Tanya Reynolds She may be 29, but she is known for her role as high school student Lily Iglehart, a sci-fi-loving, sex-obsessed nerd with a penchant for alien eroticism in the Netflix series Sex Education. It’s the kind of role Reynolds feels most at home in: a strong, slightly eccentric character, away from the stereotype of ‘beautiful’ heroines defined – and perhaps imprisoned – by their looks. Because for Reynolds, beauty is not important.
Raised in Hemel Hempstead, England, her idea of beauty was influenced by her mother, a painter with a relaxed attitude and not very inclined to make-up. Although in some periods of the school she wondered about her appearance (“I never wore makeup, my hair was frizzy and wild and my eyebrows had never seen tweezers”), today she is appreciated for her particular charm and authentic approach to beauty. “When you’re younger it’s all a ‘God, why do I look so weird?’” Zoom tells via. “Then all of a sudden it became, ‘Oh, I can make a living out of it. I can do my dream job. ‘”
Tanya Reynolds with a dress from Simone Rocha’s spring summer collection
© Andrew Nuding
For now, her dream job has seen her play the role of Teresa Benelli in the Sky One series Delicious (2016) and, more recently, that of Mrs. Elton in Emma. (2020) by Autumn de Wilde. In addition, she debuted as a model in the fashion show spring summer 2021 by Simone Rocha. While the actress is on the set of the third season of Sex Education, we contacted her to talk about her relationship with beauty and why it is necessary to normalize the bodies of real women.
Growing up, who or what influenced your idea of beauty?
“My mum. She was always different from other mothers. She came to get me in a paint-covered overalls because she was a painter in a factory and because she is an artist. She always wore hippie clothes, very long hair, and rarely wore makeup. For me, that was beauty. I don’t think I’ve been very influenced by magazines. Only today, in the age of social media, am I exposed to images of perfection. But growing up, beauty was just a matter of being colorful, artistic and a little bit different ”.
Was she sure of her appearance?
“Before starting high school, I was very confident. I had parents who encouraged me a lot and always told me I was beautiful, so I didn’t care much about how I looked. I was more interested in writing stories, reading books and drawing. But when I got to high school, I’d say my self-esteem went downhill, as happens to many girls. I noticed that I didn’t look like the others. All those girls wore make-up, smoothed and dyed their hair ”.
And how does it feel now?
“Really a work-in-progress. As an actress, all the things I didn’t like about myself – when I was in school, all the things that made me feel like a fish out of water – are things I’m grateful for now. These are the things that make you who you are. Being an actress has always been my dream and hearing people tell you that you have such a particular beauty is pleasant ”.
Did it happen to you that one of your roles made you perceive your appearance differently?
“I’ve always struggled a bit when make-up is involved. I don’t feel like when I’m wearing makeup and it puts me in trouble. I remember a job, years ago, where I had to be super glamorous and wear a lot of makeup and a fake tan, as well as wearing dresses and heels. And I felt so uncomfortable, having to look beautiful. However, I was also fortunate that, for many of my works, there was not so much pressure to appear a certain way. I can just be myself and stand in front of the camera without worrying about how beautiful it looks ”.
He cited social media and exposure to images of ‘perfection’. What effect did they have on your perception of beauty?
“I try to pass less time to look at those images. I try to counterbalance these things by focusing on the things I like to do. I realized that there is a direct correlation between the time I spend on the phone and my mood. I think everyone feels the same thing. If I am feeling particularly bombarded with the negative effects of social media, rather than picking up my phone, I pick up a book. There is no room in my brain to worry about checking my face or not. And Instagram is not reality, it’s a filtered version of our lives, not just our faces ”.
Is there anything we can do to mitigate the negative effects of social media on a cultural level?
“The less we see images of perfect, retouched and filtered women, the less we will think that that is ‘normality’. We need to see more pictures of real people. I saw something on Instagram the other day, in fact, that looked positive to me. There were a lot of different armpits. All those armpits were normal. I saw this thing and I thought ‘Shit.’ I remember when I was younger I was very unsure of my armpits, which is absurd. There are so many things to think about and do in the world. Why am I thinking about my armpits? So just seeing all those different armpits was cool. It makes you understand that we are not retouched, we are not cellulite-free – we are wrinkled and flabby and it’s normal and that’s fine ”.
These things definitely need to be normalized. There are a lot of things we don’t talk about when it comes to our bodies, things that we can typically perceive as being intimate or uncomfortable, something that seems to me to be Sex Education do very well. Her character, Lily, suffers from vaginismus. How does it feel to participate in a series that is advancing the debate and focuses on women’s issues?
“It was great for all of these reasons. It’s rarely talked about, but I’ve talked to so many girls about vaginismus since then, and many of the people I’ve talked to have suffered from it. I’ve been affected by it in the past, and I didn’t know what it was. It’s nice to be able to talk about it publicly on this scale ”.
Why do you think we still don’t talk about it?
“It’s just that it takes a really long time to reset the way an entire society thinks and functions, a society that has shamed women’s bodies, ignoring women’s sexuality and reproductive health issues. It takes a long time for the world to see things differently. But I hope that we are becoming less critical of ourselves and others, letting each find its own formula. When it comes to our bodies, we have to leave ourselves alone ”.