a black and white image of a woman staring in a mirror
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When Beauty Is a Troll

The peppy mixed messaging of I Feel Pretty is only the latest reminder: American culture doesn’t fully know what it’s talking about when it talks about attractiveness.

Every once in a while I’ll rewatch an old episode of Friends, because it’s familiar and soothing and there. The other day, Netflix served up one of those flashbacks the show would sometimes air to poke light fun at the friends and at the visual absurdities involved with being alive in the ’80s: Rachel in chintz, Ross and Chandler in tragicomic Flock of Seagulls bouffants, etc. Watching the meta-nostalgia, I was reminded of the existence of a minor character who nonetheless plays a major role in the show’s universe: Fat Monica.

Fat Monica is technically just a younger—and slightly larger—version of Standard Issue Monica; what becomes wincingly clear, though, as the Friends flashbacks play out, is that Fat Monica differs from the other Monica not just in scale, but in kind. Padded by her former girth, Monica Geller—the person who categorizes her hand towels and designates committees for the planning of birthday parties and is, in general, in thorough control of her life and her Type A-tastic self—undergoes a transformation: Her voice gets higher. Her movements become jerking and awkward. She giggles a lot, uncomfortably. Remember when, in those late-series episodes of Family Matters, Steve Urkel would go into that flashing box and emerge as the suave Stefan Urquelle? Fat Monica’s metamorphosis is a little like that, but in reverse: The transformation depletes her dignity rather than compounding it. She becomes bashful. Childish. Foolish. Watching the proceedings, you start to wonder whether Monica Geller, for the purposes of the flashback scenes, was given a fat suit or a lobotomy.

The Fat Monica thing is an easy joke—which is to say, it is a lazy joke—but it doubles, as so many lazy jokes do, as an insight. When Friends, looking for reliable LOLs, put the skinny-even-by-Hollywood-standards Courteney Cox into cheek-jowls and body-lumps—and then proceeded to suggest that the physical change would alter Monica’s very personality—the show neatly channeled the way American culture itself treats fatness, by default: as a flaw not just of appearance, but of character. As an aesthetic failing that doubles as a moral one.

Friends may have arrived onto the scene in the years before “body positivity” would pervade magazines and blogs and Instagram, before Dove would attempt to reclaim the pear shape by turning it into bottles of body wash, before empowerment would be reduced to a chipper marketing slogan. The show anticipated the current moment, though, in its inability to imagine that a fat Monica Geller could be, fundamentally, the same person as a thin Monica Geller. Every cameo Fat Monica makes on the show—every lurching dance she does, while eating a slice of pizza, as the studio audience guffaws at the sight—is a starkly literal realization of one of the few insults that has, over the decades, retained its capacity to degrade: She’s really let herself go.

In 1990, four years before Friends premiered on NBC, Naomi Wolf published The Beauty Myth, her examination—and her indictment—of the way attractiveness functions as both a metaphor for and a mandate over women’s lives. The book now has a sequel, of sorts: Heather Widdows, a professor of philosophy at the University of Birmingham in England, will soon be publishing Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal. The book, a scholarly work that is urgently relevant to the current cultural moment, is definitely not about Fat Monica; in another way, though, it is deeply about Fat Monica. It is an expansive inquiry into the treatment of one’s appearance as a ratification of one’s character. “As a value framework, the beauty ideal provides shared standards by which to apportion praise, blame, and reward,” Widdows writes, “making beauty-success a moral virtue and beauty-failure a moral vice.”

In American life, the beauty ideal both Wolf and Widdows are taking to task has adopted a this-is-water kind of status: Its demands—made not exclusively of women, but made most directly of women—are so thoroughly infused into our commercial culture that to talk about them at all can seem, if not hopelessly naive, then thoroughly redundant. And when we do talk about them, the words we’re left with tend to reflect an acquiescence to beauty’s power: Attractiveness—and it is revealing, of course, that this consummately subjective word has come to suggest a kind of objective truth—is often discussed using the sweeping language of moral virtue. The word beautiful shares a root with bene, the Latin for good, and the ancient etymology is summoned every time thigh gaps are treated as evidence of self-control, every time clear skin is assumed to be a manifestation of a calm mind, every time L’Oréal chides women to choose its brand of wrinkle elixir—to help erase the visible evidence of smiles and sun and life itself—“because you’re worth it.”

Here is the logic of the prosperity gospel, essentially, applied not merely to the quality of one’s possessions, but also to the quality of one’s appearance. The Americans of 2018 have at their disposal, arguably, more ways than ever before to control their personal levels of attractiveness, from makeup to Spanx to exercise regimens to hair dyes to nail polish to retinols to the services plastic surgeons carefully euphemize as “procedures.” Those things can have positive effects (makeup can be a means of self-expression; skincare can be a communal exploration). But they have also raised the stakes. Not only do they reaffirm the notion that beauty can be bought—that it is a matter of class privilege—but they also, steadily, transform the meaning of beauty itself: from a matter of luck, an accident of atomic arrangement, to the product of dedicated labor. Beauty, in that frame, becomes a commentary on one’s work ethic. And, indeed—Fat Monica may have been a joke, but she understood the order of things—on one’s character.

Which means that it’s perhaps easier than ever, if also as unjust as ever, to blame the person who fails to live up to the narrow standard—particularly, as Fat Monica was also acutely aware, when it comes to weight. It’s definitely easier to do that kind of blaming than it is to question the standard that demands the conformity in the first place. The prosperity gospel is ruthlessly efficient in its judgments. Maybe if she’d just work a little harder. I’m not being superficial; I’m just thinking about her health. Beauty is truth, truth beauty; that is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.

