‘I Feel Pretty’ and the Rise of Beauty-Standard Denialism

I Feel Pretty” is based on a pretty little lie: Looks don’t matter. It’s what’s on the inside that counts.

In the film, the down-on-herself Renee (played by Amy Schumer) conks her head in a SoulCycle accident and awakens believing that she has miraculously become supermodel-hot. She revels in it — charging into a bikini contest, snagging a promotion and basking in the affections of a beefy corporate scion — only to discover that her looks never changed a bit. The benefits she thought she accrued through beauty were won instead through her newfound self-confidence.

The movie suggests that the only thing holding back regular-looking women is their belief that looking regular holds them back at all. That attitude puts the onus on individual women to improve their self-esteem instead of criticizing societal beauty standards writ large. The reality is that expectations for female appearances have never been higher. It’s just become taboo to admit that.

This new beauty-standard denialism is all around us. It courses through cosmetics ads, fitness instructor monologues, Instagram captions and, increasingly, pop feminist principles. In the forthcoming book “Perfect Me,” Heather Widdows, a philosophy professor at the University of Birmingham, England, convincingly argues that the pressures on women to appear thinner, younger and firmer are stronger than ever. Keeping up appearances is no longer simply a superficial pursuit; it’s an ethical one, too. A woman who fails to conform to the ideal is regarded as a failure as a person.

So now corporate entities are cynically encouraging women to engage in beauty and fitness routines to become better people, not more attractive ones. “I Feel Pretty” is practically a feature-length version of that Dove ad in which a forensic sketch artist illustrates women’s distorted ideas of their own looks. (Tagline: “You’re more beautiful than you think.” Celebrate by buying our stuff!)

The film centers itself in this corporate feminist landscape. Renee works as a peon at a fictional cosmetics company, and as she rises through the ranks thanks to her I-think-I’m-hot-now pluck, she convinces the brand to incorporate self-acceptance into its marketing strategy.

Back in the real world, Dove shops the most saccharine version of this corporate feminist fairy tale, but the sentiment has become a staple of the beauty — uh, “wellness” industry. Weight Watchers has pivoted to offering “lifestyle” solutions instead of “diet” tips, though with the same (now unspoken) goal of becoming thinner. And SoulCycle, prominently featured in “I Feel Pretty,” frames the fitness craze as a moral imperative: “With every pedal stroke, our minds clear and we connect with our true and best selves.”

SoulCycle’s philosophy is a hair away from Renee’s own delusional body transformation. As Ms. Widdows notes, the beauty ideal is so pervasive that it is internalized in many women, who are haunted by idealized visions of their own bodies — fantasies of how they might look after undergoing extreme diets or cosmetic procedures. But because nobody can ever achieve perfection, we instead begin to fetishize the striving for it — spinning on bikes and slathering on lotions. So even after Renee experiences her awakening to self-acceptance, she ends up right back at SoulCycle, this time having completely swallowed the “I’m doing this for me” line.

“Shallow Hal” — the 2001 comedy in which Jack Black falls in love with Gwyneth Paltrow-in-a-fatsuit after being hypnotized into thinking she looks like Gwyneth Paltrow not-in-a-fatsuit — located extreme beauty standards in the minds of bad men. “I Feel Pretty” places the blame on women. The truth is that the locus of responsibility is maddeningly elusive. Social media, though, serves as a pretty apt approximation for the Panopticon.

Along with YouTube makeup tutorials and Instagram fashion influencers, beauty-standard denialism has exploded online. In an increasingly visual culture, we are all spokesmodels for our own brands. Social media puts ever more pressure on appearances, but also on projecting politically correct politics, including promoting concepts like body positivity, self-acceptance and “expanding” the beauty ideal to incorporate diverse bodies. Points of resistance — celebrity #nomakeup selfies, the rise of a few select plus-size models like Ashley Graham — function as feel-good distractions from the body conformity overwhelmingly prized on the platforms. Ultra-slim models like Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid parrot lines about how they “didn’t mean” to lose weight even as they post images to Instagram that appear edited to make them look even thinner. Women are expected to perform femininity and feminism at once.

