(This essay was originally written for Professor John Bell's The Victorians at York University on February 6th, 2018.)
Peter Kosminsky’s film Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights is one of few comprehensive adaptations of Brontë's novel. While highly imperfect in its depiction, it managed what no film adaptation before it had, it depicts both narratives within the novel. While many film adaptations end at the death of Cathy Earnshaw, Kosminsky’s version continues on until the death of Heathcliff. Though the film covers the entire timeline within Wuthering Heights, this does little to make up for its imperfections as an adaptation.
The relationships and drama depicted in the film are much sparser than that of the novel. There is a clear necessity in winnowing down Brontë's tragic tale to fit within the length of time available to a clear and concise film, but much of what is removed to create clarity in this shorter narrative is essential to the work that Brontë produced. The lasting impression that Wuthering Heights has left on literature does not wholly come from its tortured romance, but from the manner in which Brontë has written the relationships between each character. Kosminsky’s focus on the romance is understandable when you consider his attempt at creating a contemporary blockbuster of an age-old story, but his disregard to the relationships so carefully built by Brontë does a disservice to the narrative of Wuthering Heights.
One of the changes that has the greatest effect in separating the film from the novel, is the disparity between the Nelly Dean depicted in each. Nelly’s role as the main narrator in the novel, as well as a character involved in the action, makes her central to how the story plays out. In the film, however, she is a supporting character with little of the same relevance.
In reading the novel, it is clear that Nelly’s prejudice towards Catherine influences much of how the reader perceives her and occasionally how other characters in the book perceive Catherine’s actions. It is Nelly’s choice, to not relay Catherine’s message to Edgar, that can be pin-pointed as one of the main reasons that Catherine descends into madness and dies. Edgar himself recognizes that Nelly’s omission of Catherine’s behaviour was at fault in the book when he enters her bedchamber and sees her raving. Nelly offers him advice on how to proceed and he rebukes her,
“I desire no further advice from you,” answered Mr. Linton. “You knew your mistress’s nature, and you encouraged me to harass her. And not to give me one hint of how she has been these last three days! It was heartless! Months of sickness could not cause such a change!” (pp. 100).
This differs greatly from Nelly’s actions in the film. She does tell Edgar that Cathy is making herself sick to spite them but then says “Please, sir. Couldn’t you go and talk to her?” (Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights), she subsequently mentions Heathcliff, which makes Edgar decide not to see Cathy, but this is presented as an accident on Nelly’s part, not a subtle punishment of Edgar and, in turn, Cathy. That behaviour is very ample in the novel when it comes to Nelly’s treatment of Catherine. Earlier in the novel, Nelly lets Catherine talk at length about marrying Edgar, all the while knowing that Heathcliff listens in, and doesn’t tell Cathy. This same scene plays out in the film, but the actions seem out of Nelly’s control, unlike the book. These repeated events within the film, that seem like minor mistakes on the part of Nelly, take away a level of depth from her character.
Nelly’s relationship to Cathy and in turn to her daughter, the other Catherine, is paramount to the course of action that takes place in the book, and what’s more is that she delivers almost all of the reader’s information of what has transpired. Meaning that if Nelly is construing herself as blameless in relating this information to Lockwood, she may be even more unreliable than the reader could expect. Nelly delivers a narrative in which the downfall of the story rests in Catherine and Heathcliff’s actions, but the reader can not be assured of that, especially if they find Nelly at all questionable. It is this deft handling of the relationship between characters that makes Brontë's novel a classic example of the downfalls of passion and the reality of human nature. Instead of delivering this same premise, the film offers a pared down tale of tragic love and a villainous anti-hero.
The exclusion of Nelly Dean as a central character with many facets to her personality seems representative to the rest of the film’s handling of characters. Cathy’s character seems to become more pliant, and flat. She seems to care less for Heathcliff than in the novel, and she is more good-natured, not doing anything particularly mean-spirited until she delivers Isabelle to Heathcliff’s wrath by telling him of her sister-in-law’s feelings. This Cathy does not seem to share in the depth of emotion that avails the novel’s Cathy. She is most memorable in this iteration as giggling incessantly and wearing an ambivalent expression. Almost every character is depicted as less complicated than they are in the novel. The only character who seems to escape this is Heathcliff, whether by necessity of having at least one character remaining fleshed out, or by Ralph Fiennes superior depiction, he remains a quintessential Byronic hero.
