I’m not attractive. At least, not in the traditional sense. Not in the tipsy-heterosexual-men-flocking-to-me sense. No, they usually flock to my best friend, three stone and six months my junior.
When I was 24, this would have bothered me. At the time, I was working for an agency (flattering, really — it was more of a content mill) that was heavily male-led. As the sole female writer, and indeed, the only female writer with any iota of authority, there was a lot of pressure.
Opposite me sat a group of male writers, all of whom were paid more than me, and were only expected to produce a third of my output. At first, I didn’t let it bother me. I was a content lead, sub-editing freelancers’ work and writing about more diverse subjects than just regurgitating the Daily Mail’s sports pages.
But after a while, I realised that I hadn’t been hired based on talent. Two key moments led me to this conclusion. One, when my vile operations manager told me in a drunken stupor that my ice bucket challenge video made him think “tits — let’s hire that”. Two, when said debauchee called me into his office and warned me that “the boys are easily led”, and that I was distracting them from their targets.
Naturally, this made my blood boil. This was pre-Me Too era and to some degree, this level of misogyny was almost expected in the workplace. I hate to admit it, but part of him was right. I’d started this job at a time when my self-esteem was at an all-time low. I’d previously been fired as a PA for a delusional one-woman band magazine publisher, a woman who would send my NCTJ-trained arse out to get her coffee, and derided me for not mentioning the Euro in a travel piece about Morocco.
This company took me on and gave me a role with autonomy. It soon transpired that for all its fun and games and midweek drinking, the money would run out. And while all this was going on, I got a kick out of being the only female writer. Would I strut past the sports desk to the water cooler? Probably. Why? Because I thought the only value I could offer was aesthetic. I was just the magazine-reject, whose sole purpose was to be an ornament rather than a writer. Or so I thought.
As time wore on, I became obsessed with achieving unrealistic body goals, and shed two stone in a year. I did not achieve this healthily. I cut out all carbs, became fixated by food labels, and scolded myself if I didn’t go to the gym. At my peak, I went to the gym 36 times in one month. I also recall days where I would ride my bike in a 20-minute lunch break to burn extra calories, or consume 150 calories per day.
When the money ran out, I left the agency and moved to another. This time, my boss was a woman, and she told me she’d hired me based on my writing. At no point did I feel I had to dress a certain way, or use carefully thought-out language around men to get what I wanted. Could it be that perhaps I was good at my job?
I got older and threw myself into other projects. I taught myself Teeline shorthand, passed my exams and started eating carbs again. Then I entered a marathon. My weight began to creep up as the draw of post-run flapjacks became too much.
After I passed my exams, I started freelancing in my spare time. After two years, I’d amassed a base of loyal, dependable clients, and could no longer hold down a full-time job. I thanked my boss for everything she’d taught me, and decided to go it alone.
Of all the clients I’d taken on, not one of them was interested in what I looked like. In fact, to this day, many of them I haven’t even met. Some of them are heterosexual women, and some of them are heterosexual men — but when I talk to them, I don’t feel like I’m being judged by how attractive I am. Only now can I proudly present a portfolio to them, and speak with confidence, rather than hiding behind red lipstick and a nervous giggle.
Five years later, I’m three stone heavier. In the last year alone, on three separate occasions people have made comments about my weight. One woman asked if I was pregnant, and then reminded herself that I’d just “been on holiday”. One man told me I was carrying “relationship weight”. Another man told me he was “surprised I wasn’t skinny” when I told him I ran marathons. But do you know what? I wasn’t trying to sell to any one of these people. None of them could judge me on merit.
At 24 years old, I was in the best physical shape of my life. But mentally, I was in tatters. I had no confidence in myself as a writer. I thought I could only succeed by being attractive.
Today I am older, wiser, and yes, fatter. I’m also an NCTJ-qualified, published journalist, with a mortgage and two marathon medals. I’d like to stress that I don’t think being attractive and being successful are mutually exclusive. Not at all. I’m also aware that I’m not the size of a house, nor am I, objectively speaking, the Elephant Man.
The lesson learned here is nothing to do with weight or physical appearance. It’s about confidence and knowing your worth. I wish I could have told my 24-year-old self that it didn’t matter what I looked like, and that people did value me for my work. Perhaps I wasn’t always associating with the right people, but experience taught me to go after people who appreciated my contributions.
Too often, women are told to dress a certain way or to conform to ridiculous body standards. It is this pervasive misogyny that makes us obsess over trivial things, like straight hair or thigh gaps. This is not just down to ignorant males — it’s the media, social networking sites, and outdated values.
At some point, you come to realise that these things really don’t matter. I think part of it comes from getting older, but also life experience in general. Only when you come to accept yourself can you be truly successful.
And so what if I don’t get offered so many free drinks these days. I can pay for them myself, thanks.