Consider the model Emily Ratajkowski (17 million Instagram followers), who plays Ms. Schumer’s “hot friend” in the film. Last year, she appeared in a video for Love Magazine wearing lingerie and mittens and writhing in a pile of spaghetti. Love published the clip alongside what it called an “amazing polemic on female empowerment” written by Ms. Ratajkowski herself. “To me, female sexuality and sexiness, no matter how conditioned it may be by a patriarchal ideal, can be incredibly empowering for a woman if she feels it is empowering to her,” she wrote, adding: “My life is on my terms and if I feel like putting on sexy underwear, it’s for me.”

But part of the conditioning of the “patriarchal ideal” is to make women feel empowered by it on their “own terms.” That way, every time you critique an unspoken requirement of women, you’re also forced to frown upon something women have chosen for themselves. And who wants to criticize a woman’s choice?

It’s notable that beauty-standard denialism is being pushed by “I Feel Pretty” and by its critics, too. When the trailer was released, a backlash brewed among feminist commentators who rejected the idea that the white, blond, ultrafeminine Ms. Schumer had been cast as somehow less than traditionally gorgeous. “She IS society’s beauty ideal,” the comedian Sofie Hagen wrote.

The implication is that because Ms. Schumer and, say, Ms. Ratajkowski share certain demographic privileges, the beauty differential no longer applies. But I was raised as an American girl; I’m hyper-attuned to even small distinctions in the appearances of other women. And yet: It’s become taboo to admit that the societal ideal is a highly specific standard that hardly anybody can live up to.

As it happens, the only black women in “I Feel Pretty” — the SoulCycle employee Sasheer Zamata and the beauty executive Naomi Campbell — are representatives of the hot-girl faction. That casting dodges the reality that Hollywood beauty standards remain highly racialized. Vaulting a few women of color to the top gives the beauty standard a progressive sheen that helps inure it from criticism.

Ms. Schumer herself has denied that the film re-enacts any particular bodily ideal. “In the scene after the head injury, the assumption is that the woman I see when I look in the mirror is skinny, but I’m just seeing my same self and perceiving my body as beautiful,” she told Vulture. It’s a ludicrous claim: Of course she thinks her body has changed; she’s convinced that her closest friends can’t even recognize her in her hottened state. Besides, all the women representing standard-issue beauty in the movie — including Ms. Ratajkowski, Ms. Campbell and Michelle Williams — are incredibly thin.

Ms. Schumer’s own career is evidence of these punishing standards. In her comedy she maintains her position by continually acknowledging and deflecting her perceived physical deficiencies, most notably with the masterful “12 Angry Men” parody from “Inside Amy Schumer” (in which the jurors argue over whether they’d have sex with her or not) and her late-night couch banter about winter weight gain. If the way Amy Schumer looks was truly normalized in Hollywood, it wouldn’t bear comment.

Watching the controversy around “I Feel Pretty” unfold, I was reminded of a fascinating document published by Vulture that charts how female characters are described in the screenplays of famous films. What struck me was how many of the women hailed as “strong female characters” are nevertheless required to hew to the same physical requirements as the eye candy — beautiful, young and small. To take just one example, the “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” protagonist Lisbeth Salander is specified as “a small, pale, anorexic-looking waif in her early 20s.”

What’s more, these women are meant to be naïve to their own looks, like the heroine of “Brooklyn”: “open-faced pretty without knowing it.” These descriptors poke at another lie in “I Feel Pretty”: that all regular women need to succeed is a healthy dose of confidence. That new beauty mantra mirrors corporate messaging around “impostor syndrome” and “leaning in” — the idea that women’s lack of confidence is holding them back from professional success, not discrimination. In fact, our culture’s ideal woman is beautiful and modest.

Why is it so hard to talk about this? Ms. Widdows has a few theories. Feminists don’t want to pose as killjoys bent on confiscating mani-pedis. Besides, striving for beauty is ultimately a rational choice in a world that values it so highly, and converting that pressure into fun or communal experiences is its own form of resistance.

I suspect it’s also simply too painful to address head-on. The amount of brainpower I spend every day thinking about how I look is a monumental waste. The sheer accumulation of images of celebrity bodies in my browser history feels psychopathic. I like to think of myself as a pretty smart person, but the truth is that I can’t seem to think my way out of this. The only way I’ve found to banish momentarily that shadow of the idealized self is to pay for it to go away — with a Sephora shopping spree or a spin class.

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