As I told you last week, on Tuesday I went to the ActionAid fashion show, ‘Beauty Redefined’. It was held in The Old Truman Brewery in Brick Lane, so getting there was quite an adventure (that place is in desperate need of some signage).
We arrived for a drinks reception. The venue was an old warehouse, so not glamorous, but there was a general air of excitement (in spite of the pigeons flying between the beams above our heads). Perhaps everyone was just happy that they had finally made it to the right place. Or perhaps it was the number of photographers and cameramen who were recording the event for the national press (it was covered by BBC News – did you see it?). Or perhaps it was the presence of several famous people.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m not very good at recognising famous people. I don’t watch much telly and I don’t read magazines. So although I could guess, by the high heels and sparkly dresses and amount of media attention, who was famous, I had no idea who they actually were. I took a few photos, so you might recognise people (though the only person who I did recognise was Hugh Dennis, and he was never near enough for a photograph). Someone told me the new Dr Who actor was there, so I went to ask if I could have her photo. She was a bit perturbed that I didn’t actually know who she was, but was incredibly gracious and friendly, and I took a selfie. Nice lady, should you ever meet her.
When later, I looked at the selfie, I was surprised by how many wrinkles I have. I never see them normally, when I look in the mirror, I sort of see the face I’m expecting to see, which I guess is an echo of the young me. But I’m not young, I’m 52, and I have lived a lot and laughed a lot, and my face has wrinkles. It is not a model’s face, it has not been airbrushed, but it’s mine. The wrinkles don’t matter. This is relevant when you consider that every model in the fashion show was the victim of an acid attack. They would probably have loved to have a few wrinkles on their faces, a few less scars.
Then we went in to watch the fashion show. To be honest, it wasn’t much of a fashion show, as there were very few changes of outfits, and because they were traditional Bangladeshi dress, they all looked much the same to me anyhow. But, all the models, due to the acid thrown at them, had scarred faces; the flesh burnt off by cruel chemicals. Melted flesh is not pretty. Some models seem to have trouble seeing, some appeared nervous. This was not a celebration of beauty. Except, it was. The fashion show was to increase awareness of these horrible attacks, which are usually inflicted by men on women. The show was to help the models spread their message, that they are not ashamed of their disfigurements, they have done nothing wrong, their beauty is internal, only the wrapper has been spoiled.
ActionAid are working with victims of acid attacks, giving them confidence to continue with their lives rather than hiding inside. They are lobbying for restrictions in the sale of acids, they are telling people that this is not okay. They are empowering women (in a country where women have very few rights). The show was to celebrate the success already achieved in Bangladesh: that acid attack victims are being supported and given confidence; and due to restrictions in the sale of acids, attacks are decreasing.
I personally, found the evening difficult. The women we saw reminded me of the Bengali women I met in Delhi – the ones who showed me their homes, who held my hand so I didn’t fall into the open sewer, who sat and laughed with me, who hugged me when I left. Women who were the same as me, but with different lives. To see those poor faces, to know someone had deliberately hurt them, was horrible beyond words. There was an audio playing, telling of different types of abuse that women suffer: over land disputes, when resisting abduction, when a husband wants a new wife, when they don’t want to be married as a child. I couldn’t listen to it. I would have cried.
But as I watched those women, as they paraded, and danced, and smiled, I did admire them. We all have faces or bodies or brains that aren’t ‘perfect’. Things happen to us, sometimes horrible things. Those models were refusing to be defined by their appearance. Perhaps there is a lesson there for all of us. So whatever your wrinkles or scars or general imperfections, remember you are special.
But here’s the main point: Before I went to this event, I was concerned it would be patronising. It is too easy for benevolence to become an ego trip, a reminder of our power, our ‘superiority’. I didn’t want to see celebrities “being kind” to the “sweet little women with the scarred faces”. These women are strong, capable, intelligent people, living their lives in an incredibly tough place. Life would be brutal enough without a disfigurement that means they are treated as pariahs. They are refusing to be defeated, they are standing tall, forcing the world to accept that they matter. We should stand with them. Perhaps this event was enabling us to do that.
Have a good week,
Have you read JOANNA yet? Strong women in a gritty novel, seeing the world through the eyes of a psychopath. Available from bookshops and Amazon.