Sadie Hasler’s search for personal style has hit a hiccup. Like so many of us, she knows she needs to come to terms with what’s under her clothes before she goes shopping.
This Styling It Out is being written in my pants because it’s so freaking hot. I can’t think of anything worse than going into a hot sticky shop to buy clothes to put on my body when I could just sit here in a three-quid vest. So in that semi-nude spirit, I’m going back to basics. Here is an ode and a lament to the layer beneath the clothes; the only innate style we were all born with – our birthday suit.
Here’s to the baseline of all style quandaries. The vexing but beautiful headfuck that is the human bloody body.
On the bathroom wall while I was growing up were four small sepia pictures of nudie girls. They were dead old-fashioned looking, and though their breasts were bare, their more vital parts were shielded by a folded leg or carefully placed hand mirror. They had dark-rimmed eyes, relaxed wavy bobs, and cheeky expressions like they’d just been caught having a secret burp or some preliminary Sarah Waters-style fondlings.
In gold writing beneath were the words ‘Edwardian Parlour Girls’ and for years while I was weeing I would wonder who the eff Edward and Ian were, how these girls came to belong to them, and what was a bloody parlour anyway. It was far too many years later that I realised the word was in fact pertaining to the reigning king at the time they were snapped. (Bit slow, me.)
I was fascinated by the parlour girls, not because they were naked – I was always stomping around without my clothes on as kids are wont to do – but because their bodies were different to mine. And they were different to my mummy’s body, which was familiar as my blanket, and my sister’s body, my bathtime companion, which was just like mine but two years smaller.
They were strange because I didn’t know them. Their bodies were mysterious, but somehow inviting. Like the future. And I suppose as I got older I began to notice, question, and then understand the knowingness in their eyes, those sultry funsters.
What I love most about these pictures now that I look back – I can still see their faces even though Mum got rid of them years ago – was that they were imperfect models.
Their breasts were small yet not particularly pert, their bellies rounded beneath the navel, their thighs grabbable, their calves sturdy, their waists neither slender nor thick, and their hips had were whatever the Edwardian version of ‘muffin-tops’ was, and when they turned their torsos to the camera, the swivel point squished up an inch of pinchable fat.
They were perfectly ordinary naturally shaped women, totally desirable, unaided by corseting or obscuration, sitting around being utterly comfortable in their own skin.
They were not pulling their bodies into unnatural tantalising positions, they were not evoking obvious thoughts of sex, they were not passive, nor were they sucking in the bits of them still swollen from a big lunch. And these girls ate freely, you could tell. I bet they had a platter of cold cuts and fruit just off to the side of the chaise longue. They seemed very much of their own world, of their own moments, of their own reasons. They seemed free.
“They didn’t seem like unattainable perfection. They seemed like real women who enjoyed being real, who liked their real lives, which they lived to the full.”
Last time I was in Paris I bought similar postcards from a grizzly old dude with a barrow on the banks of the Seine. I handpicked them without acknowledging to myself why I was drawn to them, or why I then unthinkingly put them up in my bathroom when I got home.
Then I realised. I wanted to go back to those girls. They were my poster girls. They were my first pin-ups. I was drawn to them because they were my first version of intimacy, my first vision of femininity, unsullied by the adult world of telly, films, magazines, or by Eva Herzigová’s Wonderbra ads or Cindy Crawford’s legs or Elle Macpherson’s taut midriff that splattered my bedroom walls as a teen. They represented the time when I had natural expectations of what kind of woman I might shape up to be.
And what was wonderful is because they were so real, I didn’t long to be them. They didn’t seem like unattainable perfection. They seemed like real women who enjoyed being real, who liked their real lives, which they lived to the full.
My Parisian stand-ins for my parlour girls are healthy images to have up in the bathroom I suppose. They are what my eyes fall on as I climb out of the shower and see my body in the mirror opposite. For they are trying to say, “Whatever your shape today, you are OK. Look at us, we’ve got bits to spare and we rather like them.”
The mirror doesn’t encourage me like that. I have never liked looking at myself naked, even when I was skinny and didn’t jiggle when I ran. I have never been comfortable in my own skin. I need clothes to loan me security in myself, but that only goes as deep as the fabric.
Underneath I am never content. That makes me sad, not because I can’t handle being imperfect – Christ, you have to accept that or you’ll go nuts – but because I have got over much bigger things in the past and yet this still seems quietly insurmountable.
It vexes me that body image is still so important even when you are doing things with your brain that make you happy, which surely is more important. Isn’t it? Or is it?
I have been thinking about all this a lot since the ‘beach body’ shitstorm that couldn’t fail to pervade even my media-eschewing daze. I saw pictures of ‘ordinary women’ in their bikinis, telling the world that they might not be models but that they were bloody going to frolic about in a two-piece anyway. I liked the ‘What is beach body ready anyway, you fucks?’ spirit. I found myself almost wanting to take my own bikini selfie, just for myself. To say, “Hey girl, you’re OK.” But I can think of nothing worse than actually doing it and then looking at it. Bleurgh. I can’t even remember the last time I wore a bikini. I actually can’t.
I have just turned 35, and I feel podgy and like I need to make changes. I sit on my arse typing a lot, and walking the dog and dashing up and down stairs isn’t enough anymore. The fact is, women don’t just compare themselves to each other and to perma beach body ready models, but also to better versions of themselves, or the selves we know we could be with a bit more effort. That is what plagues us. That which is in our own hands but which we do not take.
I am not the skinny 17-year-old who can wear anything anymore. I have a growing list of things that simply don’t suit my shape. I am allowing myself to get chubby without doing a jot about it. In short I feel stuck. I want to embrace things, myself, my body, and clothes, with the freedom of those Edwardian pin-ups that I grew up with, but I need to try harder to get there. And then maybe I can fuckin’ take my inner parlour girl outside into the sun.2024 Views
Sadie is a playwright, actor, columnist, artistic director of Old Trunk theatre company, and frequently discombobulated multi-tasker.