Met up with Robert Somynne to discuss some of the points made in my piece for Bella Caledonia on his podcast, 100 of Us Remain, which focuses on Scotland and foreign policy. You can listen to it here.
Let me start out by noting that this is in no way an attempt to put myself down, or cry ‘woe is me’ in search of compliments. Self deprecation is a defence mechanism I’ve perfected over the years, but something I’m trying to cut back on as I get older. This, on the other hand, is more like an elephant in the room that I feel particularly uncomfortable acknowledging. But it affects everything I do, every interaction I have, and so I probably should.
Echoing the experiences of almost every woman I know, my body and I have never been on great terms. I learned very young that my appearance was very important, and it took nearly a decade for me to begin to deconstruct that line of thinking. Sadly, its deconstruction didn’t lessen the effect, and really only produced a kind of inner conflict – my appearance doesn’t define me, yeah, to hell with your beauty standards, I have plenty to offer so it shouldn’t matter how long I had to do my hair this morning. Except that it still will matter, no matter how silly I know that to be.
I am so very hesitant to claim a divide between myself and other women, particularly regarding our shared experience of womanhood and how generally privileged I am in that respect. But being surrounded by countless beautiful women, so strong, charming and fantastic as they are, highlights that when it comes to a lot of things – ‘body positivity’ and beyond – we’re coming at it from very different places.
An overwhelming majority of my friends are conventionally very attractive women. They’re a compassionate, understanding bunch who would scold me the second I even hinted at the possibility that I’m maybe, potentially, not quite as hot as Beyonce. They couldn’t be more supportive and so it’s no fault of theirs that they don’t understand, or maybe even think about, how different certain situations are for us.
We’re all well aware that as women, our appearances carry a lot more weight (and thus our personalities carry less) than if we weren’t. We can never escape being looked at before we are listened to, and that’s a truth I wouldn’t dream of denying to any woman. But as someone who doesn’t really reach that bar of ‘conventionally attractive’, I’ve grown accustomed to feeling a few steps behind them at all times.
I constantly feel that I have something to prove. I feel that I must be so funny, so insightful, so understanding, so confident that people forget what I look like – as if with every witty remark, another piece of this cursed outer shell which I can’t detach myself from falls away to reveal more of who I am. Most of the time I have to try twice as hard as my gorgeous sisters to convince someone to find me interesting (and I’m generally someone you need to know for a little while before I’m confident enough to really be myself, so this is especially frustrating). As I search for a post-uni job, I’m more often overcome by visions of walking into an interview and being written off before I even sit down than I am by worries that I’m not competent (I’m backed by the statistics here, too).
In social situations, I often feel I have to fight to avoid periods of time spent not really being talked to by anyone, while people flock to my attractive friends (and I’m not talking romantically here. That is a whole ‘nother ballgame). This is a bit of a catch-22, of course, as being so uncomfortable in the body I inhabit impedes my confidence chronically, so I sometimes struggle to put myself out there in the first place. And if I let my dry sense of humour show too much, I know that I’m more likely to be viewed as, well, just a bit of a sarcastic cow rather than feisty or forward in a *hot* way.
Women all have a hyper-awareness of the physical space they exist in, but that’s heightened if you’re not attractive. The thing is: with the way our society functions, being conventionally attractive gives you a clean slate. If you’re funny, you’re funny, you’re not ugly but funny. You can walk into a room of strangers and know that they’re unlikely to have compartmentalised you in their minds before you even introduce yourself. It’s only human to judge others, absolutely, but if you’re not attractive you’re far less likely to even have the privilege of being judged as a whole person.
I worry that to someone who can’t empathise, this may seem melodramatic, so I feel it worth pointing out that despite the pages and pages of detail I could go into – this dimension of my identity has become something so omnipresent that I often go periods of time without noticing it. I don’t live a sexless, isolated life sitting in a corner and wishing someone would notice me. I still believe I’m of value, I still know I have a lot to contribute to the lives intertwined with my own, and I actually like myself more than ever. But in all the cool things I’m able to spend my days doing, I can’t help but feel I’m viewed as inherently lesser than attractive women.
There’s a lot of self-doubt involved, sure, but this has become less an insecurity and more a bitter acceptance of where I stand. I can acknowledge it or I can be in denial, but this will be the reality of myself and many others no matter what I think of it. Some days I have the energy to propel myself forward those few steps, but some days I don’t.
I’m of the opinion that there’s an inherent shame attached to less attractive women asserting that they’re as valuable as any other, and that’s something I’m not immune to, so even publishing this leaves me feeling a bit exposed. I could easily natter away about mental health, my childhood, anything else so personal without much worry, yet voicing that I feel I’m sometimes treated as ‘unattractive woman’ rather than ‘woman I know nothing about’ (or even ‘Hannah’) makes me very uncomfortable.