While the movie as a whole remains a weak adaptation of the original text, Ralph Fiennes’ Heathcliff is true to the original. He is equal parts callous, persecuted, and charming. He has that balance of magnetic and repulsive energy that qualifies him as a Byronic hero. He balances on the knife-edge of being cruel, but showing true caring for Cathy, and later Hareton. He is helped along, in this version, by the absolute flatness of the other characters. It is easy to ignore his cruelty towards the Linton’s because the audience is given little chance to sympathize with Edgar and Isabelle. Where in the book, the reader might value Edgar’s tolerance, patience, and kindness, the film delivers a side-character who does little but separate the two characters the audience wishes to be together. Therefore, Heathcliff has no competition to be the central figure of this story. The audience may not always like him, but they can appreciate his actions and what has brought him to be the man that he is. In this way, Kosminsky delivers a Heathcliff that is true to the original. Being true to the original is also easiest for Heathcliff’s character, as he delivers the most dialogue that is verbatim from the books text such as when Catherine dies and he says to Nelly
“I pray one prayer—I repeat it till my tongue stiffens—Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living; you said I killed you—haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers, I believe. I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always—take any form—drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!” (pp. 130).
This helps to create a deeper connection between book Heathcliff and film Heathcliff, so that he appears most in sync with the novel, unlike the other characters.
The varied quality of the depiction of each character in the film leaves it lacking as an adaptation of the novel. It is faithful in regards to the source material but only in so far as that the characters and story remain relatively the same, there is certainly not the same exploration of human nature or depth of passion that Emily Brontë had created in Wuthering Heights.
Another great division between the novel and the film are the anachronisms present in Kosminsky’s adaptation. Anachronisms are things belonging to another time period than the one their used in. While the audience can take no great fault in the majority of the production design for the film, there is one great difference that is so obvious as to be disruptive. Almost every central character has a late 1980s haircut in the middle of a Romantic period piece. Catherine’s haircut is by far the most distracting with its layered and teased appearance. Women’s Romantic-era hairstyles are almost always parted down the middle, and styled intricately to the sides. It is unlikely that you would see a woman of Catherine’s station with her hair down, as she appears in several scenes, and certainly not with no discernable part or distinct braiding or styling. Her and Isabelle both have that 80s permed look, that does not allow for a part and is very high off the crown of the head. Edgar also has a hairstyle not suited to the time period. His wavy golden locks, and clean-shaven face, are far more suited to the late 1980s television show Baywatch than they are to a Romantic-era upper-class Yorkshire man. To suit the time period, the men should have short, curly hairstyles, and mutton chops. The lack of accuracy is incredibly noticeable in regards to the hair design because the rest of the film, from house interiors to costume pieces, are very passably Romantic in style. This lack of consistent styling marks the film as very other from the book. The book is consistent in its time period, whereas the film is markedly a product of the late 20th century.
The differences between Emily Brontë's novel, Wuthering Heights, and Peter Kosminsky’s film, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, can be categorized by two major differences. The change of genre from novel to film, and the desire to appeal to an audience from an entirely different time period. A greater amount of changes can be attributed to the change from book to film, which as mentioned earlier, requires a much more condensed narrative to be depicted. While films can have a great amount of depth, it is often the case that adaptations of novels become much less intricate than their source material due to the nature of each genre. This comes down to the common idea in storytelling of “showing” versus “telling”. Novels, and other written works, employ a great amount of showing and telling, and possess a much greater ability to utilize “telling” by allowing the narrator to deliver much needed information to the readers. Films, on the other hand, have to rely almost solely on “showing” due to the fact that narration is not commonplace and becomes boring to the audience if used excessively. In changing the genre of a story from novel to film, the artistic team behind the film must either be creative in delivering essential information through “showing” or choose to leave that information out.
