Some time in the late nineties, some time around the release of the Ewan McGregor/Ashley Judd vehicle Eye of the Beholder, a friend asked me which living actress embodied the epitome of beauty. Because I’d just seen Eye of the Beholder, I answered, “Ashley Judd.” Sure, she’s a lovely woman, but what had really prompted my response was her nude scene in Eye of the Beholder in which we see her backside in all its dimpled imperfection. She’s lovely … and she’s real. And, more importantly, if her willingness to film this scene is any indication, she’s not ashamed of who she is as a woman. And why should she be?
It’s a rare case when we are shown, in film or on television, physically imperfect (as society deems it) leading women who are meant to be the object of beauty and desire. Even more rare is the leading woman who isn’t meant to be objectified at all. But in 1999 Ashley Judd came close to achieving the former by the tiniest of margins with a little cellulite. Baby steps. I loved her for it. And yesterday, when she posted a response to the body-snarking backlash to her “puffy” appearance of late, I decided I loved her a little bit more.
At The Daily Beast, Judd writes:
Consequently, 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.
I’m reminded of Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s 2011 documentary film Miss Representation in which Siebel explores the impact of the media’s depictions of women on young girls. Here’s the trailer:
In her Daily Beast post Judd is, as Rosario Dawson puts it in the above clip, “writing [her] own story” across the persistent skein of another narrative. It’s a story that does its most meaningful work in the offense – “we won’t even address how extraordinary it is that a size eight would be heckled as ‘fat’” – rather than in defense – “when I am sick for more than a month and on medication (multiple rounds of steroids), the accusation is that because my face looks puffy, I have ‘clearly had work done.’” We don’t need to know why her face looks fuller than it used to. We just need to stop thinking there’s something wrong with that.
The real kicker of the Judd piece is her observation that the majority of her “puffy face” critics have been women:
That women are joining in the ongoing disassembling of my appearance is salient. 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.
Nothing attests to the latter sentiment better than the “Am I Pretty or Ugly” YouTube phenomenon in which young girls film themselves asking the question … and then get the brutal answers in the comment threads. We are complicit. We set ourselves up. We start young.
So what does Ashley Judd’s post mean in the grand scheme of things? Maybe as much as her unapologetically less-than-ideal posterior had in 1999. But it’s something.