The Female Gaze: Moving the Spotlight

Each week in The Female Gaze, Faith Newport engages the trends, events, and issues that affect women—and the men who care about them.

What do Ashley Judd, Jennifer Lawrence, and Crystal Renn have in common?

Ashley Judd’s “puffy” face drew press attention during the recent debut of her TV show, Missing—as did her smart, assertive answer to the criticism. Jennifer Lawrence, star of the hit Hunger Games movie, was repeatedly taken to task by reviewers for looking too healthy and “curvy” (a relative term in Hollywood, to be sure) to play the film’s impoverished and malnourished lead character. And Crystal Renn? More than just another pretty model on a diet, during the course of her career, Renn has gone from weighing in at just 90 pounds as an anorexia sufferer, to being an incredibly successful plus-size model. Her recent weight loss has now put her somewhere between those two extremes, nabbed her a Sports Illustrated photo shoot, and grabbed the industry’s attention.

In summary? They’re all celebrities who have recently been in the spotlight because of their appearances.

I’d like to be able to applaud the balanced and professional approach that all of these ladies have taken when handling the media’s obsessive reporting on their appearances—but I can’t. I’d like to say that a celebrity like Ashley Judd speaking out against the demeaning and sexist aspects of the industry is exactly what our culture needs—but it isn’t. I’d like to say that celebrity memoirs like Crystal Renn’s confessional book about her eating disorder struggles have tremendous cultural impact—but they don’t. I’d like to say that seeing a girl like Jennifer Lawrence, with her almost-average body type, star in a movie will forever lift my own “curvy girl” self-esteem—but it won’t.

I’m not saying that these aren’t positive contributions to the culture’s conversations about beauty and sexuality—I’m saying that we need to start a new conversation.

Our collective fixation on the physical is profoundly damaging.

Engaging in the discussion just keeps it going. And maybe that wouldn’t be a problem—but there are bigger things to talk about. Women are more than collections of body parts. Saying “I’m beautiful in spite (or because) of _____” keeps the focus in the wrong place, and the underlying insinuation is that physical beauty is still high on the priority list.

Ashley Judd is a long-time activist, and her charity work is extensive. She’s also overcome a potentially devastating personal background while maintaining a good amount of grace and humor. But, even Ashley Judd just wants to talk about her appearance? Doesn’t she have better stuff to bring to the conversation? Despite how on-point I felt her response was, I still found myself wishing she’d just risen above it and brought our attention to something else.

Modern history has given us something unique—an incredible amount of potential for the everyday woman. Yes, history has its stand-out females, but never before have so many women throughout the world had so much freedom. We can do, and be, so much. I am a woman, but not just a woman. There is more to me than my womanhood, and there is more to me than how I looked in the mirror this morning.

I carry the image of God in me. All people do.

I know so many women who live up to that, so many women who are game-changers. Who are activists, moms, missionaries, journalists, counselors, peaceniks, healers, or poets. I know a single mom who put herself through college while working and raising her daughter. I know a former prostitute who works in Beijing to rescue other girls from the same circumstances. I know a college student who reads Aesop’s work in the original language. I know girls who started businesses, traveled the world, and made a difference.

They’re amazing.

Honestly, I’d rather just talk about them.

About Faith Newport

Faith Newport writes, knits, drinks lattes, and sings in the shower in a small Midwestern town. She lives with two cats, too many books, and her very patient husband. Follow her on Twitter @knittybarista.

  • http://goannatree.com Anna

    Faith, while I think you raise an important point about there being better and more important conversations, I do think you’re being a little harsh towards Judd in particular. Her response was witty, erudite and well constructed. She did move the conversation forward by demonstrating that there is way more to her, but she also directly responded to unhealthy and irrational criticisms of her physical appearance. ‘rising above it’ is not always the answer…sometimes you have to call things for what they are..

  • jon

    yes, it is the Image and Character of Christ that counts for both genders… no exceptions

  • Ryan H.

    I understand what you’re saying. However, it strikes me, as a man, that more men should hear what Ashley is saying and writing because young boys don’t often get a good holistic view of a woman from their fathers (or maybe that was just my family). Her blog post seems pretty spot on. While it’s not her job to teach young boys how to respect women, if she can influence some fathers to think about it and then teach their sons….well….

    I know the conversation gets tiring, but I don’t think that’s any reason to give up on it. And just changing the conversation to a different important topic (global hunger, water in Africa, global warming, etc.) doesn’t mean that the conversation that’s left behind is dealt with. In fact, maybe the opposite is true. Maybe we’re just avoiding it? Especially given our cultures struggles with women’s rights (i.e. mistreatment over several centuries) it seems as though it’s a conversation that will continue to (and should?) be had for quite some time.

    Our American culture has many misogynistic overtones in it. From our music to our sports to our movies to our restaurants it’s carried over and over and over again. I for one would actually like to see it talked about more. And it’s quasi-encouraging to see how much attention women are getting in the political campaigns right now. Not just their vote, but the equal pay issue, the maternity-leave rights that employers are increasingly granting, or Hilary Rosen’s comment regarding Ann Romney’s work history and the issues surrounding career women vs. motherhood women (as if they are always exclusive paths). I’m glad to see the debate happening more and more in the public square.

    But it’s only quasi-encouraging to me as your article rightly points out. Maybe the problem is the fundamental misunderstanding about the imago dei, that women aren’t a collection of body parts but a person fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God. But that’s a difficult conversation to have with people who come from a distinctly different (or atheistic, or naturalistic) worldview…which I guess, is why I appreciate Ashley’s comments all more. That she is able to make her point concisely without appealing to any religion (though she certainly does have her own view about that).

    My $0.02

    P.S. – Faith I think your posts rock. Please don’t interpret any of the above as some inducement against you or your writing. Just thinking out loud in a virtual sense (is that even possible?) Your posts that I’ve read over the last few weeks have been insightful, well-written, and graceful. Two thumbs up!

  • http://www.diannaeanderson.net Dianna

    I’m with Anna on this one – this sounds far too much like the arguments of “talking about racism just highlights the fact that we’re different.” I’m uncomfortable with that.

  • http://www.FillingMyPatchOfSky.com Erin Straza

    This reminded me of something I read years ago—I dug around my blog and found it! It’s a quote from Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls:

    “When girls of the nineteenth century thought about ways to improve themselves, they almost always focused on their internal character and how it was reflected in outward behavior. In 1892, the personal agenda of an adolescent diarist read: ‘Resolved, not to talk about myself or feelings. To think before speaking. To work seriously. . . . To be dignified. Interest myself more in others.’

    “A century later, in the 1990s, American girls think very differently. In a New Year’s resolution written in 1982, a girl wrote: ‘I will try to make myself better in every way I possibly can with the help of my budget and baby-sitting money. I will lose weight, get new lenses, already got new haircut, good makeup, new clothes and accessories.’ ”

    Culture has influenced women’s goals, values, and expectations, but I also agree with Ms. Judd: Women are often the most critical of each other. We expect other women (or certain women) to uphold perfected beauty and if they do not, we trash them. This is to our shame.


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