Content warning: eating disorder, self harm and fat phobia
Disclaimer: I know Bri Lee -I have socialised with her at writers festivals and have worked with her three times – in the capacity of writing for her magazine and speaking on panels with her. I have sat on this review for 10 months, as I know how important it is to support writing colleagues. But my work as an appearance activist, and also living with a facial difference and skin condition meant I didn’t want to stay silent on the messages in this book. I also acknowledge my thin privilege and I’ve never experienced an eating disorder.
Beauty is an academic research project made accessible through writing it in a memoir style. It’s about Bri’s experience with an eating disorder and self harm, particularly after the release of Eggshell Skull. It was written as part of her Masters of Philosophy. It is well researched and the references are mainly literary rather than academic, and it’s very Introspective about her desire to achieve great things, and achieve her ideal weight.
While it is her own experience, the level of detail about her eating disorder and self harm is graphic – which I believe might not conform to eating disorder and mental health media guidelines. I am surprised to see the absence of eating disorder and mental health helplines in the book. These are important given how influential Bri is to young people.
Beauty also demonstrated fat-phobia – of herself and of others. Two particular sections stood out to me in relation to her fat phobia.
The first was when she asked her boyfriend ”Would you still love me even if I was really fat?”. He said yes. “This couldn’t be good”, she wrote.
I was shocked. Does she believe “really fat” people aren’t deserving of love? Does she?
Appearance and size doesn’t make people unloveable.
I can’t help wonder if this is similar to asking if she became disabled, would she still be loveable?
The other part was when “in the middle of [her] starvation routine], [she] was in a restaurant and a very large woman sat down at a table near [her]. Bri wrote about how beautifully dressed and groomed” this woman was, and observed her eating habits – dumplings and champagne. She wrote “from this information I determined she enjoyed life and was accustomed to doing precisely as she pleases. I liked that and I warmed to her immediately, but I also feared that if I too did exactly what I wanted I would end up big like her.”
She went on to grapple with the idea that by thinking that, she must dislike the woman, and believed if she was fat, she would respect herself less.
I understand this book contains her own experiences of an eating disorder, but it also sheds a light on privilege and her feelings about fat people. As well as writing two successful books, contributing to sexual abuse law reform in Queensland, appearing in the media and being a (now non practicing) lawyer, Bri has been a Sportsgirl model, and collaborated with other fashion brands. Shes spoken at prominent events, and featured in fashion magazines She’s very accomplished.
While her beauty and size privilege is not acknowledged in this book, she does acknowledge this privilege – and also education and class privilege in her talks – including one I participated in.
Bri has been afforded many privileges in the media and in fashion (as have I to a lesser extent). This Masters thesis is also now a popular literary publication. I couldn’t help think though, as Bri was starving her body to be in a glossy magazine, and fearful of how she might be portrayed, myself and many others are constantly making noise for more appearance diverse people to be included in such magazines. I know so many people who would love similar media and fashion opportunities.
Beauty contained references to many publications and thought leaders in media and the beauty sphere, but the research was not intersectional. There was mention of talking to a woman of colour about her beauty standards. (Bri admits she was “deaf to this” – which is an ableist term).
I was curious about why appearance diversity wasn’t mentioned, especially since those of us with diverse appearances like facial differences, skin conditions and disability experience a high level of discrimination and also struggle with self esteem.
I know Bri’s talent as a writer and speaker – and also her physical appearance (as she writes) – will ensure she will have a stellar career. I hope her future research and exposure to others’ experience makes her work more intersectional and inclusive. And I hope Bri makes peace with her body soon – it has done so many great things, and will continue to do many more.
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