Before I go a sentence further, I have to first confess that I haven’t always been the biggest fan of Ashley Judd. I actually find her fairly pretentious – championing a “holier than thou” affect commonly encountered among the “saved.” Just look at the design of her website.
Now, I would like to say Ashley is not “holier than us,” she is “just an actress” – but her (no doubt) self-written bio would prove that a lie. Just to give you a taste:
At present, Ashley serves on the Board of Directors of Population Services International, Defenders of Wildlife, and Shaker Village. She has traveled, literally, around the world, visiting grassroots programs that focus on poverty alleviation, public health, human rights, and social justice. Entrusted with the sacred stories shared with her by the vulnerable, and often exploited yet remarkably resilient populations to whom she has dedicated much of her life, Ashley then speaks truth to power, carrying the message of empowerment and equality to heads of state, donors, the private sector, and the media. A small sampling of her advocacy work includes: Giving the keynote address on the modern slave trade to the 2008 General Assembly of the United Nations, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the urgent need to prevent the spread of HIV to girls and women, speaking to the National Press Club, appearing on major news programs, and filming 3 documentaries seen by over a billion people worldwide. She has served as an expert panelist/moderator at conferences such as the Clinton Global Initiative, the Women Deliver Conference, the International AIDS conference, and the Global Business Coalition to stop HIV, TB, and Malaria, and the National Press Club.
There’s a lot more where that came from. And, lest we forget, she is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School!
Unfortunately, for all this good-doing, Ashley is the type of humanitarian/advocate that makes me want to vomit. She’s right up there with almost every happy-hour loving non-profiteer I’ve encountered in DC. They want to save the world for the same reason Manhattan bankers want to make money. For themselves.
Putting my prejudices aside, I was intrigued by Ashley’s response to recent criticism of her appearance. In case you missed it/have a life, in the last few weeks, the media/internet world has lambasted Ashley for her puffy face, which she claims is a side-effect of steroids she’d been using to treat an illness (not due to plastic surgery or weight gain).
Ashley didn’t like this.
On Monday – coincidentally the day after Jesus’ own post-crucifixion resurrection – Ashley felt she’d had JLo-style “enough.” She published an op-ed in the Daily Beast in which she laddered up to the larger issue at hand (or face, as the case may be). Objectification of women.
Don’t get me started on the fact that front. and. center. of this op-ed is a larger than life portrait of Ashley’s face. But if I can ignore the messenger (despite the fact that she’s staring right at me) and focus on the (unnecessarily magniloquent – see Ashley? I can use big words too!) message, I like what she’s trying to do here.
Actually – I love it.
Like virtually every female I’ve grown up with, I’ve gone through my own bouts with physical insecurity – some casual and some far more serious. In college, it was at its peak. Owen Wilson lost a few good men out there with the Yankees. I lost so many good ladies in college.
Girls left and right were either bulimic, anorexic or both. Female athletes, supposedly beaming with self-esteem, were no exception.
I became obsessed with how/why this issue was so rampant that some ridiculous number of toilets on college campuses have to be closed every week because they are clogged with puke. I even dedicated my senior year to writing a thesis on the subject of women and eating disorders – in this case using the lens of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique and the “problem that has no name.”
Women, it seemed to me, were slaving over their bodies in the way that 50s housewives slaved over the home. The house was never clean enough, the yard was never green enough, the kids were never smart enough, the dinner was never good enough, the wife was never social enough. Now a woman’s body is never good enough. It’s always too thin, too fat, too muscular, too flabby, too blond, too butch, too athletic, too old, too young, too, too, too, too, too.
A woman’s work is never done.
Friedan’s women described a lack of feeling full. So, too, do today’s women. Literally. Not only a lack of feeling full but, in a society focused on either indulging or dieting, fear and confusion about how to even reach “full.”
Ashley’s diatribe is wonderful in many respects and has some very powerful passages. (You should actually read it). But what made me scream “thank you for saying this!” the loudest was the fact that she called out women for being participants in and catalysts for the “problem that has no name” or, in this instance, “the Conversation.” As she writes, “A case in point is that this conversation [about Ashley’s appearance] was initially promulgated largely by women; a sad and disturbing fact.”
As I alluded to in an earlier post – it’s not men. It’s women. And this is a problem.
I remember getting ready for nights out in college. I dreaded these evenings to the point of avoiding them entirely. Girls would spend hours getting ready. Primping and prepping. Trying things on and asking roommates if they looked good. Then on to the pre-gaming portion of the evening, which is really drinking while comparing yourself to the other girls in the room – trying desperately to find that one aspect of that one girl who made you feel prettier/skinnier/hotter (take your pick) and therefore good enough to be seen in public. Drinking at this point becomes a necessity. The drunker you are, the faster you feel physically superior (beer goggles aren’t just for looking at other people). Then, finally, you’d exit the building to join some party somewhere. An entourage of drunk girls all thinking “at least I look better than her” or “shit, I feel so fat.”
No men were involved in the making of this scenario.
This sort of comparison is not reserved exclusively for college. As Ashley writes, “the conversation [about her appearance] 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.”
And even better:
Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate. It privileges, inter alia*, the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women. It is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it. 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.
*Inter alia means “among other things.” You’re welcome.
As I’ve grown up, I’ve tried – and often failed – to be “the change I wish to see in the world.” Tried to rise above the comparisons and act (notice I say “act,” not necessarily “be”) comfortable in my own body, no matter what other women are around. I can’t begin to tell you how hard this is. It’s a choice. A conscious decision not to care – which I can’t always make. Girls tend to find it threatening or confusing at first – but then appealing. Comforting. A huge relief. Guys tend to love it. They probably also find it to be a huge relief.
I have moments of real weakness. I’ve learned to avoid certain social situations that will trigger intense insecurity. (I’ve also learned to drink heavily before/during/after said situations.) I’ve carefully cultivated a group of wonderful friends who are comfortable enough in their bodies not to make me feel uncomfortable in mine. I’ve also realized that the people who make me feel this way aren’t the point. The point is my experience. And that’s something only I can control. It’s a battle, but a battle worth fighting – and winning.
So, thank you Ashley for reframing this micro-criticism as the macro issue it really is. And thank you for taking those steroids. Hopefully this issue about your face can force an about-face (wah wahhhh) among women – who really are so much better than this.