A lot of my life is about control. As a formerly overweight person, I have to be extremely vigilant about diet and exercise, lest I gain the weight back. As a person with mental health problems, I have to remember to take my medication, and be constantly monitoring my mental state for signs of an imminent bout of self-destructive despair. As a freelancer, I am the only person responsible for when I work, how much I work, and how successful my career is - no one else is going to remind me, nag me or pick up the slack if I don't keep a grip on my work.
Being female, or should I say, successfully fitting the dominant stereotype of what a female should be, also requires a great deal of control. You're expected to control your body - how slim it is, how toned it is, keep it free of hair, marks, wrinkles, sags and yet still have flesh in all the right places. You're expected to control your face - keep it constantly fresh-looking, dewy, unmarked, unlined and of course always smiling, pleasing to others and preferably fully made-up. You're expected to control your hair - even if it's meant to look 'tousled' or 'just-got-out-of-bed', you should still have preferably spent hours colouring, conditioning, applying products, blow-drying, tonging and spraying in order to achieve that wild, devil-may-care look. You're expected to control your body's excretions - cover the smell of your sweat, mask any smells your suspicious lady-parts may emit, and hide the fact you ever menstruate from anyone, even those most intimately acquainted with your body. You're expected to control your emotions, lest anyone assume you are 'hormonal', 'hysterical', or behaving like a 'typical woman' and decides to use this to attempt to discredit the whole female race. You're expected to control your fertility, even if that means increasing your risk of certain cancers, or causing weight gain, horrific depression, migraines, nausea or an array of other side effects - you're simply expected to be grateful that you have any control over whether you have children or not, because your unfortunate foremothers did not enjoy such a luxury, and why should it be down to men anyway when they're not the ones who get pregnant? And, of course, you're expected to control your sexuality - it should be constantly bubbling under the surface and suggestible to everyone while not being 'blatant' or 'desperate' and not intimidating to the opposite sex, it should be apparent from the way you dress and act without, of course, making you come across as a 'slag', it should 'ask for it' without 'asking for it', and of course if you put a foot wrong in how you express it, you should resign yourself to the fact that you'll be labelled either a prude or whore, and if you're a victim of sexual aggression, the way you presented yourself will be the first thing people will focus on, rather than the person who attacked you. Because men's control of themselves and their actions is rarely, if ever, under the microscope the way women's apparent failure to control their wild and tempting sexuality is.
(Think about it. A man who attacks a woman is excused as 'not being able to help himself'; the woman is accused of 'leading him on'. Men are portrayed as passive victims of their own unstoppable, unquestionable sexuality, and the question of them exercising control over their desire to sexually violate someone is never up for debate. It's the woman who apparently should have exercised control - over how she dressed, how she looked, how she spoke to him. Funny how the only times we attribute power to women are the times when they are utterly powerless - just a way to add insult to injury, really. But I digress.)
I got to thinking about control while pondering the concept of 'The Cool Girl', as made famous in Gillian Flynn's psychological thriller Gone Girl (described by some as feminist, others as misogynist - I generally just view it as sociopathic with the odd pseudo-feminist rant thrown in to justify utterly self-serving behaviour, myself). Just a quick reminder of how Flynn describes the mythical 'Cool Girl':
"Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want."
I think a lot of women smiled wryly and sighed with relief when they read this passage. Finally, someone had identified this utterly false phenomenon and called it by its true name, and pointed out that no such person actually exists. Women who were tired of explaining to people precisely why you cannot throw caution to the wind and behave exactly how you want and still expect anyone to find it attractive now had a neat explanation, nestled within the pages of a best-selling novel. Everyone's seen the advert where the woman with jutting collarbones and visible hipbones pretends to get orgasmic over creamy yoghurt or full-fat chocolate and thinks "Yeah, like SHE actually eats any of that - bet she spat it out as soon as the director called 'cut.'" Everyone's seen yet another female character supposedly waking up au naturel when she's clearly in full make-up. And plenty of us have watched One Day and wondered why the makers were happily willing to age the fuck out of Jim Sturgess' character Dexter but could not bring themselves to put even a smidge of ageing make-up on Anne Hathaway who played Emma, even though we are supposed to be watching the character across the timespan of 20 years.
