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What was Virginia Woolf afraid of?

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Essay | 10 minute read
A writer who was verbally attacked reflects on the 'frump-shaming' of women and the message behind it, sent to the most accomplished of women through the ages, that they can never forget that they are, ultimately, an object to be admired, or abused

There’s a particular sentence of Woolf’s that haunts me; I’ve written about it before, without managing to exorcise it. It appears in her novel Jacob’s Room: ‘It’s not catastrophes, murders, deaths, diseases, that age and kill us; it’s the way people look and laugh, and run up the steps of omnibuses.’

There are certain experiences of my own, related to this, that also haunt me, and that I have also written about before: One cool summer’s morning, when I was seventeen, I saw a friend off at Canons Park station, and then walked home. It was a short walk, one I had been taking all my life, through territory so familiar that I experienced myself as a part of it. I hardly needed to spare a conscious thought as to where I was going or how I was going to get there. I needed to cross two roads and not get hit by a car; if I encountered anyone coming from the other direction, I needed only to pay them as much attention as was required for me not to collide with them. So when a couple of boys approached, I gave them exactly that much attention. Just as we were about to pass each other, one of them caught my eye, screwed his face up with something very like rage, and yelled one word: ‘DOG!’

I’ve presented this story as an exemplary text, because it was exemplary. I learned from it, and that lesson has informed my behaviour for thirty years.

When I returned home that morning, I went straight upstairs and stood in front of the full-length mirror in my parents’ bedroom, where I tried to see myself as I imagined the boy had seen me. I took in my unmade-up face, and my scruffy hair straggling out of its low ponytail. Below the neck, I was shapeless: I had gone out in loose navy jacket, buttoned, with a long, loose skirt emerging from the bottom of it. I was wearing flat, lace-up shoes. I was decently covered up; neither my clothes nor I were dirty; I did not smell. And yet, I had offended. I learned my lesson, and the lesson I learned was that if I moved through public space without taking into account how I appeared to the men in that space, I risked being abused, and that abuse would be down to my own negligence.

In Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed writes about the way certain things happen to a young woman, and happen again, and how, as a result, she changes her mode of being in the world: ‘When you sense the world out there as danger, it is your relation to your own body that changes: you become cautious, timid . . . You begin to learn that being careful, not having things happen to you, is a way of avoiding becoming damaged. It is for your own good. And you sense the consequence: if something happens, you have failed to prevent it . . . Violence becomes instruction when it is accompanied by a narrative, an explanation. When you have learned something, when you have received the message of this instruction, your feelings are given direction and shape . . .’

Photo by Velizar Ivanov/Unsplash

Ahmed is speaking mostly of another kind of street harassment, the kind women are supposed to take as some kind of affirmation, or at least a joke, the kind of casual sexualised abuse I was trying to avoid by buttoning up my shapeless jacket. Nobody could say that the word ‘DOG!’ should be taken as a compliment, but the structure of these two kinds of experiences – directly insulting and supposedly appreciative – is the same, the narratives that form around them have the same shape, and the same kind of lesson is learned. Something unpleasant happened; it was your own fault; you ought to feel ashamed; if you don’t want this unpleasant experience to happen again, if you don’t want to be harmed and shamed, it is your responsibility to prevent it.

In that moment, when the boy shouted his opinion of my person as I appeared to him, he objectified me, just as surely as he would have done had he whistled or pointed out the female shape I was trying to keep to myself. I no longer experienced myself as a subject, moving unconsciously through shared space. I didn’t insult him back; I didn’t ignore him either. Instead, I went up to the mirror, and became an object to myself. I understood that I had been mistaken and naïve to go about the world as if my body were to be unselfconsciously lived through. I was a woman, and as Iris Marion Young puts it in her essay ‘Throwing Like a Girl’, to become a woman is to develop a double sense of oneself, as a subject in the world but also as an object ‘to be gazed at and decorated’, and which is by definition ‘vulnerable’.

Prepare to be gazed at, but don’t look like you’re inviting a gaze. The explicit instructions I received growing up, mostly from female relatives, included: go out and have fun; don’t walk there at night; don’t sit with your legs like that; smile; put a bit of lippy on; cover your mouth when you laugh. To use a pair of twenty-first-century words that were not available to me in the eighties, the impossible instruction could be summed up as:

Don’t go out looking like you want to be attractive: you’ll be slut-shamed.

Don’t go out looking like you don’t want to be attractive: you’ll be frump-shamed.