In the case of Kosminsky’s Emily Brontë's Wuthering Height, the artistic team seems to have chosen to leave most of this information out, rather than try to include it. Part of that choice certainly has something to do with the fact that Wuthering Heights covers a long time period, which is not particularly accessible to film, and part of it has to do with making the narrative into something easily palatable by the audience. In comparison to the book, the film was released in a time when there are many methods of entertainment available to the masses. There were many ways that their audience could have chosen to spend their time, and so the film’s team tried their best to appeal to their audience by offering up a dramatization of a classic romance, in which they delivered the whole story but without the complexity that was deemed unnecessary for this streamlined version. This is not to imply that Brontë's novel would have been an automatic success due to the fact that there were not so many forms of entertainment available, it is only to say why such choices may have been made.
The other factor that was relevant in changes to the story, is that the film was being marketed to an audience of an entirely different time period. It seems as though fewer of the changes stem from this reason, but they are still present. The hairstyles being incorrect to the Romantic period is one change already discussed. This was certainly a choice by the production designer to appeal to the audience of the time by having relevant haircuts be on prominent display. In addition, the language of the film is perhaps not as accurate to the period as the novel, especially in scenes that don’t draw on the exact text of Wuthering Heights. There is also a certain lack of gravity to the manner of speaking that is not reflective of the novel but of contemporary society. There is an element of casualness to the speech and manner of the characters that has to do with the time period the film was produced in, rather than the time period it is depicting. Period films often fall short in truly delivering a view of that time period due to the limitations of actors. It is almost impossible to mimic the stance and exact pronunciation of a previous time period because how words are shaped in the mouth change over time and it can be very difficult to recreate. In this film in particular, Juliette Binoche who plays both Catherines cannot even form her words in a manner that gets rid of her French accent completely, so she is almost certainly not speaking in the same manner as someone from Yorkshire in the Romantic period.
The change of genre and the different time period in which the work is produced is very relevant to the differences between the film and the novel. They shape a great deal of the differences between the two, though not all. There are certainly adaptations that manage these factors much more effectively, and in truth the differences between contemporary works and classic works are often softened by the fact that audiences wish to see and read works that are in their own version of English with their own mannerisms, so the differences in time period are much less stark. This only goes for subtle changes, however, and does not make up for choices made to distinctly highlight the differences, such as the hairstyles in this film.
Though Kosminsky’s adaptation of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights was a trailblazer in the fact that it depicted the entire narrative through both generations of characters, rather than ending at Catherine Earnshaw’s death, it is still a very weak adaptation of the novel. In further examination of the differences between the original and the adaptation, it would be interesting to look at how the gender of the creator’s effects which elements of the story are deemed important. With more knowledge of Kosminsky’s work, you could better assess whether his being a male director was part of what made his depiction of these female characters so un-lifelike. The film certainly does not do justice to the relationships that Brontë has built in her novel, and while Wuthering Heights is likely to remain a classic, this film adaptation is almost certain to fade into obscurity.
Bronte, Emily Jane, et al. Wuthering Heights: the 1847 Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Criticism. Norton, 2003.
Kosminsky, Peter, director. Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. Paramount Pictures, 1992. Film.
(This essay was originally written for my independent study: Early 20th Century Formal Wear THEA 4300 on May 4th 2017.)
Madeleine Vionnet was a designer in the early 20th century whose contributions to the fashion world were most prevalent in the decade before her retirement in 1939. She is credited with inventing bias cut gowns and had her own fashion house from 1912 to 1939. Vionnet was a cutting edge employer of her time, providing many benefits to her employees that are still lacking nowadays. She was also known as quite the recluse and did not spend much time with clients or other designers, preferring to work alone in her study.
Born on June 22, 1876 to a poor family in Chilleurs-aux-Bois, Vionnet went on to start her seamstress apprenticeship at the age of twelve. When she was eighteen she was married for a short time, but lost the child that came of that union and ultimately left her husband to go to England as a hospital seamstress.
In England, Vionnet found further work as a seamstress when she became a fitter for the court dressmaker, Kate Reilly. Vionnet was able to learn more of the ins and outs of her trade and the styles of her home country, as Reilly was famous for re-creating French designs. This was Vionnet’s first experience with the insidious phenomena of the fashion world to unabashedly copy each others garments. It is, perhaps, part of what caused her to fight so readily against it later in her life.
