Monday, 5 September 2016

The Bette Effect

When I was younger, had you asked me to reveal my favourite Disney character, I would have replied quite emphatically that it was Aurora, the beautiful blonde Sleeping Beauty. She would have been closely followed by the equally beautiful, free-spirited Pocahontas, with Esmerelda, the pretty gypsy who captured the Hunchback's heart with her curly hair and her strong hoop game coming in at third place.

I'm sure I won't be the first to reel off such a looks-heavy list. As kids, however hard our parents might try to balance out the Barbies with Bob the Builder, girls invariably end up aspiring to the picture perfect, fairy princess stereotype. We want the long luscious hair, the slender waist, the sparkly doe eyes and the handsome prince to top it all off. And in many ways, these desires travel with us into adulthood. A quick glance at my reflection as I walked to the swimming pool this weekend was enough to have me hankering after a Disney princess-style physique. And there's definitely a part of me that would love it if my Prince Charming came along with little more effort than some beauty sleep.

Luckily, my model for the perfect woman has evolved a little beyond that of the boring, blonde-haired princess since my Disney-watching days. In fact, were you to ask for my heroine preference today, instead of Aurora, I'd be far more likely to pick her fairy godmothers, the plump, bustling trio who protect the young princess from the wicked witch, or quite possibly the gloriously evil Cruella de Vil, a woman whose commitment to her fabulous fur coat collection I can definitely identify with.

But it's not always easy to remember that there's more to life than good hair. These days, the ads, Instagrams, films, magazines and everything else we absorb on a day-to-day basis continue to peddle the Disney princess myths of our youth, filling our heads with unattainable body goals and making the accolade of 'beautiful' feel like the only one worth striving for. So it's handy when you get a reminder of just how many ways there are to be brilliant.

This weekend, my own reminder came in pretty unlikely form. I was flicking through the TV channels, and without so much as a PC (Pre-Caitlyn) episode of KUWTK to stick on, I found myself watching one of those Alan Yentob BBC documentaries, the subject of which happened to be Bette Midler. I've watched the weep-fest that is Beaches, and I'm sure there can't be many people in the world who haven't heard the soppy funeral favourite 'Wind Beneath My Wings', but other than that, I didn't know too much about Bette up until this weekend. What I know now, though, is that the woman is INCREDIBLE.

Midler started out working in a club that doubled up as a steam room, frequented solely by men wearing nothing but towels, and she refined her comedy routines, dance moves and world-class singing voice on the underground New York circuit, where she earned her nickname, 'The Divine Miss M'. An appearance on the Johnny Carson show would prove to be her lucky break, leading to a career that's spanned everything from Oscar nominations and Grammy wins to a stint at Las Vegas in her 60s, performing relentless song and dance numbers someone half her age would have struggled with. All this, from a woman whose first director pointed out she "didn't look like your typical Hollywood leading lady".

Watching this, it made me think: thank god for women like Bette, who do far more than 'pretty'. Women like Michelle Obama, with her boundless charisma and cool in the face of endless scrutiny and self-sacrifice. Lena Dunham, who continues to put her body and her politics out there when people in their thousands tell her she doesn't deserve to do either. Chimamanda Adichie, the author whose words famously now grace Beyoncé songs, who it was revealed recently managed to have a baby without anyone in the media noticing, because she refused to "perform pregnancy" for anyone. The likes of Jennifer Saunders and the late great Victoria Woods, who proved women were funny enough to earn prime time TV slots. And there are of course, countless others.

However sad it might be, watching that documentary was just the reminder I needed that the goal posts in life don't have to be set to those of a Disney princess. As Bette herself pointed out: "If only I'd known my differentness would be an asset, then my earlier life would have been much easier." So, the next time I'm confronted with the sight of some washboard abs, feeling guilty that I can't stick to a Deliciously Ella-style regime of fat-free, organic-only rabbit food, feeling unpopular, or unloveable, I'll remember women like The Divine Miss M – those who prove that there are endless ways in which to measure your self-worth – and hopefully the Bette Effect I felt this weekend will kick in, and knock some divine sense into me.