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Society-at-large has never had a great relationship with the female body. The past is littered with problematic habits from foot binding to corsets, from sex trafficking to claims of hysteria. There are always demands for unnatural forms, where pain is endured to morph the body; there are always ignorant hypotheses intermingled with patriarchal dominance. The difference is, now they seem to be descending simultaneously. An ebb and flow of fads and mindsets has morphed into a hurricane of modern dilemmas mixed with freshly dusted, but no less antiquated, notions from the past.
We’re living in a world where lawmakers claim that life starts before conception, where women are barred from discussions about their bodies and subsequently publically condemned, where kids undergo adult procedures for pageantry, where female celebrities are body snarked and chastised for their personal choices, where plastic surgery is so prevalent that even teens get anti-aging procedures, where the youth suffer in a world with a lack of access, education, and positive media… An entire piece could be made just listing the myriad problems in this body-focused hurricane, which hit a fever pitch in Hollywood this week.
American Reunion hit screens, detailing the pressing question absolutely no one was asking: What happened to Jim’s gang after he got married? Since no one really changed – Stiffler still struts around demeaning everyone, Jim is still angsty about sex, etc. – it’s easy for viewer attention to quickly shift to the women’s looks. Fox News, the wonderful bastion of journalism, wonders which actress aged best, being sure to note most of the actresses' tabloid and personal woes (ironically, Natasha Lyonne ‘s turmoil was ignored) -- a "news" piece no better than this body building forum.
Matt Singer also touched on the issue at CriticWire, before expanding to another current media circus – the latest pictures of actress Lara Flynn Boyle. The actress, who openly talked about her fear of aging during the press circuit for Men in Black II, has become one of the go-to names for celebrity plastic surgery mishaps, inspiring Dustin Rowles to write “How Lara Flynn Boyle’s Botched Face Brings Out the Worst in Humanity.” All of these pieces ultimately set the framework for Ashley Judd’s cogent critique concerning the “Conversation” about women’s bodies and the recent media whirlwind concerning her “puffy” appearance.
She asserts that the “Conversation about women’s bodies exists largely outside of us, while it is also directed at (and marketed to) us, and used to define and control us. The Conversation about women happens everywhere, publicly and privately. We are described and detailed, our faces and bodies analyzed and picked apart, our worth ascertained and ascribed based on the reduction of personhood to simple physical objectification. Our voices, our personhood, our potential, and our accomplishments are regularly minimized and muted.”
Ashley Judd rightly notes that the patriarchy of this situation is one “in which both women and men participate,” where this “abnormal obsession with women’s faces and bodies has become so normal that we (I include myself at times—I absolutely fall for it still) have internalized patriarchy almost seamlessly. We are unable at times to identify ourselves as our own denigrating abusers, or as abusing other girls and women.” This leads her to ask why her face caused such a conversation: “What is the gloating about? What is the condemnation about? What is the self-righteous alleged ‘all knowing’ stance of the media about? How does this symbolize constraints on girls and women, and encroach on our right to be simply as we are, at any given moment?”
And this is where I find the feminist push to take discussions of the body out of popular culture both great and problematic. As Judd states, there is an internalized patriarchy that we all participate in. Though I write about women in film every week, I recently found myself watching the old Beverly Hills 90210 and thinking that the girls looked a bit big. Immediately, I stopped myself and thought about my reaction, realizing that I am so used to seeing incredibly slight and incredibly shrinking women on the screen that the still quite-thin actresses from the original show seemed large or out of place. Ideology and common sense was trumped by repetition and familiarity.
We like to think that we aren’t affected by the images, often because there is a rampant double standard between the Hollywood world and the real-life Jack or Jill. The demands put on the public female form are not always the same as the private. It’s second nature to call a character who goes up a dress size “fat,” while considering larger, real-life women to be normal or thin. There is a distorted microscope through which most entertainment is filtered. Critiquing a natural fold of skin or a dimple of cellulite is no longer nit-picky commentary relegated to the snarkiest gossip fiend – it’s a mindset that infiltrates news, media opinion, and public perception – a mindset that desperately needs to be challenged and changed.
Yet I find myself uncomfortable with the idea that, as Judd puts it, this snarking interferes with “our right to be simply as we are.” As many personal reasons as there are for an actress to maintain a thin form, or continually lose weight, there is also an intense public and professional interest that fuels it. Margaret Cho has openly talked about network demands forcing her to lose weight to play herself in All American Girl, an ordeal where she lost 30 pounds in two weeks, sending her into serious kidney failure. When Hayley Atwell was cast in Brideshead Revisited, Emma Thompson had to intervene and stop Miramax’s demands that the slight actress lose weight. The stories are new and old, like Carrie Fisher being too big to play Princess Leia at 105 pounds, or the other actresses who’ve come clean about ridiculous professional body pressure like Sofia Vergara, Jennifer Lopez, Mandy Moore, Ali Larter, Patricia Arquette, and Norah Jones.
One doesn’t have to hear these personal accounts to see the problem. For larger and smaller actresses alike, there is a ritual dwindling of their form year by year, role by role as if working in Hollywood requires the female body to be worthy of a pro-ana thinspiration collage. The problematic trend is further exacerbated by the PR spin that surrounds it. Every woman’s weight loss (and often surgery) is framed as natural, removing any responsibility that might be thrown at them by body-snarking masses while swiftly reframing our ideas of what a “natural” human body is and how a body “naturally” changes.
Though there is a desperate need to stop the Conversation, as Judd frames it, how do we battle against the demands that lead to these forms? It’s not as simple as stopping the snarky comments about Angelina Jolie needing a cheeseburger or three. There is a fine line between ending the snark and being complacent to the backstage systems that create these forms. How do we be respectful of the actress and the demands she is under while being critical of the system that forces such demands on her? Is it possible to show anger with (and fight against) the system that increasingly forces actresses to morph their bodies in unnatural ways while being respectful to the actresses in question?
Judd asks: “Who makes the fantastic leap from being sick, or gaining some weight over the winter, to a conclusion of plastic surgery? Our culture, that’s who.” She frames this culture as “insanity” that must be stopped, her vehemence against a patriarchal system condemning a backlash that has grown from an entirely separate instance of patriarchal control. The person reacting against the rampant plastic surgery in Hollywood is “insane,” without there being any mention of the “insane” pressure that leads women to take such drastic measures, and how such trends negatively influence girls and boys, men and women.
While bodies grow increasingly skeletal, lines disappear, lips grow, eyebrows raise, and facial shapes change. We’re a snarky culture, for sure, but we’re also a culture whose seen actresses like Meg Ryan, Rose McGowan, and Lara Flynn Boyle become almost unrecognizable when compared to their earlier selves – not because of the fun twists and turns of age, but because of the surgery and procedures they undergo in the name of their work and their image. There are countless stories about how jobs dry up as actresses age – fewer parts for a large pool of talent itching for more than the supportive mother cameo or other minimal, unchallenging roles. No matter how much of the surgery urge is personal, it's also influenced by a society and professional system that continually pushes for unnatural ideals.
It’s a mess, one that is in desperate need of change. But as we try to change our own habits, we cannot forget the systems that invoke these habits in the first place.