On Monday, actress and activist Ashley Judd posted a 1,500-word editorial on the Daily Beast Web site about an issue that had long troubled her: the sexist scrutiny of women’s bodies. By Tuesday, the essay had gone viral and by Wednesday, Judd’s piece was the focus of a three-minute segment on the “NBC Nightly News.”
Judd’s critique — by turns self-possessed and savage — was written in response to weeks of speculation about the Emmy-nominated actress’s appearance: On March 12, while on a promotional tour for her new ABC drama, “Missing,” Judd, 43, sat down on the set of a Canadian talk show looking a bit fuller in the face; within hours, rumors regarding possible plastic surgery began circulating through media outlets like Us Weekly, the Huffington Post and MSNBC.
Judd’s face, “puffy” or otherwise, was beside the point: As she pointed out, the discussion about her appearance had little to do with her and everything to do with the absurd and hateful rhetoric about women’s bodies that passes for legitimate discussion these days. This sort of commentary “embodies what all girls and women in our culture, to a greater or lesser degree, endure every day, in ways both outrageous and subtle,” wrote Judd. Tens of thousands — by Thursday, Judd’s essay had been shared on Facebook more than 360,000 times — agreed.
The piece was notable less for what it said — feminist thinkers and media critics have been parsing and pushing back against image-based appraisals of women for decades — than for who said it (a famous actress), and the personalized, impassioned way in which it was said. Although the attention given the piece is unlikely to meaningfully change the way females are portrayed in the media, Judd’s essay provided women, famous or not, with a reminder of the ways in which they too are routinely objectified.
Rapid-fire, image-based appraisals of women’s worth — what I call “objectify first, ask questions later” — have become so commonplace that they are less exception than rule. Perhaps even more troubling, the instigators of such discussions seem either unaware or heedless that such assessments have real psychic consequences. “I don’t think that being a public figure makes it legitimate to criticize people the way they are currently criticized in this cultural climate,” Judd told NBC. But “we are anesthetized to it . . . taught to not to admit how much it hurts. There was an incredibly nasty, vitriolic and gloating tone about [the commentary]. There was no presumption of goodwill.”
Of course, women of Judd’s stature aren’t the only ones subject to society’s unrelenting physical critique: From newsstands to city sidewalks to office water coolers, critiquing and commenting on the female form has long been an accepted, if unofficial sport. As Naomi Wolf noted in her 1991 feminist classic, “The Beauty Myth,” the fact that the scrutiny of women’s appearances is becoming ever more harsh and voluminous at the very moment they are achieving more economic, professional and political influence is not necessarily a coincidence.
And it’s not just workplace colleagues, anonymous celebrity tabloid editors or Internet commenters who are taking part in such toxic assessments: Often, they are propagated by the very people whose job it is to behave as thoughtful role models. On April 6, just as actress and mother Jessica Alba was about to drop by for an on-air discussion about parenting, CNN’s Piers Morgan took to Twitter to announce her arrival: “And now, the ultimate yummy mummy.” Eleven minutes later, the talk-show host changed course and issued another tweet. This one praised Alba’s intelligence, work ethic and engaging personality.
In Morgan’s defense, it isn’t as though males are the only, or even primary, offenders. Judd’s essay makes pointed mention of the ways in which women take part in the “disassembling” of others’ appearances and acknowledges that even those who should know better often find themselves guilty of engaging in sexist scrutiny. Myself included. Earlier this week, I was more than willing to spend five minutes scrolling through a Buzzfeed image gallery of actress Lara Flynn Boyle titled “Lara Flynn Boyle’s Face Through The Years: What a long, strange, droopy trip it’s been.”
Judd is by no means the first to identify the way in which society polices women’s bodies, but she is undoubtedly one of the most high-profile women to decry it. In mid-January, Margaret Cho posted a similar smackdown on her Web site after some of the comedian’s Twitter followers pilloried her body after she posted a photo of some tattoos on her buttocks. Although Cho’s screed, too, went viral, it had none of the reach of Judd’s manifesto, no doubt because it was far more raw and feral than Judd’s more polished — and decidedly academic — effort.
Other women are pushing back, as well, in pop culture as well as politics. As the Guardian reported Monday, disgust with the normalization of demeaning commentary about women has fueled an explosion in the number of grass-roots organizations committed to fighting sexism in Britain. Late last month, the New York-based Women’s Media Center, a nonprofit advocacy group founded by Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda and Robin Morgan, released a media guide in conjunction with the Center’s “Name It Change It” campaign, which identifies and pushes back against sexism and gendered language in the media.
Writer, director and actress Lena Dunham puts societal expectations for the female form front and center in her much-anticipated HBO series “Girls,” which premieres Sunday. In scene after scene, Dunham’s character, the 20-something wannabe writer Hannah Horvath, is depicted, somewhat matter-of-factly, in various states of undress, her exposed, soft torso a challenge of sorts to those who like their television heroines model-skinny. “No, I haven’t tried to lose any weight,” Hannah tells her lover after he teases her about her belly. “You know, I decided I was going to have some other concerns in my life. I apologize.”
Amanda de Cadenet, a successful fashion photographer and newly minted TV host, says that the harsh objectification and misogynist analysis that accompanied her work as an actress in her teens and 20s was a major factor behind her decision to, as she puts it, “quit being famous.” Now 39 years old and the mother of two girls, de Cadenet decided to put herself back in front of the camera for a Lifetime show called “The Conversation” that premieres April 26.
“Women, especially young women, are given a really confusing message,” says de Cadenet, whose hour-long show will feature intimate interviews with notable women about some of the very themes raised in Judd’s essay. “On the one hand they are applauded for presenting themselves in any sort of sexual way but they’re also torn down for it. I don’t want my daughters growing up thinking that anyone values them only for the way they look. People say, ‘Your girls are so beautiful.’ I say, ‘Yeah, and they’re smart, too.’ ”
To read previous columns by Anna Holmes, go to wapo.st/anna-holmes.