It ties back in with my avoidance of self deprecation, too. If someone is going to think about your flaws, they’re going to do so regardless, and you pointing your own flaws out for them won’t do you many favours. I don’t want someone with only a half-formed opinion of me to think of only my appearance from now on, because I placed such a spotlight on it in this instance. And I wouldn’t want a potential suitor to read this (James McAvoy, if you’re out there…) and write me off because I sit here and explain to them in detail why I am an unattractive prospect. Like I mentioned previously: it is so difficult for women to transcend their appearance, and even writing about mine feels like risking erasing myself for good.
This is, perhaps, why writing about it feels so necessary, and why writing is so important to me in general – this way, I can only be measured by syntax and font.
I recently had a piece published over at Bella, which can be found here. I talk about the potential for prison reform in Scotland, how independence could be the catalyst we need, and why we should be taking cues from Germany’s focus on rehabilitation.
I have had a draft sitting on this account for months, decorated with half-formed thoughts on the Parker Cannon drop kick incident and where it stood within the culture of the scene. It lay unfinished primarily through anger – I rely on being able to write to express myself, yet in this instance I found myself in the grip of a frustration-based writer’s block. No matter how many rewrites and phrase alterations, I couldn’t articulate why I had grown to feel only contempt for a community which shaped my adolescence.
My first foray into pop punk, punk rock, or whatever you’d like to call it (by “the scene” I also refer to post-rock, emo, etc.: it’s the people who make a difference, not the niches) happened when I was around 9 or 10. My mum was childminding full-time, and the dad of one of the kids brought me a couple of burned CDs one evening when picking his daughter up. I have a lot to thank the man for (Jim Bailey, you’re a hero) – that introduction to music via Dookie and The Green Album defined the next decade of my life. In 2005 I discovered Fall Out Boy, and in 2015 I had some of their lyrics tattooed on my shoulder. I found friends, love, and a community through going to shows. I moved in with a guy whose band shirt collection looked like Jason Tate’s inbox. I spent days on trains, on buses, and in cars travelling up and down the country for gigs. Friends I made at my first Fall Out Boy show in 2007 are still good friends, and coming to stay with me for their set at Bellahouston Park this month. I saw The Wonder Years play to 20 or 30 people in Ivory Black’s in 2009, and had the time of my life seeing them at Stereo a couple of weeks ago. Slam Dunk North gave me some of the happiest memories I’ll ever have. I saw bands like Set Your Goals, Fireworks, and Four Year Strong on the same bills, and when they were actually in their prime – a notion which is very much a thing of the past. I made life-changing decisions during New Found Glory sets. I went to a Jacks Mannequin show and saw Andrew play Watch The Sky. My high school English folders were covered in Get Up Kids, The Movielife, American Football and Brand New lyrics. I was lucky enough to visit the States, and picked cities based on where the musicians I respected most had gleaned inspiration. I got to know Glasgow through its wealth of live music, and ultimately decided to get myself out of high school after fifth year and to university through there, which is the best choice I ever made. The music I grew up on really shaped everything.
And now, I hate it. The majority of the bands which were the fabric of the scene have disbanded or are dormant, and the ones which are left are either shadows of what they once were or are assaulting their fans. The scene discourse now centres almost exclusively on the inappropriate behaviour of men given power by their place in it. As a woman I feel wholly uncomfortable with the culture that exists within the genre, and am happy to be mostly removed from it.
This scene is one which has always boasted about itself as a champion of equality, but it’s really just a boy’s club like everything else. Straight white guys wear Hostage Calm ‘I support same sex marriage’ shirts and pat themselves on the back for it, pleased that they’ve done their bit. Parker Cannon can violently kick a fan off stage, with countless voices insisting that she deserved it and with The Story So Far remaining one of the biggest bands still around. Warped is the best representation of the scene we have, Kevin Lyman claiming that inclusivity and safety for (primarily female!) fans are priorities, while pro-life stalls are given a space on the tour. It took almost ten years of involvement for me to realise that the role I had perceived myself and other women to have in pop punk was entirely toxic. Women highlight the imbalance in genders represented on stage at shows, and men argue that girls just aren’t as interested in starting bands. And that might be the straw that broke the camel’s back, in terms of my relationship with the scene – I could count on one hand the number of guys I know who went so far as having an opinion when someone prominent in pop punk was shown to have been sexually inappropriate with a minor. If that had been different, I might have felt a fire in my belly and been obliged to stick around to make a change to the environment which I know so well – but most are silent. I usually interpret this to mean they want to defend the successful guy in question, but know better. If you don’t even acknowledge that there’s a problem in pop punk, know that it at least appears that you don’t care. Your privilege lies in your ability to distance yourself from this. For the rest of us, we’re not bringing this up because we enjoy a good discussion – we’re talking through our lived experiences. Pop punk is a microcosm of patriarchy to an extent which it absolutely does not have to be.
The scene is in a weird place these days, though, diluted and struggling for relevancy; in a way, it’s reminiscent of what was to be witnessed in the time between kids obsessing over Living Well Is The Best Revenge and kids getting The Upsides tattoos. The wind is changing direction, and today’s Kerrang! generation is more interested in the lo-fi sensibilities of Moose Blood, The Hotelier and Modern Baseball. There was a certain identity associated with the crop of bands which really exploded around 2009, though – pop punk branded itself very well at that point – and to me, that’s something which is missing now. It seems more like something happened when pop punk met The Wave, and now we’re left with the crumbs of whatever that created; free of any formula, and yet somehow still a little bland and unimaginative.
