When I started doing less acting work in favour of writing, I started to feel a real sense of victory that as a writer you can turn up to a meeting looking a bit like you haven’t bothered. Acting wasn’t like that; it was all “Do your nails, Sadie”, “Brush your hair, Sadie”, “Sadie, make sure you’re not wearing your bed leggings.” As a writer, you can mostly look like a right state. In fact, the scuzzier you look, the cleverer they will assume you are. If I stopped brushing my hair altogether – something I’m probably only two years away from – and started wearing things like corduroy jackets with ketchup rorschaching down the lapel, and glasses so smeary it’s like I’m peering at the world from another dimension, they would probably think I was a goddamn genius. I’d have to keep my mouth clamped shut so they didn’t twig I was a twit, but if I flung some crumbs in my fringe and swilled some cheap red wine like it was Listerine before I went in to a meeting, they might place a modest bet on me winning the Booker in the next ten years.
I like to imagine by the time I’m fifty, if I really junk up my look and scrub up my writing, I could be a mute drunk borderline vagrant, pushing all of the major literary awards around in a shopping trolley. It’s a nice dream. Like world peace, or the death of white male privilege. Or hula-hooping drunk on a white beach with Judi Dench.
It becomes easier as the years tick by to imagine a time when appearance means less and less. Maybe even the day when I enter into a self-nullifying zone on the outskirts of zen enlightenment. Where I almost don’t exist as a physical thing, just thoughts in a happy bubblesack. And yet. And yet there are things that make me think “Wait. Pause this nonsense. You have a body. Own it before it’s too late.”
I did a photoshoot with a friend recently. But instead of being the awkward idiot needing to swig rum to loosen up in front of the camera, I was behind it.
We’d rocked up to a studio in Camden to try and get some shots for her podcast with another comedian and for her new show poster. She said encouraging things like “I think you’ve got the eye, Sadie.” And I said “I’ve got two eyes, Deborah, but I’m not sure either of them are it.” I felt the need to instantly tell the proprietors of the studio that I was a moron who had no idea what she was doing, so they wouldn’t watch me pretending the lens cap was a monacle and think “that girl couldn’t find her way out of an open door” and they would be semi right. Sometimes I miss doors and walk into windows. I like to think it’s just respectful to the hard work of window cleaners.
There’s something almost luxurious about forgetting you exist and just watching other people. I think that’s why I like writing. You recede behind a line and watch and see what happens. And it’s easy to watch your friends. Deborah is a beautiful woman, and I got to see her go from awkward to businesslike to demure to strong independent woman to outright sexbomb, warming her way up through the gears to the levels of optimum sass, combining a physical awareness for what makes a good shot with a liberating casting-off of care; a dream combo in being photographed I can imagine. And it was wonderful, to see my friend unfolding like a flower. We spent time figuring out which clothes made her and Sofie feel ‘the right combination of strong and feminine’, sadly acknowledging that traditionally they’re seen as mutually exclusive qualities. We talked about what kind of provocative and sexy images were actually just reductive, counter-productive, and plain naff. The shots of Deborah and Sofie weren’t just hot as hell to look at, they were empowering for all three of us, right there, in that studio, women together exploring what made us feel brave and happy to be seen.
I loved being that side of the camera far more than all the times that I’ve had to try and ‘find the right face’ myself, and though it didn’t make me want to re-appraise my newfound love of being the unobserved, it made me appreciate the importance of learning how to be visible, as a woman. It really would be a shame if we let the prioritisation of our physical selves dwindle to nil. After all, we fight to keep our inner bodies alive through illness, so why not fight to make the most of our aesthetic assets too. To celebrate what we’ve got while we’ve still got it. Life, and beauty. Interior, exterior. The whole woman. Women have to fight harder to love our older selves, much of the male-led world makes it hard; it seems a shame to bow out of feeling fabulous too early. Letting people see us is a beautiful thing in itself. It lets the people who love us enjoy us more. I may feel instinctively more comfortable writing than acting, photographing than being photographed, but I have promised myself to try never to believe that physical self-abnegation is a key to a happier life. We exist. We are here. Be seen.
Award-winning writer-comedians Deborah Frances-White and Sofie Hagen can be heard being utterly awesome in their smash podcast The Guilty Feminist, featuring Shappi Khorsandi (Ep 1) & Emma Kennedy (Ep 2), here.