Still, it can hard to remember that no one possesses the Cool Girl Secret. We all will have some facets - some girls can eat what they want without gaining a pound. Some girls do genuinely enjoy football, video games, sci-fi and rugby. Some girls have a very high sex drive and are very adventurous in the bedroom, and some of us would rather eat broken glass than spend a Saturday trailing dreamy-eyed around Ikea or a wedding fair (yo!). But we'll all have an Achilles' heel that means we don't quite make the grade. Sometimes I become more conscious of mine when I feel like other girls are more 'fun' than me. I can't eat or drink what I want, because my shitty genes mean that it would not be difficult for me to gain back the 3 stone I worked hard to lose in order to be a healthy weight for my height. It would also not be difficult for me to be even heavier, and therefore even less healthy. If I never had to see another human being again as long as I lived, I imagine I would get obese pretty quickly, because we all have a catastrophic trapdoor that we could fall through if we truly 'lost control', and eating is pretty sure to be mine. But in this life, I would like to be reasonably healthy. I would also like to be attractive. I know I should be musing on higher things and telling myself that it's what inside that counts, but I'm honest. I want a life that includes feeling sexy, and I certainly want a life that includes having sex with people who find me sexy. If I were happy to be celibate and hermetic for the rest of my days, then great - bring on the red velvet cupcakes and deep-friend mac n' cheese balls. But I know where that would lead - so I have to keep exercising control.
There are other trapdoors that I know await me, and they also make me feel like the opposite of the cool girl some days. I can't stay out as late as I want, because sleep is massively important to my mental and physical wellbeing. I also have to take medication to help me sleep, and if I don't take it at a certain time at night, I won't be able to wake up the next morning. Which will in turn impinge on my ability to work, socialise and do the things that keep me sane, such as roller derby. So any night out involves a constant eye on the clock, and the luxury of full relaxation in the knowledge that it doesn't matter what time I get to bed is one I cannot enjoy. Drinking excessively is not open to me for this reason, and is also connected to the weight issue (when I was heavier, a lot of my body was composed entirely of Strongbow). I'm also an introvert at heart, and can only take so much group activity before I long for the satisfying intimacy of a one-to-one with a good friend, or an intense exchange with a small group of trusted people. Those who know me well enough understand this, and won't assume I'm rude or snobby or 'high maintenance' just because I sometimes need to be alone and haven't got the energy to assume a persona that's not true to me. But when I look at other girls drinking and joking and larking as I slope off to take my Quetiapine and read in bed, I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a twinge of "Guh, why am I so dull, and how do they manage it?"
I've managed to hang on to enough self esteem over the years to be proud of carving my own path, to know that what I need and what I aspire to are very different from what the majority of women my age seem to pursue. I don't want: marriage, children, monogamy, a career that's 'stable' at the expense of being fulfilling, or pots of money at the expense of having a life. I do want: great friends, fun lovers, travel, adventure, a career that is nothing other than what I want and makes enough money to keep body and soul together, and a neverending supply of good books. Like most of us, I also want to enjoy physical and mental health. I'll probably never manage to balance these demands with the expectation that I be slim, smiley, fragrant, hairless, uncomplaining and 'fun', and in general I couldn't care less, since those in my life like me just the way I am and most of the time, so do I. It's just sometimes hard to remember that those other women, who in my shameful, petty and insecure moments seem to me like shining examples of all the things I can't be because I have to spend so much of my life exercising so much damn control, will also be nursing insecurities and fatal trapdoors of their own.
But that's feminism, innit. Being kind to yourself, and being kind to other women too, however much mental work it takes. Because the most feminist thing you can realise is that none of us are The Cool Girl, nor should we want to be, because she's ultimately just a patriarchal fantasy. What we all are is simply cool girls, every one.