Is it any surprise if women take longer than men to get ready to leave the house? There’s too much riding on the result. There was too much in the 1980s, when I walked back from the station, and too much on 9 March 1926, when Virginia Woolf wrote about a party in a diary, and alluded to ‘the usual shyness about powder & paint, shoes & stockings’ which had been the only negative part of the experience. Woolf was, by all accounts, wonderfully entertaining at parties, a great wit and storyteller; she was also, by all accounts, a beautiful woman. But when it comes to her appearance – specifically to that part of it for which she might be held responsible – the accounts differ. Her husband Leonard thought she dressed with great elegance; her friend/lover Vita Sackville-West, on the other hand, found her dress sense appalling, and told her so. In a diary entry from 1925, Woolf writes of the glamorous figure Vita cuts, how she shines even on a visit to grocer’s shop. Vita, on the other hand ‘found me incredibly dowdy, no woman cared less for personal appearance – no one put on things the way I did.’

Woolf may not have looked as if she cared for personal appearance, but I believe that she did care, and when adverse comments were made, she minded. A woman who truly did not care how she appeared to others would not have experience shyness about it before and during parties. She would not, as Woolf did, write elsewhere in her diary that as a young woman she had found the women who sold her clothes in shops intimidating, or that she felt out of place among women who dressed more fashionably. Virginia Woolf was afraid of getting it wrong; she was afraid of judgement, and ridicule, and of feeling left out. She knew that being looked at and laughed at could make a person – even an accomplished, beautiful, privileged person – feel annihilated.

Virginia Woolf, 1930 (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

This sense of the danger, of the risk of ridicule, was not paranoia on Woolf’s part. I have shown that even some of her closest friends, the people who loved her most, found her appearance problematic. In his autobiography, Leonard Woolf writes with pain and some bewilderment about the way in which complete strangers would react to his wife: ‘ . . . to the crowd in the street there was something in her appearance which struck them as strange and laughable . . . people would stare or stop and stare at Virginia. And not only in foreign towns; they would stop and stare and nudge one another – “look at her” – even in England, in Piccadilly or Lewes . . .’

Leonard makes the observation that these incidents tended to happen at moments when Virginia was lost in thought – when she had, in a sense, forgotten herself. There was something in her expression or comportment in those moments, which, taken with her unusual mode of dress, made her appear anomalous to people. Like her clothes, her manner marked her out as a woman who went out into the world without apparently caring how she appeared in it. And, as I would find out when I walked back from Canons Park station without giving my appearance a conscious thought, that is a risky way for a woman to proceed. A woman should never forget that whatever else she is, she is also an object.

And there’s one more twist, one more contradictory instruction:

Don’t spend too much time thinking about your appearance – it’s trivial.

Look again at that sentence from Jacob’s Room: Woolf is protesting the importance of something. As she writes (as I write), she seems to be addressing an implied reader, a critic, who is saying something like: ‘Why are you wasting your time on this, Mrs Woolf? People looking and laughing? What about the Great War? What about Spanish Flu? Only a woman would write about such trivial things.’ Yes, when someone looks and laughs, it is only a small thing that happens. But, as Ahmed says, things don’t just happen once; they happen again. And again. And again. A great single harm can age and kill a person – but so can the accumulation of tiny ones. If people take their own lives because they have been shamed about their appearance – and people, especially young girls, do – then that shame is far from trivial. Not having to think about one’s appearance is a privilege only accorded to those who are never at risk of being objectified.


In Jacob’s Room, in her diaries where she coined the expression ‘frock consciousness’ and elsewhere, Woolf was trying to create a language to express what it felt like to be on the receiving end of this kind of harm, and how it operated, inside one’s head and out in the world. A couple of months after she recorded feeling shy about powder and stockings, Woolf published Mrs Dalloway, a novel which has a woman’s consciousness of herself as one of its main subjects. The title character, Clarissa Dalloway, is a politician’s wife, acutely sensitive to the nuances of her own and other women’s appearances, who has learned to define herself as she appears in the eyes of others.

Photo by Jairo Alzate/Unsplash

Clarissa is rich and elegant but poorly educated; as a society wife, she must concern herself with clothes, guest lists and flowers for a party. Her bête noir is her daughter’s history tutor, a well-educated but poor woman, vocally preoccupied with great issues of politics, society and religion. Clarissa is distressed, not so much by this woman herself, but by the feelings that attach themselves to the thought of her: guilt at her own privilege, shame at her lack of education and by the supposed triviality of her concerns and disgust at this woman’s manners and appearance. These painful feelings coalesce around everything this woman stands for and then come into sharp focus upon one image that stands for her: her shabby, green mackintosh. It is the shabby green mackintosh of all ugly feelings.

Although the two women meet and interact for only a short moment, it is one that will continue to resonate painfully for both of them throughout the course of the day that the novel explores. Clarissa finds the presence of her daughter’s tutor so oppressive that, as soon as the other woman has left her room, she laughs with relief. The other woman hears her laughter, and is hurt by it. She is not unaware of how she and her mackintosh appear to Clarissa. She is a powerful character, carrying Woolf’s fears of how she might be shamed by women, and her guilt at how she might sometimes shame them in return.

And what does Woolf call this woman, who is despised and laughed at for her mackintosh? She calls her ‘Miss Kilman’.