After making a decision to stop coloring my gray hairs, undergoing the primping process for filming in high def twice in 5 weeks, and reading a friend's blog on her decision not to color her hair, I have been thinking about my own relationship with the world of beauty. I've always kind of marched to the beat of my own drummer when it comes to my appearance, but I've still suffered from insecurities about both my appearance and my inability to "fit in" with other women. I've wavered between being comfortable just being me and wishing that I could look more like .... (fill in the blank). I'm alternately repulsed by the extremes to which so many will go to achieve a certain look and jealous that I don't belong to their secret society. I have recently found an unexpected ally in my journey--Jessica Simpson.
Jessica Simpson has a new TV venture, a reality show airing on VH1 called "The Price of Beauty." The premise behind the show is that she, along with her friends CaCee Cobb and Ken Paves (celebrity hairstylist), travels the world to examine how various cultures perceive beauty and what the women of that culture undergo in the pursuit of ideal beauty. Apparently, Jessica became interested in the subject after her well-publicized and greatly exaggerated weight gain over the past year. While Jessica says that she is currently a size 6/8 (up from her previous size 4), she has been called "fat," "tubby," and "disgusting." She has been nicknamed "Chestica" and has been the target of repeated barbs after performing in what many described as "Mom jeans," a simultaneous insult to Jessica's fashion sense and a slap in the face to mothers (an all women over a certain age) worldwide. An undeniably beautiful woman at any weight, Jessica has been quoted as saying that she felt like a "public embarrassment" when her weight became the subject of ridicule and scrutiny. “I had to get up on stage every night and know people were looking to see whether I was fat,” she told the UK's Daily Star.
So, I saw the first episode last week. Jessica et al. traveled to Thailand where Jessica insisted on wearing the most impractical platform heels everywhere she went. (I guess she's insecure about her height or attempting to look thinner by way of looking taller.) While in Bangkok, the crew learned that the Thai standard of beauty favors light skin over dark skin. They met a woman named Panya whose use of bleaching cremes had led to a permanent blotchy, disfiguring appearance to the skin on her face and neck. She described how her husband left her due to her appearance and how she could no longer participate in social activities, like singing, because of her embarrassment, shame, and self-loathing. Later, they visit the Karen Hill tribe, where girls begin wrapping their necks with coils of brass as early as 4 or 5 year old, increasing the length of the brass over time, weighing their shoulders down and giving their necks an elongated appearance. Each visitor tries on a mock set of neck rings to experience the weight and feel of the metal on their necks and shoulders.
Future episodes have Jessica and friends learning about the fashionable world of Paris and the pursuit of extreme thinness by models as well as the fattening huts of Uganda, where young women spend weeks putting on weight prior to their weddings in order to be a more beautiful (and, yes, more fat) bride. Of course, the show glosses over each lesson pretty quickly and intersperses scenes of Jessica acting goofy (this is the "is this chicken or fish?" Jessica, after all), but at least it exposes the VH1 viewer to something a bit more though-provoking than the exploits of "The Entertainer" or "New York."
I hope that the show is successful in finding an audience, and that it sparks conversation about the cultural pressure on women to look (and act) a certain way in order to be accepted, loved, hired, promoted, etc. I hope it will make others question why they are waxing, dyeing, bleaching, injecting, scrubbing, slathering, douching, powdering, perfuming, plucking, polishing, and primping themselves away from their natural beauty and into a false standard of beauty as it's currently defined by a society that values women less for their internal qualities than for their looks. I hope that it will cause people to pause before insulting someone who isn't as pretty, or thin, or tall, or fashionable as they. I hope that it will expand people's ideas of what is beautiful and what is "normal." I hope that it will remind us all that true beauty comes from within and that we are all more alike than we are different. And, lastly, I hope that it helps Jessica Simpson feel secure in her beauty--no matter what her weight, her age, or her hair color--and even when she wears "Mom jeans."