Maybe pop punk is dying, and maybe that’s okay. Big league legacy bands like New Found Glory have enough ground to stand on no matter what goes on around them, so we needn’t worry about losing the bands that are worth holding on to. Maybe what’s happening now is downtime for us to reassess our priorities, elevate our women, and educate the next generation of bands before we put them in a place of authority above crowds of impressionable fans. I think that’s what we need. The next Dan Campbell will be here before long.
It’s a weird time, this – the bleak limbo plunged into after graduation. Summer has always felt vast and hazy, the seasonal equivalent of mid-afternoon, but before now there was the comfort of a plan which would kick start once again in September. Some of us were prepared with full-time jobs ready to walk into the second we handed back the grad robes, while some of us haven’t been so lucky (or competent). The end of academia, for a lot of us, means the end of our time in a system in which it was always clear what would come next. It’s unfamiliar, and it’s difficult, and I still struggle not to sugarcoat when speaking of it – but it really, really sucks.
In all honesty, though, I seem to have taken it a lot harder than most of my peers. I realised something might’ve been off when instead of sharing in the overwhelming relief of my fellow worn out fourth years the morning we submitted our dissertations, I felt a twinge of sadness. It was the beginning of the end, and I knew it, and I felt it. I became pre-occupied with ‘lasts’; last seminar, last lecture, last Tuesday morning spent in the QMU between classes, last time in the library, last publications meeting as an undergrad, last times in certain buildings, last exam. I really knew something was off when I spent the evening before my final exam watching promotional videos put together by the university and weeping to myself instead of studying. It was like I was going through a painful break up and was torturing myself with sad songs. I was about to be handed a degree from an internationally respected institution, and I was grieving.
Thankfully, I don’t intend for this article to focus on the pain of graduating from a university you loved – quite frankly, I am nowhere near ‘over it’ enough for that. It was the realisation that despite the fact that nothing bad had happened (I still have to remind myself that it was actually an achievement on my part), I was mourning a loss: the loss of a lifestyle, a community, an identity and a purpose. Five years of my life all wrapped up within one campus, and moving on from it felt like a punishment. I had to ask why it was affecting me so deeply, and why my peers seemed to bear just a touch of sentimentality but were otherwise unfazed by the milestone.
There are some parts of the human experience which will always be around to humble us. We can send people into space, we can use 3D printing to produce affordable artificial limbs, we can buy a pair of headphones from Amazon and have them arrive the same day (the most sobering of all) – but no advancement is going to protect us from loss. From truly world-shattering losses like the death of a loved one, to less extreme yet still bitterly painful losses like that of a relationship, or a career, or anything else which could be of value to someone. Loss is a universal and eternal phenomenon because it is the byproduct of caring.
It’s fair to say that loss changes a person – nothing particularly insightful about that. But the way it affects our reaction to future losses, I believe, is of interest.
I don’t think we experience something painful, recover fully, and move on with no noticeable trace of ever having fought emotion from the trenches. Scars are left. Scars accumulate. If we break our ankle, that joint will always be a little more vulnerable even once healed. When we experience a loss, we develop a weakness.
And maybe have you a sentimental mess of a woman, years down the line, watching UofG on YouTube insist that world changers welcome.
This shouldn’t be mistaken for some kind of defeatist attitude. A lot of us spend too much time trying to appear as though we are alien to weakness, like it makes us lesser. I reject that line of thinking, and would be the first to insist that the biggest challenges we face are usually the most valuable lessons. But there are some kinds of loss which don’t do much other than leave us more susceptible to emotional injury down the line. As time goes on, each loss is an echo of another, and wildly different experiences can ignite bizarrely similar feelings of helplessness. It’s not poetic or particularly helpful, but it’s real – and it certainly shouldn’t make us afraid.
If we want to live our fullest lives, we must do nothing but set ourselves up to lose something. That’s the essence of being a person – investing in the people around you, the opportunities you create, the pleasures of being around which aren’t gonna earn you any money but will enrich you in every other way. Not allowing yourself to truly care about things means that you’ve already lost before you had the pleasure of knowing what there was to have.
Loss can leave you feeling thrown on the floor of a cold, empty warehouse for weeks at a time; disorientated, hopeless and lonely. We’re all in there at some point, though, and most of us are forced to make returning visits. While in the grip of something painful, it’s tempting to believe that what we are feeling is unique. No one has ever felt this specific combination of negative emotions, and thus there’s no evidence that anyone has ever survived it. So why isn’t the sky caving in?
Luckily – but also, at times, frustratingly – nothing we feel as a result of loss is special. The pain that circles our inner worlds connects us to other people, just like the things we once cared about and once lost. So yes, with each loss there’s a chance we’re also forced to deal with those which came before it. It also means that we can know, with increasing confidence, that things become more manageable with time – even if you have to write a blog post to remind yourself of that.