In 1900, she returned to Paris and found work at the couture fashion house Callot Souers. She started off as a toile maker (a maker of muslin mockups) but after a disagreement with the manager of the house, that was resolved by the eldest Callot, she received a promotion. She then worked alongside Marie Callot Gerber and began designing the draping of garments under her supervision. Vionnet worked at Callot Souers for 6 years, and when she discussed this time later in her life she was quoted as saying that "without the example of the Callot Soeurs, I would have continued to make Fords. It is because of them that I have been able to make Rolls Royces" (Polan and Tredre, 13 – 14).
At the end of this six years, Vionnet was scouted by designer Jacques Doucet who was looking for someone to rejuvenate his brand and design a collection that appealed to a younger clientele. He ultimately lured her away and she designed a collection that was shown without corsets or shoes on any of the models, an inspiration from the dance sensation of the time, Isadora Duncan. Duncan performed without shoes in very simple shifts, and she inspired many designers of this period. Vionnet was with Doucet from 1907 to 1911, but ultimately the elegant but simple and unembellished cut of her garments clashed with the style of the house, which leaned far more towards elaborate and lavish clothing.
In 1912, Vionnet opened her own-name fashion house at 222 Rue de Rivoli and amassed quite a large following before closing her doors at the beginning of the first World War. Like many privileged artists of the time, she spent the war years in Rome and returned in 1919 to open her doors again.
By 1923, she had established such a large clientele that she was able to open a new headquarters for her fashion house at 50 Avenue Montaigne. Here, she was able to employee over one thousand employees, and the premises became known for a time as the “temple of fashion”.
The truly exemplary history of the Vionnet fashion house has only in part to do with the designer and garments produced. The greater part of Vionnet’s legacy was the conditions that she kept for her many workers. There was a resident doctor and dentist for her employees, as well as a daycare, paid maternity leave and holidays, and a subsidized dining hall. She revolutionized labour practices of the time, and her standards are still not upkept by some major fashion houses in our current times.
By 1925, the brand was large enough for Vionnet to open a shop on 5th Avenue in New York City. She is credited as being one of the first designers to sell ready to wear garments from Paris in New York. They would be purchased and could be tailored at the store, but they were already constructed before they arrived. These were referred to as “off the peg” garments.
By the 1930’s, Vionnet’s bias cut gowns were dominating the world of fashion. They clung to women’s natural curves and were perfect for the renewed femininity that was rampant in haute couture following the boyish cuts of the 1920’s flapper era. Her gowns appeared on many famous women including Greta Garbo, Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, and Marlene Dietrich.
Her success built rapidly throughout that decade, culminating in her main fashion house with its thousand employees, and 26 smaller ateliers. However, the onset of the second World War in 1939 caused her to close her shop in Paris. She then retired in 1940 and dissolved her label, but kept 120 dresses for her own archive, as well as 750 mock-ups, and 75 copyrighted album that contained all her drafting, designs, and photographs of her work.
Vionnet’s choice to be rather withdrawn from the world of fashion, and the liquidation of her company following her retirement, caused her work to be rather forgotten following the war. Styles changed so quickly in the 20th century that she was rather forgotten until the late 1970’s when Diana Vreeland created an exhibit on Parisian fashion from the 1920’s and 30’s.
Vionnet, the brand, has been revived several times in the last years, most recently by Goga Ashkenazi. Ashkenazi took a majority stake in the company, and has since acquired it completely. She uniquely heads both the creative and business portions of the company, and is inspired to renew this historic brand to its former glory.
Other modern designers who have taken inspiration from Vionnet include Ossie Clark, Halston, John Galliano, Comme des Garçons, Azzedine Alaia, Issey Miyake and Marchesa.
Madeliene Vionnet was truly a game changer in the world of fashion in the early 20th century. Her biggest contribution to 1930’s fashion, that we will look more in depth at now, was her popularizing the bias cut for the entirety of a gown.
Before Vionnet, cutting on the bias when making a garment was reserved only for trim, collars, and detailing work. She is often credited as inventing the bias cut, which is not true, but she did popularize the use of that cut in all areas of the garment. Before her, it was used merely for bits and bobs to create more flow, but following Vionnet it could be used for the entire gown. She was so inspired by the Greeks that she sought to capture the same fluidity in her garments that she saw in theirs. She was also exceptionally put off by stays and corsets, wishing for her garments to truly accentuate the natural curves of the female body.
