In her acclaimed debut, Eggshell Skull, Bri Lee confronted sexual abuse, sexual assault and the limitations of the justice system. As she did so, her preoccupation with weight and food was always present. She writes in her new book, Beauty: “I didn’t realise how bad my disordered eating habits were until I finished the first draft of [Eggshell Skull] and found it pushing itself to the surface of every single chapter.”
Lee places these concerns at centre stage in this short book, a personal essay on the cult of beauty and what it does to those who worship at its altar. As well as exploring the personal toll of disordered eating, she links her feelings about her weight and appearance to the pressure around the publicity tour for Eggshell Skull, when she felt “permanently on display” – particularly in the age of social media – and her work and appearance became “inextricably connected”. This confronts us with the emotional burden of Eggshell Skull, and the engaged reader will wonder about their own complicity: Did they comment on her Instagram? Did they disclose their own experience? Did they judge Lee in any of the ways society encourages us to judge women in the public eye?
Over the course of the essay, Lee chronicles how she decoupled – or is decoupling – her self-worth from her body. As for so many others, this is an ongoing process for Lee. She acknowledges she was “raised on the Kool-Aid of slim superiority”, and early in the essay she shares her plan to lose weight in a short space of time before a magazine photo shoot.
At times, these references to her weight and weight loss goals, and her details of what she ate in a day, may make some readers uncomfortable – even if Lee, who is a writer to watch, ultimately mines her life to expose society’s flaws.
This book is based on Lee’s experience as a white cisgender woman, and it does not explore race, culture, disability or illness and how these interact with conceptions of beauty. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful personal essay that offers lessons for us all. Many of us watch our language and actions around those who are younger than us, but what about those who are older? Our mothers and aunts and mentors and friends – as Lee reminds us, anyone of any age can be caught in the cult of beauty.
Allen & Unwin, 160pp, $19.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 23, 2019 as "Bri Lee, Beauty". Subscribe here.