Remember that (horrible) movie “Shallow Hal” from 2001? It’s the one where Jack Black is this incredibly vapid asshole (Hal) who refuses to pursue any woman who’s not tall, thin and pretty in that Victoria’s Secret way? Then he gets a curse put on him so he can only see people’s “inner beauty,” which leads him to believe that women who are overweight or have crooked teeth look like the average supermodel. He winds up meeting Gwyneth Paltrow’s character Rosemary who looks like Paltrow in his eyes, but in “actuality,” is very overweight. Because of the curse, he gives her a chance and falls for her, then gets freaked out when he realizes she’s fat, then figures out he loves her and they end up together and Jason Alexander has a tail.
So what that he treated her like shit? He learned a lesson! Redemption! He’s so totally not an asshole now! Revelations are the best!
The whole focus of the film is supposed to be the importance of “inner beauty,” but in actuality, it just projects a single message: If you are overweight or have non-straight teeth or are somehow not standardly beautiful, then you better have an exquisite personality because no fish are gonna bite otherwise. Basically, if you are fat, men will only fall in love with you if they’re under a fucking curse.
Obviously, women have been told to look, dress, act and exist in particular ways according to societal standards. One of those standards, despite varying throughout history, has been the “ideal body.” Hundreds of years ago, this ideal was considerably plumper than it is these days, as weighing more was a sign of good health and a wealthier class. Last century, this fluctuated considerably, from idealizing a straight shape in the 1920s to desiring wider, “childbearing hips” in the 50s to Twiggy to supermodels to whatever we recognize as beautiful these days. But regardless of its exact properties, there has always been an ideal.
The problem with having any kind of “ideal body” is obvious: women will feel the need to change accordingly. Many will not change simply because they want healthy lifestyles or because it will positively affect certain aspects of their systems; they’ll be changing because looking a certain way is seen as superior to looking another. Regardless of whether or not they’re already healthy, many women alter their appearances to fit into this ideal–but we all already know that.
Beauty ideals are changing once again, but in a new way: all sorts of different body types, rather than one ideal, are being seen as beautiful. This is fantastic, but with it also arrives a new kind of obnoxious behavior.
A couple months ago, I watched a news clip online about a beauty pageant for plus-size women. (I apologize for not providing a video; seriously, I’ve searched all over for it and can’t seem to find it.) The women were all lined up (just like a “normal” beauty pageant), judged using a couple questions that don’t really reveal much of anything about the candidates (just like a “normal” pageant), and they were each expected to be judged by some strangers (just like a “normal” beauty pageant.)
However, the crowd was different. Though the small audience seemed to be comprised primarily of family members and friends, there were a few people who the reporters interviewed about the pageant who seemed unrelated. One of those folks was a man who said something to the effect of, “Big girl pageants are great, because they show that inner beauty matters, too.”
The first issue I have with that statement is that in my opinion, all pageants in which people are judged for their appearance are inherently shallow. 90% of contestants are not Honey Boo Boo and do not gain confidence from competing regardless of losing or winning; to assume this would be ridiculously optimistic about human beings’ self esteem. Pageants are about this idea of embodying a “total package,” which in reality just means that in order to be the”total package,” you need to be beautiful in addition to having a great personality–you cannot be an overall winner if you’re not also seen as outwardly sexy.
The second issue is that this implies larger women are either somehow more capable of being beautiful on the inside, or that judging their beauty requires more focus on personality because they cannot be seen as pretty without that. Basically, it equivalates thinness to outer beauty, heaviness to inner beauty. And that’s fucking ridiculous.
When discussing a situation in which a person–almost always a woman–possesses a weight or any other feature that is not attractive by general media standards, supposed critics of body criticism will often use the term “inner beauty.” They will focus on its importance, as well as other non-appearance related aspects, even if the person they’re discussing is absolutely gorgeous. When talking about a model, this rarely happens. Well, unless that model has just donated to charity, wherein she’ll be declared “beautiful inside and out.”
For example, when Jessica Simpson gained weight, all the media’s focus went to that aspect of her life. Then, as she lost weight, everybody started discussing about how “strong” she is and how “driven”–because apparently, if she hadn’t lost weight, she wouldn’t be any of those things. But before weight gain was involved, people primarily just discussed the “chicken of the sea” shenanigan that happened in like 1804.
Women who do not embody “standard” beauty–that is, looking similarly to those in a typical fashion magazine–are often discussed as though they’re in an entirely different class of person.
At some point, nearly every larger woman I’m friends with has told me that people often say they have a “pretty face” and that they’re “beautiful on the inside,” as though they don’t know this implies they’re not pretty in other ways. Yes, I’m sure some of those people are being genuine: they may actually just be trying to compliment the face or personality and do think the rest is pretty. That said, typically comes out sounding like the opposite of being called a “butterface,” which is equally hurtful.
A couple weeks ago, some guy at a bar told a friend of mine that I had a “pretty face” and “could model parts” of myself, and though he “usually prefers smaller women, she’s interesting.” Apparently, I was supposed to see this as a compliment–this guy decided I was pretty enough for him! Oh my god, lucky me! He normally would think I’m too fat (I’m a size 10) but luckily, those “parts” of me and my personality led to his thinking otherwise. Goodie! Instead, I just started feeling really shitty about myself until I remembered that I didn’t really care all too much. That said, if somebody had said that to me 3 years ago, I would’ve quit eating–obviously, that would be my issue, but having your worth be negatively judged based on particular aspects of your appearance is quite painful.
Look: complimenting somebody is one thing. Here, we regularly call women beautiful and point out when they look absolutely stunning. But those compliments are not accompanied with “…except for her thighs/double chin/face” nor do they come with judgments of the people’s personalities based on their body shapes or clothing sizes.
Treating non-standard attractiveness as though it has to be derived from personality, whereas standard beauty is totally unattached (and, in fact, women of standard beauty often face being called “conceited” or “bitches” for their appearances), will lead to an even greater divide. Connecting outward appearances to inner goodness is never a good idea–it just leads to even more books being judged by their covers. Instead of making a variety of appearances seen as beautiful, it creates subclasses of beauty to be treated as more or less significant than others.