Writing is a solitary profession and extremely unglamorous. When I write, I need zero distractions: no Twitter, dirty dishes, Rightmove, eBay, Netflix or wine. In order to finish my book, I knew I needed to remove myself from all of these things, which is how I ended up in a rudimentary cabin on the moors, with no running water and absolutely no WiFi. After several days of Pot Noodles, baby wipe baths and late-night treks to the loo, my manuscript was looking good but I was not. My hair was greasy and there was soot under my fingernails and chicken shit on my socks. There were no mirrors, but I did keep catching sight of my miserable, double-chinned resting face in the reflection on my laptop screen, and I really wasn’t keen.
Fast forward several months and it was time for my book to come out. Which was very different from being stuck in a shack in the middle of nowhere, because I would have to appear in public. That’s not to say I was about to get papped like a celebrity, but that I would have to stand on stages and read and (here’s the worst bit) know that people might take photographs of me and put them on the Internet.
I know all this sounds vain, but over the years, I have struggled with my body image, confidence and horrific anxiety. The other thing is that I am fat. I spent the first few years of my adult life fighting this, and I have spent the last few trying to come to terms with the fact that this is how I look if I want to enjoy the food and wine I love. Fat is not an insult and not everyone is supposed to look like the models we’re used to seeing – I know all of this and I know it well. Still, my nemesis is a bad photograph of myself. I removed myself from Facebook years ago because the tagging feature was giving me nightmares. I know that I am not the only one who feels like this; plenty of friends have expressed similar feelings. We know that looks shouldn’t matter, that how much we weigh shouldn’t be an issue, that the most important thing is having a body that works and serves us. And yet…. and yet.
People decide to be writers for many reasons. For me, it was a simple love of words combined with the desire to help myself and others through sharing my story. I did not decide to be a writer because I wanted to stand on stages in front of crowds of people; I would have been a singer had I wanted that. It’s a long way from typing in slippers with hairy legs, as I am doing now, to reading into a mic at an event.
I am certain that the pressure to look “good” is greater for women writers than men, because of the general way in which women are made to feel that they should spend time and money their image. I asked a male writer friend about this and he came up with the perfect example: Michel Houllebecq and Mary Beard. Houllebecq’s refusal to care about his appearance and his resulting unkempt aesthetic is almost admired by many, seen as an aloof, writerly quirk. Mary Beard, on the other hand, has received unthinkable misogynistic abuse about the way she looks, most notably after a 2013 appearance on Question Time.
On the morning of my book launch, I had a mild panic about the fact I could not afford both a manicure and a blow-dry. It’s ridiculous, looking back, as these kinds of things don’t usually bother me one bit. But I had recently dyed my hair with my bare hands, staining my fingernails, and was worried someone might take a close-up of my ragged, brown claws close to the word ‘shitty’ on the cover of my book. Also, the world of promoting books seems to be infinitely more glamorous than that of writing them; launches are often swanky affairs, despite the fact that few people who write books have the spare cash to spend looking the part.
Anyway, I got through my launch relatively unscathed, managing to escape any untoward photographs. But later that month, I watched a video of myself talking that put me in a furious mood. And last month, I saw a photograph of myself that made my heart plummet. It had been taken at an event and posted online. In it, my cheeks are bloated, my mouth is small and I look fat. It was an image that hadn’t been taken on my terms, one over which I had no control.
And that’s how selfie culture has spoiled us; we know our ‘good angles’ so well that we can only bear to look at ourselves from them. I am no selfie queen; I have never contoured and I don’t think my eyebrows have ever been on fleek, but I do know that if I hold the camera high above me, my face will look slimmer. My lips are thin and turn down at the corners, so I have taught myself, subconsciously, to pout before I am confronted with a mirror or a camera.
Recently, I found a photograph of myself that was taken five years ago. In it, I look slim. Slim for me, anyway. I stared at it, trying to work out what I was doing differently back then. And I remembered: I was suffering from crippling anxiety and depression. Social situations terrified me, my friendships were fraught and I just about managed to hold things together for my son in the everyday. Each night, I would lie awake, absolutely convinced that I would never finish my book, that it was too private to share, there was no time to write it alongside work. That it would be rubbish anyway, that no one would want to read it, that the reviews would be terrible.
I looked again at the photograph that made my heart sink: the fat photo. There I was, talking about my writing at a well-attended literary event, miles from home. And in my hand, there was my book, finished and real and bound.
After looking at the photo and looking at it again, I decided to share it on my own Instagram page. It was my image now, and I was in control. I wrote a caption about how the photograph had made me feel initially and I received nothing but positive and kind comments from my followers. We’re programmed to want to hide away unflattering photographs, but taking that picture and sharing it was, for me, the best way to deal with my feelings about it.
Last weekend, I took off back to the cabin again. I lit the fire, pulled on the same scruffy jumper, didn’t care about calories as I snacked on chocolate and crisps. I tied my hair back, sat at my desk and I wrote the beginning of my novel.
This is me now: with the book I thought I’d never published out there in the world. This is me happy, genuinely, and excited about the future. This is me after a year of good food and wine and readings and a great deal of fun. Yes, I am fat, but there are far worse things to be.