A Brown Protagonist in a World with Inane Female Beauty Standards


Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

Just finished reading this and it’s been a while since I’ve managed to consume a book in the span of a few hours! This was recommended to me by my friend Isha a while back when I was still working in publishing in London. I bought the book last year and have been meaning to get around to reading it for a while – as with all my other books, its been gathering dust on my over-crammed bookshelf. I have needed some hermit time for a while now so have cut myself off from social activities and my personal Facebook to re-focus and re-energise, and so have finally got around to enjoying my favourite pastime.

What is the book about?

The plot takes place in a futuristic society where women – referred to as ‘eves’ – are built purely to fulfill the desires and pleasures of men –  when eves reach the age of sixteen, powerful men decide whether they will become their Companion (i.e. wives to bear them plenty of children), Concubine (join their harem) or become a Chastity (a chaste woman whose duty is to raise the girls at the School where the story takes place). The eves are raised and trained in the art of pleasing men until they come of age to be chosen and start their new life. The story features around the central character, Frieda, and the pressures she faces to remain perfect when it comes to her body weight, image and desire to be chosen as a Companion.

The book deals with profound issues – from mental health, weight, addiction, eating disorders, paranoia and hopelessness, to friendship, the need to be accepted, sexuality, homophobia, the underlying prevalence of the male gaze and the negative impact of social media.

Me, consuming the book, whole.

What did I like about the book?

The thing that is unique for me about this book is that the main character is brown-skinned (O’Neill has said that she is of Indian descent), although this isn’t apparent at first (nor from the front cover). But there are subtle hints dropped throughout, such as her desire to have paler skin, the fact that she is always comparing herself to the other girls in the School because of this, and because she believes that this will also make her more attractive to men. I say this is unique as someone who has read a large chunk of the library and rarely ever comes across a main character who is non-white. Although this never really bothered me growing up (because I would just imagine myself as the main character anyway), and also probably because I never gave it much thought, now that I’m older however, the lack of representation, or worse, stereotypical representation, of different ethnicities in books sticks out to me like a sore thumb, and am now finding actually bothers me a lot. So yes, I was pleasantly surprised that the main girl was brown-skinned but I also understand the author’s reasoning behind doing so – it helps to showcase the expectations and beauty standards around her in more of a vivid contrast. I just wish it was more obvious to me as a reader – and I question why it was so subtle. Would it have made less sales if the cover image had a brown-looking doll on the front? The female protagonist is brown – but you wouldn’t know it, unless like me, you liked the book so much that you went and did a lot of background research on the author and her inspiration for writing it.

The world building in the book is pretty limited and confined to the School in which the story takes place, the characters are somewhat two-dimensional and there is a lot of repetitive behaviour, dialogue and thoughts (which can be laborious to read over and over again but I appreciate the effect O’Neill was trying to create – that these girls have had these thoughts and rules grounded into them from such a young age they can’t think beyond them), it is still an addictive read. I don’t know how she does it, but O’Neill writes in a way that makes you hooked on her books. This book especially, as it provides an exposition and commentary on patriarchy and societal beauty norms and pressures, that are all too frightening real – the story may take place in the future, but the experiences of the girls are very much that of today. As a female reader, so much of it is so easy to relate to. O’Neill herself suffered from an eating disorder, and worked in the world of fashion and magazines in New York before moving back to Ireland to write, once she realised that her life in the US was no longer satisfying.

For me especially, it provided a powerful insight into the obsession around the pressure to be forever thin and beautiful, and the inane female beauty standards that exist and that are impossible to measure up to. This was not something that I had given much thought to the past, always prioritising cultivating my mental faculties over and above what I wore and how I looked. However, I related to it throughout as it touched upon many things I encountered and felt growing up – being brown and not identifying with the images of beauty in shops and magazines that surrounded me, going to an all-girls school during my critical teenage years and witnessing the obsession with makeup, boys and thinness, and seeing the competitiveness and sometimes rivalry that it inspired in the girls around me. The only downside for me was that the book didn’t actually tackle the issues it foregrounded – in the sense of trying to overcome them in some capacity, which is a shame really as YA fiction lends itself to a very specific style and genre to do so, and impact a very engaged audience too. It did display some resistance to the beauty norms and expectations through the character of Isabel however, but I felt like the main character’s role could have gone further in fighting the standards imposed upon her. But in a way, I guess the aim is to showcase how powerful these beauty standards and the nature of patriarchy is on impressionable young girls.

Rating & Acknowledgements

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ – would highly recommend it as I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it’s one of those books you can consume in one sitting. It’s a bestseller for a reason and echoes themes found in Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and Mean Girls.

Buy the book here.

You can follow the author on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I’ve also read her other book Asking For It, which I plan to do a review of soon, and am looking super forward to her new releases this year: Almost Love (out in March) and The Surface Breaks – A Reimagining of The Little Mermaid (out in May).

Happy Saturday people and keep reading! X

Please note that this review was published on my previous blog back in 2016, and has been updated for Cloud Cafe & Coffee.

Cover image obtained from Google/www.gobblefuncked.com

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