Her bias cut gowns truly changed the game in the 1930’s. Corsets were done away with for good, and her gowns were even able to be put on over the head as the bias cut allowed them to stretch over the body and not require clasps of any kind. Some of her gowns were famously known for having a single seam, for they had been draped so impeccably as to not require more than one.
In terms of draping, Vionnet was an absolute master. She was famous for having 80 cm mannequins, which were exactly half the size of the human body, that she used to practice draping garments on before she would recreate them in full size. Both she and her trusted business partner, Marielle Chapsal, had a mannequin in their adjoining workspaces that they used to make up perfect to scale toiles that would then be sent out to the many ateliers to be copied into full-sized, realized garments for sale. This was not a common practice of the time, and she became well known for this. Some of her mannequins are still preserved in museums today with some of the toiles she created.
Her preferred fabrics to use in garment making were crêpe, crêpe de chine, gabardine and satin, that she got woven specifically 2 yards wider than the eras normal lengths of fabric to accommodate for her chosen bias cut and draping.
Vionnet is credited with inventing many of the classic 1930’s silhouettes that come to mind today, such as the cowl neck, the handkerchief dress, and the halter top. All of these were close fitting and sensual, which suited the period greatly.
Vionnet’s designs heavily influenced the fashion world at this time, but of course her designs were also influenced by the socio-economic changes of the decade. The sultry, fluid dresses she was making were very popular in this time because the world was seeing a turn back to the styles of the hyper-feminine. The 1920’s had seen women looking boyish, following a time of female independence in the first World War, silhouettes had come to reflect women’s status as being a part of the “male” community. That suited the roaring twenties in a post-war fueled economy, but the 1930’s saw a turn back to the more traditional feminine female silhouette as society too became likewise more traditional in the wake of the great depression. The people who had celebrated to excess in the twenties, now moved away from such vices in the thirties as this tragedy befell them.
Clothing, as it always does, followed suit to the changing mood of these times. Evening wear returned to being floor length and regal, though embellishments of the previous decade, such as fringe and beading, was still around for some time.
Vionnet’s designs were also suited to the time because of the sparsity of fabric involved. As mentioned earlier, many of her dresses were famous for being made in such as way as to only have one seam. They were not the decadent creations that had consumed the rest of the 20th century, they were garments that utilized little in a time when there was little to go around. Of course, the clientele of people purchasing true Vionnet’s would not have struggled with a scarcity of fabric, but those who may have been making their own clothes at home would have benefitted from these designs that lacked in excessive volume.
Vionnet truly defined fashion during the 1930’s with her designs and inspirations, but she also defined the entire fashion world for years to come with her work on plagiarism and copyrighting in the fashion world.
She saw how easily French designs were being plagiarized in the Americas and believed it to be unjust. She herself, was particularly a victim of this, due to her wide-spread success. In 1921, she founded the The Association for the Defence of Fine and Applied Arts and began to try and protect artists and their designs. A year later, she published a statement saying that “The Madaleine Vionnet models are registered and published in France…She will pursue any copyright or counterfeit, even partial, made in this regard of her rights.” She kept scrupulous records of her own work and garments, photographing each one from the front, back, and side. She also named and numbered each item and was famous for marking the label of each garment with her own fingerprint to stop imitations from being made.
Other couturiers followed her lead and blacklists of clients were made up. These were lists of clientele that was suspected of purchasing key designs to be given to manufacturers at other companies. Vionnet fought against these practices until her retirement and is one of the most well known designers when it comes to fighting for artistic credit in the early 20th century.
Madeleine Vionnet was truly a game changer to fashion in the 20th century. She popularized bias cut gowns, and clothing free of underpinnings or fasteners and was key in “ridding women of the corset”. She revolutionized labour practices, and was known as being one of the best employers of the early 20th century. She also fought for copyright laws in her industry and cut down on plagiarism of garments between Europe and America. She was an inspired designer and her contributions to the world of fashion are visible in everything from halter tops to this years Met Gala.
Buxbaum, Gerda. Icons of Fashion: The 20th Century. Munich: Prestel, 1999. Print.
