My husband and my daughter often take photos. They post them on Instagram and Facebook, they appear on our computer screen, drifting like a sea of memory, distracting me from my work. I am always the one to complain when the camera is pointed in my direction. The first to delete any pictures that don’t flatter me. And so I understand when Kristin tells me that when she asks to photograph women in their fifties “They often pretend not to have heard”. And at the same time when she asked me I felt a frisson of excitement.
I remember my friend and I in Woolworths as teenagers taking it in turns in the photo booth. Those private moments behind the curtain, trying to compose myself, to look carefree, casual, beautiful, before the sudden startling flash of light. Waiting for the the quartet of head shots to drop down the metal shoot. A whirring, a click, a rumble and like a magic trick the damp images arrive, still darkening, deepening, ourselves frozen in time. We search our own faces. For what? What are we looking for that can’t be found in a mirror? This attempt to construct, to concoct a version of ourselves that might act as a talisman, a trophy that reminds us of our worth. Because we know already that each of us has a value. That as girls, almost women, whatever we might be we are defined by what others see.
For centuries ordinary people would never have seen themselves in a mirror. It is hard to imagine in this age of multiple reflections, of photographs and video and snapchat how it might have been not to know what we look like. Did they peer into still waters, window panes, the polished blade of a knife? Was it possible to exist in another way, liberated from the ever watchful eye of self consciousness, to experience their bodies from within as something physical, looking out at the world as children do, with curiosity and no thought of ourselves as the object of another’s gaze?
We are the only animal that fully recognises it is itself in the mirror, that tries to alter and shape it’s own image, to sculpt what others see. And, of course this can be a joyous thing. To decorate our bodies, style ourselves is an innate human impulse. To use ourselves as a canvas, to be our own work of art. Tribes who have never seen a television screen or a an advert or a mirror still adorn themselves. This playful experiment can be a deeply creative act. And yet we have become surrounded by a very narrow idea of beauty. They say that the average teenage girl sees between 400 and 600 media images of women a day. Plastic surgery has increased by more than 250 percent in the last 5 years with 50,000 procedures taking place in Britain alone last year. I find myself wondering about the world my daughter is growing up in.
I recently created a theatre piece for my company Shared Experience that is inspired by the Little Mermaid story, the one where the mermaid’s tongue is cut out in exchange for legs so she can try to win the love of the Prince. In each city we visit we have a choir of teenage girls who will create the mermaids’ singing. We have been working with the choirs exploring themes of body image and identity and looking at how the media effects our sense of self. We start by looking at lots of images of women from the media and asking the girls to write about how it makes them feel. My assistant director and I decided we should join in and I found myself writing about the fear of ageing, of growing further and further away from the ideal. We each read aloud what we had written and it was moving and sobering to hear these young women describe their feelings of inadequacy in the face of this onslaught. They listened as I shared my fears of ageing. One of them asked how old I was and I remembered that when I was 14 people as old as I am now seemed almost elderly, of another species.
We recognise that in nature things gain depth and life as they grow older. Weathered wood, worn stone, the petals of a flower about to drop, autumn leaves, all have a power of their own. But in humans, particularly females, we see age as the enemy and fight it with everything we have at our disposal. To age is to lose our allure, to fade from view as if faces become indistinct, homogenous, invisible with age. We are not taught to see the life, the unique story, the richness of age.
In an email I had told Kristin about a bonfire we had in our garden that we threw dead hydrangea heads onto. They burst into flames like sparklers, crackling and fizzing, glittering in the darkness, astonishing us. On the day of the shoot Kristin arrived with armfuls of fading hydrangeas. It felt strangely comforting to start out hiding behind the these gorgeous fading flowers, to gradually reveal myself through a game of hide and seek with the camera.
Kristin had remembered a pair of white leather gloves that belonged to my mother. They are exquisitely soft, elegant, reminiscent of a bygone era of glamour and perfectly matching accessories. My mother was a dress designer. Her clothes appeared in Vogue and Harpers and Queen back in the fifties before I was born. She had given up her work to raise four children but we had a dressing up box full of these ridiculously lovely clothes. Gorgeous Hollywood starlet creations in satins and silks and velvets that became tattered and torn as my sister and I wondered about the house imagining ourselves movie stars. I have always loved clothes and dressing up so there was something lovely about wearing the gloves that belonged to my mother and that bygone world of elegance. But it was also good to subvert it, to let the flowers fall and make a mess, to have bare feet and unshaven legs and arm pits, to strip off the gloves and reveal my hands and face, reveal myself.
Theatre director and writer
Mermaid is Polly Teale's new production for her company Shared Experience