Why We Need To Drop Out Of 'Competition Culture' Once And For All
The famed photographer and media personality brings the body image real talk in her new book, It's Messy: On Boys, Boobs and Badass Women.
By every measure, Amanda de Cadanet’s career is an impressive one. At age 15, she was the host of a British television show; soon after, her photography career took off, and she went on to become to become the youngest woman ever to shoot a cover for Vogue.
She’s also the creator of The Conversation, a video interview series that’s featured Lady Gaga, Sarah Silverman, Zoe Saldana, Chelsea Handler, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Hillary Clinton, to name a few. And last year, de Cadenet launched #Girlgaze, a digital media company with an all-female team, dedicated to highlighting the work of young women photographers and directors.
Yet despite all this illustrious success, de Cadanet has never been stranger to crippling self doubt. In her latest book, It’s Messy: On Boys, Boobs and Badass Women, she takes a deep and brutally honest dive into the struggles of living under a microscope—having your nascent marriage fall apart in the public eye, finding her own perspective as a photographer in a field built on the male gaze, and all the complicated, messy situations in between.
Below, de Cadanet examines what it means to attempt to take ownership of your body and the paradoxes therein, when every message our culture sends us seems to discourage against it.
The below is adapted with permission from It's Messy: On Boys, Boobs and Badass Women by Amanda de Cadanet, Ch. 11, p. 175-180 (Harper Wave 2017).
The media rarely shows accurate representations of women, especially the messy parts and the bits that are unsexy and unglamorous. The overall message we’re given time and time again is that We Are Not Okay. We need to look like Her. We need to have a life like Her. We need to have Her marriage, Her pregnancy, and it all needs to unfold in a well-ordered, culturally approved sequence.
As someone who did it in the wrong order for reasons no one approved of, I can tell you it doesn’t have to be that way. No one gets to tell anyone else how to look, how to feel about their body, or how to live. No one gets to write the script for us. If I believe in anything, it’s that we have the power to create our own lives.
So how do we go forward, loving and living in our bodies if we are not the size the world insists we must be in order to be considered valuable or indeed viable?
Let me remind you...
Being valued for your beauty alone is not all it’s cracked up to be. The power and value of desirability notwithstanding, there comes a time when, even for the most beautiful, it just gets old. We are more than our asses and eyelashes, our teeth and hair.
Ask any gorgeous woman and she will tell you that eventually her beauty overshadows her being seen for the multifaceted being she is. I’ve known many beautiful women who are smart, accomplished actors and have been mostly denied the opportunity to play complex women.
Instead, their careers have been built on playing the hot girlfriend, the hot mistress, or the supermodel who gets murdered. Perhaps being complicated in addition to being beautiful is too much for our misogynistic culture to handle.
In addition to being relentlessly judged for and ranked by our looks, we live in a time when women and girls are expected to look flawless 24/7. For people in the public eye, the paparazzi have always been out there, but now that we’re all madly snapping and posting pictures of each other, the pressure to look great at all times is exhausting and ultimately sets all women up for failure.
Consider the joys of being low maintenance
In some ways I feel fortunate to have grown up in the UK where the obsession with beauty isn’t quite what it is in the States. We did not have blow dry bars, eyebrow bars, and makeovers in the mall. Affordable nail salons are a fairly recent development, so if you found a way to get a manicure, you were lucky.
If you see photos of me at events, most of the time my hair is in its natural state and my main effort at makeup is lipstick. And lots of mascara. Most likely applied in the car en route.
I also don’t subscribe to the expectation that I’ll buy something new for every event I attend. A few years ago, I did an experiment: I wore the same dress multiple times over a six-month period to red carpet and other events. I just switched up the bag, shoes, and jewelry. Guess what? No one noticed, or gave a shit.
Whether it’s a fancy event or just going to work, the same pressure exists for women to have a perfect mani-pedi, perfect hairless body parts, dyed and straightened and shiny hair. I find it exhausting and will never wind up on anyone’s “best dressed” list because I just don’t care enough to compete. I will not participate in competition culture. Which woman wore what gown best? Can’t we just say they both wore it great and there is room for everyone to kill it in their chosen outfit?
Unless your body type is naturally thin, being skinny isn’t all it’s cracked up to be
As someone who’s been thin and miserable, I can tell you that the whole “nothing tastes as good as skinny” line is a bullshit myth, along with these gems:
1. Being skinny guarantees your life will be successful and full of love.
2. Being “not skinny” (everything from normal to curvy) means you’re lazy, undisciplined, and worthy of neither success nor love.
3. It’s better to be skinny and mentally unstable than accepting of your imperfect human body and healthy.
The truth is that when I’ve been at my thinnest I’ve also been my unhappiest. Once, after a particularly shitty breakup, I was so distressed that all I ate for two weeks were broccoli florets and soymilk. But I was thin and people would say, “You look AHMAZING. What are you doing?”
What I wanted to say was, “I have a violent boyfriend that got arrested, and he’s in jail, and I am completely strung out because I’m obsessed with not being with him anymore, and I can’t eat.” But I just avoided answering because the truth was too hard to share.
As a photographer I’ve been known to not photograph girls who are obviously underweight. Sadly, the same courtesy has not been extended to me regarding my curves. I was photographed for a major fashion campaign not long ago, and it was obvious that my boobs and ass weren’t going to fit in any of their sample clothing.
I eventually squeezed myself into a dress that fit me like a second skin. When I saw the finished pictures, my boobs and butt had all but disappeared. I politely asked that they put my T&A back where they belonged. I was told it was the first time a subject had ever asked to be “made bigger.”
“I didn’t ask to be made ‘bigger,’” I replied. “But could you please just put my body back the way it is? We will all be embarrassed if you don’t make me look like me.”
After many years navigating my shape and the “problems” my body has caused other people, I’ve committed to never allowing anyone, including myself, to make me feel bad about ME.
Words: Amanda de Cadanet