FashionModelDirectory.com, The FMD -. "Madeleine Vionnet - Fashion Designer | Designers | The FMD." The FMD - FashionModelDirectory.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 May 2017.
Kirke, Betty, and Issei Miyake. Madeleine Vionnet. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle, 2012. Print.
"Madeleine Vionnet." Vionnet. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 May 2017.
"Madeleine Vionnet." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 04 Apr. 2017. Web. 04 May 2017.
Mahe, Yvette. "History of Haute Couture: Madeleine Vionnet." History of Fashion. N.p., 01 Sept. 2013. Web. 04 May 2017.
McDowell, Colin. "Madeleine Vionnet (1876-1975)." The Business of Fashion. N.p., 23 Aug. 2015. Web. 04 May 2017.
Polan, Brenda, and Roger Tredre. The Great Fashion Designers. Oxford: Berg, 2009. Print.
Vionnet, Madeleine, and Jacqueline Demornex. Madeleine Vionnet. London: Thames and Hudson, 1991. Print.
I am definitely gearing up to talk about body positivity here, but before I get started, let me just say that more important than all of us feeling good about our bodies, is all of us having the freedoms and rights to be treated equitably in our bodies. It is vital and important that we all unlearn the hate we may have for ourselves, but it is more necessary that institutional oppression centered around the body be fought against and deconstructed until none of us are denied respect, rights, or services based on what we look like or what we’re able to do. If these greater issues are something you want to learn about (and you should want to learn), then check in at the bottom of this post for people to follow on twitter who are amazing educators on body politics.
But back to our own personal relationships with our bodies, an idea that has become greatly talked about in the age of watered down body positivity.
My relationship with my body is something I have taken very seriously since the first moment I realized I had one (realized I had a body that is). I think I was relatively late to realizing that I had a body that exists outside of my experience of it. Or maybe I was really early? I’ve not run into a lot of people who had a similar experience to mine. I think most people fall into one or the other categories of “have always known I had a body outside myself” or “will never experience this feeling because there are no societal pressures on my body and/or I’m oblivious”.
Let me explain a little more. Obviously, I have always known I had a body, I just didn’t always think about the fact that others see and form opinions about me based on my body and how it looks. This fact just plain-old passed me by until the first day of grade 8, when sitting at my desk with my shorts on, thighs stuck to my plastic chair due to the humidity of a Northern Ontario September day, it suddenly hit me that other people could see me! They might even be thinking about me! They were maybe watching me try to peel my legs off the chair and move them to a different, less sticky spot. I was absolutely flabbergasted by this realization. I wish I could tell you why a relatively smart kid took until the age of 13 to figure out that other people saw her and thought about her, but I can’t.
All I know is that at that moment, with the teacher droning on in the background, sweat accumulating between my legs and the ugly maroon chair, I had my first moment of self-doubt about what other people might be thinking of me. Then seconds later, I had my first thought of who the hell cares (except, not hell because I wouldn’t have used a bad word, even in my head). This sparked a decade of working actively to remind myself that my body was my own and anyone else’s thoughts on it were unnecessary and unwanted (unless they were compliments, those are welcome). I waged war on my own feelings of inadequacy, and it was an easy battle tbh. I was a confident kid, who felt that caring about how others perceived me was a waste of time. Now, I can recognize that a lot of that ease came from privilege. I was an able bodied, thin, white girl. There weren’t exactly a lot of road blocks on the way to feeling good about myself. I may not be an identical match to magazine celebrities, but I’m not a lot different either. I could also just never find enough energy to care that much about my body. That, plus my work to deliberately not care anytime I felt differently, have resulted in a pretty easy road to feeling generally okay about myself at any given time.
I’m was very lucky and I felt that, until this privilege became a road block to understanding how other people felt about their bodies. Specifically, when my 8-year-old sister started talking about whether she was fat or not (she was not fat).
(I will get to the part about eyebrows eventually, I promise)
I was just devastated the first time she said something to me about her appearance. She was 8! I was crushed that no matter how good I felt about myself, I couldn’t bottle that and give it to everyone, I couldn’t even give it to the people I loved most in the world, to the child I love who looked at me and said “I can’t go into the store with you because I look fat in these pants”.
