few days. I thought that getting my hair blown-out was the closest I could get to living in a more effortless fashion, like a man gets to. It’s a strange thing when you are packaged and marketed and sold as a sex symbol. It ostracises you from most people. Many women scorned me, and many men thought that they could touch me.
Living in that blown-out look, I think I became immune to my external self, where I could no longer see what I looked like. Looking back, I’m actually embarrassed it got so out of hand. The hairdressers just kept making it bigger, and I just failed to notice. This went on for years. That is what I finally looked at. I looked at my hair. I looked at myself. I looked at why I had the big hair on my head. And I decided I was done.
One day, I had had enough. Enough with being a brunette Barbie doll. When I shaved my head, there was no moment of freaking out, no moment of, ‘Oh my god, I need my hair back.’ It was simply a moment of total freedom. It was beautiful to me, and it felt great. Now, maybe I am not as attractive to the traditionally minded. But, so what? Why would I want to fit in that paradigm anyway? I tried it, and it didn’t work for me. Maybe it doesn’t work for you either.
Right now, you might be thinking, “I like my long hair”, which is great. Everyone should look however they want to look. Just be sure to check in with yourself and decide why. Do you look like what you want to look like, or are you adhering to society’s rules of what you’re supposed to be? If you go down the rabbit hole and look at the end result, it’s often that the pressure of having to be societally attractive is involved. Or maybe you simply like longer hair – just do a check-in with yourself and see. There are many women who have breast implants, artificial nails, hair extensions, fake tan… all of these things are fine as long as it’s truly for themselves. Who is dictating worth? Is it you, or someone else? Is it you or social pressure?”
POET AND MODEL
The times when I felt my lowest were the times when I was the most vulnerable. Falling into hell didn’t matter so much if I felt myself in proximity to beauty. It seemed to cover up the sheer ugliness of anything else. It meant changing my reality, or at least the face of it – from losing weight to getting more [modelling] jobs, or saying yes when I was being pursued and didn’t know how to say no.
The beauty myth – it might be the largest lie we are ever told. The lie about size. The lie about race and weight and gender. I only really became free of my own addictions, disorders and insecurities when that became clear to me.
When I realised the extreme beauty of being exactly who you are. I have been a writer since childhood, but I stopped myself for years. It was never that I didn’t think I had anything to say, it was because I could not equate it to beauty, to attractiveness, and I took my true creative passion for granted because I could not see the quick fix in it. Where was the importance? Time and time again it was abandoned in pursuit of another type of validation – things that I thought made me feel better.
These days, beauty lies in something else entirely for me. It lies in honesty and transparency. It lies in the truth of things and the transmutation of lived experience, terrible or not. I think the largest disservices we do to ourselves, to our souls, can happen in the name of beauty. Perhaps only because we have misinterpreted it.
When I think of beauty now, I think of sharing, of being more than enough, of being of service. I feel most beautiful when I am laughing, when I am making someone laugh, when I am creating, when I am helping anyone create. When I am sharing and speaking to experiences that we all have.
There is an inner light that comes through when we step into our true power – not one that is superimposed, stretched into or painted on. It radiates. It’s greater than a glow – it’s incandescent.
MP FOR WALTHAMSTOW
“All too often for female politicians, it’s our appearance, not our arguments, that gets the primary attention. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder but, in our unequal world, it is also in the eye of the electorate.
For those women who want to change the world, the expectations about what they must look like in order to be ‘taken seriously’ can be crippling – in the case of footwear, literally. For a real revolution, we need to rip up the old rules and champion the beauty that diversity can bring to all our lives.
I’ve never enjoyed being told how I should look. When I was 11, my mother and I had a furious row about a pink bolero jacket which she felt would be perfect for me, and which I was ready to seek adoption if she made me wear. Even then, I knew the fight wasn’t really about the outfit – it was about being able to tell me what to do. How I chose to present myself – and, as a teenager, it involved, at points, blue lipstick and pink hair dye – wasn’t about style so much as the substance of my attempts at rebellion against the mainstream. I didn’t want to be silent or conventional in any way. My choices, like my opinions, were about being different. I didn’t want to fit into a world that didn’t fit the world I wanted to live in.
In adult life, that pressure to look a certain way in order to meet someone else’s assumptions has been non-stop. The temp agency boss with the shocking-pink lipstick who demanded I buy a blazer and lose weight when I was 18 so she could comfortably send me to make cups of tea for bankers. The Labour Party staffer who told me when I was picked as a candidate that I needed to have my ‘colours’ done – apparently, I was a ‘sludge’ – for people to find me appealing. I had already spent a month’s salary on a frumpy pillar-box red suit, heavy foundation and bouffant hair for the selection process because I was told to look ‘older’ – again, to be ‘taken seriously’. I’m not sure the Dolly Parton effect it produced swung any vote. Each of these moments was a reminder that, as a woman, your value lies in what others see of you and find attractive in you, not in what you say.
That hasn’t stopped, even after having won elections. As a female MP, I receive comments about my appearance almost daily, from the man who wrote asking for video footage of me pulling off the knee-high boots I’d worn on TV to the commentators who suggest I’m wearing make-up for them rather than because I’m on screen. When I cut my hair short, several male colleagues spent a week debating whether this meant I was now a lesbian. Because, still, when it comes to women, how you look is used to judge who you are, whatever words you say.”
Our second book is a collection of essays by 11 women, including Caitlin Moran, Chidera Eggerue and Jess Glynne. Beauty Reimagined: Life Lessons On Loving Yourself Inside And Out (Penguin, £9.99) is available now at Waterstones.
Photography: Camera press, Shutterstock, Mike McGregor