It’s been five days since Ashley Judd published her Daily Beast essay about the offensive, sexist nature of the media’s speculation about her face looking “puffy,” and to her credit, the conversation she started is still going strong. In her essay, which appeared on Monday, she explained that her appearance had changed a bit because she’d gained some weight (GOD FORBID) and had been taking medication for her sinuses. But far more important, she confronted the much bigger, uglier problem of today’s media being hyper-judgmental of women’s appearances in general. She writes:
I choose to address it because the conversation was pointedly nasty, gendered, and misogynistic and embodies what all girls and women in our culture, to a greater or lesser degree, endure every day, in ways both outrageous and subtle. The assault on our body image, the hypersexualization of girls and women and subsequent degradation of our sexuality as we walk through the decades, and the general incessant objectification is what this conversation allegedly about my face is really about.
Indeed, the strongest part about Judd’s argument — which has gathered steam through multiple TV appearances throughout the week — is that she’s refused to make it about herself. She was similarly focused in all of her TV interviews: Although she gave honest, articulate answers when asked about her personal appearance (particularly while on NBC’s Nightly News), she consistently brought the conversation back to the larger picture. Here’s how that went on Access Hollywood yesterday:
Billy Bush: How do you feel about being at the center [of this discussion]? Is it okay?
Ashley Judd: Well, it’s not really about me, and that’s why it’s on fire. I was just a surrogate for this particular series of unbelievably sexist and nasty criticisms … highlighting what we all go through. If it were just about me, it would have died already in the 24-hour news system.
She’s right, of course, and that’s what makes her different from all the other women who have fought back against the media calling them fat/plastic/Botoxed in the past. Remember when the media called Tyra fat and she booked herself a swimsuit photo shoot with People? Or when [insert one of many actresses] gained some weight and then made a big deal about losing it? When most female celebrities get criticized for their looks, they find a way to parlay it into their own brand. But Judd has used this opportunity to point out that how she looks has nothing to do with the larger problem. And her point — that so many women, whether they’re in the public eye or not, are constantly subjected to damning and contradictory opinions about their appearances — has obviously hit a nerve.
But placing a premium on women’s looks has happened throughout human history, so why are we talking about this now? It probably has to do with our society’s increasingly awkward relationship with body image and plastic surgery. There’s no “right” choice when it comes to changing one’s appearance: Women are criticized for looking fat or saggy or wrinkly but then torn down for using “unnatural” means to change their looks. Meanwhile, we live in a world of increasing options when it comes to “self-improvement” through special diets, workouts, pills, surgeries, injections, and goodness-knows-what-else. With all those new choices comes foreign moral ground, and new ways in which women are judged.
Further proving Judd’s point about how women are incessantly objectified by the media, Bush expressed confusion about whether it’s right to compliment a lady when she’s lost weight:
Bush: Oftentimes, if a woman comes in — Kathy Najimy was here the other day, I’ll use her as an example, she lost 50 pounds — I said to her, “Wow, you lost 50 pounds!” — she’s been open about it — “You look fantastic! God, you look great!” That’s an objectification right there, to some degree. Is that okay? Because I think most women, when you tell them, “You’ve lost weight, boy you look wonderful,” then they like that, and they feel good about it.
Judd: And I believe that that is one of the ways that it’s very cunning and very insidious. It is a compliment, but yet it’s a backhanded compliment. When I see someone who’s carrying that kind of weight, what I think is that there’s probably some disordered eating, that there are health problems, that there are self-esteem issues — it’s a lot more than the number on the scale.
Judd is tapping into the troubling fact that a woman’s appearance (or “puffiness”) is valued much more highly than whether she’s mentally and physically healthy. This problem won’t going away soon, but Judd has done an excellent job of starting an intelligent conversation about it.