The love/hate relationship between women and the media is well-known. Ever since I was young, I can remember being warned about the troubling media images that I would see, depicting women as too skinny, fashionable in a certain way, over-sexualized, and this list of adjectives could go on. In middle school and high school I was educated about eating disorders and other ways that insecurity about appearance and the ways that the media fueled these fires by presenting young women with an unattainable standard of beauty. I understood on a theoretical level that I should be highly suspicious of mainstream media and its portrait of what and who an attractive female is.
But in many ways, this message was always undermined anyway by the lure of fashion magazines, movies and gossip websites like People.com which make celebrity voyeurism easily accessible and entertaining. Still today, whenever I am sitting in the airport, waiting to board a flight, I hear the siren call of magazines, whose pages are filled with glossy images and advertisements, one after another, with portraits of ridiculously good-looking people staring out at you, who can make you feel bad about your hips, hair and skin no matter how strong your inner feminist voice is.
And then there’s the subculture of cattiness that all this breeds. Perhaps when we realize that we can’t look or live like celebrities, one method of coping is to nit-pick, judge and objectify them through this cult of celebrity. And, anecdotally, it seems that we women are often each other’s harshest critics (although male voices certainly hold lots of power when it comes to defining what a beautiful woman looks and acts like, both within the media and outside it).
I was reminded of this yesterday when a friend forwarded me Ashley Judd’s recent diatribe against the media. Several weeks ago, speculations about Judd possibly undergoing botched plastic surgery went viral after she appeared in several photos and in interviews promoting her new television show with a slightly puffy face. As Judd notes, mainstream media and social media outlets circulated all sorts of rumors and critiques of her appearance, ranging from extensive plastic surgery to weight gain (causing Judd to jump from size 2/4 to a possible 6/8) or that Judd was simply looking haggard and old. Judd noted that women had been key instigators of these conversations, and that mainstream media outlets never bothered to fact check stories or check in with her for comments regarding the situation (which apparently was caused by steroids Judd was taking to bolster a struggling immune system).
Judd writes, “If this conversation about me is going to be had, I will do my part to insist that it is a feminist one, because it has been misogynistic from the start. 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. The insanity has to stop, because as focused on me as it appears to have been, it is about all girls and women. In fact, it’s about boys and men, too, who are equally objectified and ridiculed, according to heteronormative definitions of masculinity that deny the full and dynamic range of their personhood. It affects each and every one of us, in multiple and nefarious ways: our self-image, how we show up in our relationships and at work, our sense of our worth, value, and potential as human beings.”
And in another recent viral media frenzy, women and men alike have come out of the woodwork to give their opinions on a recent article written by Samantha Brick for the Daily Mail which detailed the “downsides of looking this pretty.” Brick has drawn scorn and disbelief from men and women alike, who have critiqued her on the basis of appearance (suggesting that she’s not that pretty, ugly or even delusional) and on the basis of her seeming arrogance. I have to confess, when Brick’s story first broke, these were my first two reactions as well. But I had to double check myself: Yes, I don’t think Brick wrote an article that I would write, but why hate someone for feeling confident? And why is my first reaction to use stereotypical measures of beauty to assess the validity of this woman’s argument? If Elle McPherson or Beyoncé Knowles had written this article, would I have been equally as critical? Hard to say.
But I suspect that Judd is on to something with her suggestion that we are all entangled in this “conversation” about women’s bodies and beauty, whether we want to be or not. But, the question is, how is it that we set about reframing such a conversation?