That’s part of what made me realize that the way I feel has to be reflected in the language I use to discuss bodies. It has to inspire my own inquiry into how others feel about theirs. It has to drive my actions in how I treat those with bodies different, or the same, as my own.
That brings me to eyebrows. There are lots and lots of things that I feel neutral about with my body (the ideal way to think about your body imo). My eyebrows are not one of them. Since I was a small child, barely more than a babe, I have had a total unibrow. Not even a sleek, fresh one (there are probably really sculpted, every-hair-in-place ones?). I have an absolutely wild, out of control single eyebrow that spans my face. In all my, “we should all be comfortable in our bodies” attitude, I didn’t feel that bad about having one thing I regularly changed. Plucking my eyebrows seemed super fine and normal.
Until my sister started being upset about hers.
Overall, she has a much more fraught relationship to her body than I do. She has long thought about the way she looks to others, starting at age 8 and just going from there (maybe even for longer than that, 8 is just when she started telling those thoughts to us). There has never been a lot of ways that I can relate to her on these issues. I’m 12 years older than her, and her half sister. We’re separated by age, experience, personality, and just our general, physical look. She looks so much like her mom, and I look so much like mine, and there are big differences between us.
So when she first said “My eyebrows look wild and not normal” I was like, ah ha! Finally, it was a thing we could relate about! I too, had wild eyebrows and cared about them a lot. So I said, “hey! Me too!”
“No you don’t,” she said “Just look at them, yours look nice and mine look bad”
Ah, she caught me. Mine did look nice.
“But mine used to look like yours,” I said “They looked like yours for my whole childhood, they’d still look like yours if I didn’t pluck them”
“You don’t get it,” she said.
It didn’t matter to her that mine used to look bad. She was a kid, the only thing that mattered was right now. And I just couldn’t stand that she felt so bad about hers. Here was our one relatable issue, where me, with all my fun, positive vibes should have been able to be like “nah, don’t even worry about it, I’m the same and I don’t” and I couldn’t, because she was right and we weren’t the same, and I did worry about it.
So I stopped plucking my eyebrows.
I figured, if my relationship with my body is supposedly so great, then I should be able to withstand having wild eyebrows. If this is what it takes to relate to my sister on this 1 (one!) issue that we share, then I’m going to do it. And boy, has it almost killed me.
Like whew, I would love to pluck my eyebrows. I miss not looking like Frida Kahlo lent her eyebrows to a small, Canadian woman. But so be it. When I first told my sister that I was going to stop, she was pretty nonchalant and doubtful, like “Cool, Becca, what does it have to do with me”. But when we started to look the same, even in that little way, she was happy. When we talked about our eyebrows, she felt like I got her.
I still have trouble with my eyebrows. They’ve grown in particularly wonky with the changes that have come with years of plucking. They are less “unibrow” and more “sparse odd hairs between two brows because you plucked them so much not all the hairs will grow back”. But they still make her happy. Anytime I think about changing them now, I have to think “is it worth not relating to my sister? Is it worth telling her that I think I don’t look good, so she must not look good either?”
Sometimes, I get the impression that contemporary (and crappy) body positivity would have us believe that the ultimate goal is doing what’s best for us and what’s best for how we feel about ourselves. Will it make you feel good to pluck your eyebrows? Then do it! And to a certain extent, I agree. But also, change will never occur, and no one will ever feel comfortable doing things differently, if there aren’t people who go outside the norm. Sometimes we have to do things we don’t like, things that we’re not comfortable with, so the people coming after us will feel comfortable doing it.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to the way my eyebrows are now. I don’t know if anything that I’m doing will make my sister happy with hers. I don’t really know if this matters in the grand scheme of things. But for now, I’m keeping my wild eyebrows. Just in case.
People to Follow:
Stephanie Yeboah – Amazing UK based influencer and absolute twitter fiend. All her takes are the right ones and you should probably be reading her work right now because it’s god tier knowledge about the body and fat politics movements.
Your Fat Friend – If you need to unlearn your fatphobic opinions (and you probably do) then this is your beginning, middle, and end of learning. The work being done by YrFatFriend is tough, touching, and necessary to read for anyone who is not fat.
Keah Brown – Keah is an amazing writer who has a book coming out next year. She created the hashtag #disabledandcute and the knowledge she imparts about disability is essential body politics learning.