COMMENTARY: Beauty Still Only In Eyes of Studios And Their Movies
Beauty’s only skin deep” the Temptations, 1966
“My baby, she’s cute as can be” the Temptations, 1965
The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance won’t like this, but I saw “Shallow Hal” the other day. It’s the story of a superficial fellow who’s put under a whammy that blinds him to a woman’s external appearance. Instead, he sees each woman for what she is inside. Thus, he falls for a sweet, funny, sensitive and exceedingly large young woman who, to his eyes, looks like Gwyneth Paltrow.
Sacramento-based NAAFA has called for a boycott of the movie, saying it “reinforces stereotypes and myths about fat people.” Indeed, Paltrow’s character, Rosemary, is unhappily aware that she is not, by any conventional standard, attractive. She squishes chairs in restaurants. She cannonballs into a pool and a little boy swimming there is catapulted into a tree. She eats cake by the hunk.
The plot turns on the question of what Hal will do when he finally sees her as she is. Will he learn the trite but true lesson that true beauty resides within?
There is, I will grant, something inherently hypocritical in receiving that lesson from Hollywood, which has, after all, done more than any other institution to sell the lie that physicality is personality. The image factory says clearly and repeatedly to women that, no matter your other achievements or attributes, you are an incomplete person if not an abject failure to the degree you do not resemble Gwyneth Paltrow, Halle Berry or Elizabeth Hurley.
You know what, though? For all that, I think “Shallow Hal” is worth seeing. Not particularly funny, I’ll grant. And yes, some of the fat jokes are, well, thin. But the movie is unexpectedly poignant in its depiction of a lonely woman, simultaneously flattered, nonplussed and wary at the notion that someone might find her attractive.
The other more important reason “Hal” deserves a viewing is that the movie offers the opportunity for a discussion about women’s bodies and men’s attitudes toward them. I found it interesting that it never occurs to Hal that he might be judged by his own superficial standards. That, with his doughy midsection and his bulging eyes, the supermodels he’s fixated upon might find him less than physically attractive.
I’m reminded of this guy I used to know soft in the middle, thin on the top who was always haranguing his wife about her weight. She dieted and exercised to please him, yet neither of them ever said a thing about his Pillsbury Doughboy figure.
Point being, it’s different for men. While there are surely some women as shallow as Hal, women do not, by and large, hold men to as harsh a physical standard as men hold women.
We behave sometimes as if we have a right to judge women boldly and solely on the basis of their bodies. Indeed, a famous woman’s body seems almost to become public property, open for general discussion. The conversations that result sound not unlike ranchers judging horseflesh. Is Calista Flockhart too thin for your taste?
Certainly, we say all the right things beauty’s only skin deep, yeah, yeah, yeah but our attitude belies what we say. Truth is, we are loathe to dig deeper than skin.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist with the Miami Herald.