While beauty as an ethic is omnipresent—in ads, in music, in the TV shows of the mid-to-late 1990s—its logic has reentered the conversation more directly in recent days because of the premiere of I Feel Pretty, the Amy Schumer vehicle that doubles as Hollywood’s latest work of faux feminism. Directed by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, who previously wrote the screenplays for, among other rom-coms, How to Be Single and He’s Just Not That Into You, I Feel Pretty has been sold as a “‘body-positive’ film.” In that marketing it has had assistance from a strident hashtag—#FeelPretty, it commands—and from Cosmopolitan magazine, which has been using the film as an opportunity to talk about the merits of that quintessentially modern aspiration: self-confidence.

The pitches are accurate to the extent that the upshot of I Feel Pretty, if you don’t mind the spoiler, is: Have, if you possibly can, self-confidence. The film concerns Renee, a charming but sad young woman whose fondest wish is to know what it feels like to be beautiful (which, in the film’s mind, seems only to mean “skinny”). Through a turn of events that evokes the transformative magic of Big and 13 Going on 30 and Freaky Friday and What Women Want—Pygmalion, basically, but without all the effort—Renee gets her wish. Sort of. At a SoulCycle class, she falls off her bike and hits her head. When she awakens from her enchanted slumber in the SoulCycle locker room, she is beautiful.

Or, well—here is the “com” element of this particular rom-com—she thinks she is beautiful.

I Feel Pretty is in some ways a slightly more self-aware inversion of Shallow Hal, the 2001 Jack Black/Gwyneth Paltrow comedy, which similarly attempted to give cinematic credence to the truism that It’s What’s Inside That Counts. Paltrow, in the Farrelly Brothers’ film, is Rosemary, a very good person who occupies what the film sees as a very bad body; Black is Hal, a hopelessly superficial guy who—because of a spell cast on him early in the movie by one, yes, Tony Robbins—comes to see people’s inner goodness manifested in their appearances.

Watch, then—and laugh, allegedly—as Hal meets Rosemary and proceeds to operate under the comically mistaken impression that his new girlfriend is approximately as gorgeous as Gwyneth Paltrow. Behold the jokes about the pair canoeing together as Hal, on the stern, is hoisted into the air by the heft of his bow-based boatmate; and as the two get into a car together and her side promptly crunches down; and as Hal returns to the enormous diner milkshake the two are meant to share, only to find the glass already empty, sucked down by his date with an almost mechanical efficiency. Watch the hilarity that ensues when the Farrellys serve up the extremely predictable jokes about Rosemary, pure of heart but sullied of form, sitting on chairs and immediately breaking them.

There’s a revealing doubleness to Shallow Hal—and one that has very little to do with the True Beauty stuff the Farrellys tried so hard to telegraph in their rom-com. Shallow Hal is thoroughly beset by the unflinching and omnipresent aesthetic demands Heather Widdows is describing in her book: It is the ethical ideal of beauty made manifest. The film claims to be challenging superficial and constraining standards of (women’s) appearances; in the end, of course, it endorses those very standards. It talks about real beauty as the stuff of kindness and goodness and love, but it can’t bring itself, in the end, to believe its own easy message. I know that because Shallow Hal, in spite of it all, is a feature-length series of fat jokes.

Nearly two decades later, I Feel Pretty has served up a similarly revealing mixture of aspiration and acquiescence. It wants, so much, to be better than it is. It truly believes it is better than it is. The film, having shifted its gaze from the male to the self, says one thing—Be confident in yourselves, ladies! Empowerment! SoulCycle!—but it cannot summon the courage to believe its own platitudes. The butt of the movie’s running joke (and I do mean that literally, since I Feel Pretty has great fun splitting its heroine’s yoga pants down the back and otherwise exposing her flesh to a mocking world) is Renee’s tragicomic misunderstanding of her body as an object. “Yes, modeling is an option for me,” she says during a job interview, breezily, while the film helpfully offers a beat so its audience can laugh at the absurdity of her delusion.

The audience, similarly, is meant to cringe in preemptive horror when Renee applies for a receptionist job usually reserved for aspiring models. And to laugh knowingly when, while scarfing her lunch (carbs!), she informs her model-thin coworkers, “I can eat whatever I want and still look like this.” And to wince through the guffaws when Renee enters a bikini contest—a turn of events that the film portrays in cheeky slo-mo, as if the sight of its heroine’s belly, disguised by neither clothing nor shame, is a joke all its own.

Some of this is mitigated by the fact that I Feel Pretty really seems to believe that Renee, as a person, is just as fantastic as she comes to believe she is; she is, after all, funny and quirky and hard-working and smart (and, by the way, totally crushes that receptionist job). It’s “not about an ugly troll becoming beautiful,” Schumer told Vulture, defending the movie; “it’s about a woman who has low self-esteem finding some. Everyone’s got a right to feel that feeling, regardless of their appearance.”

But film is a visual medium, and I Feel Pretty can’t find a way, in the end—nor does it seem, for all its ambitions, to have looked terribly hard—to offer a critique of the impossible beauty standards that doesn’t also capitulate to the impossible beauty standards. It acknowledges, sure, that pretty people have their own self-image problems; it fashions itself, definitely, as a rom-com that is—wait for the twist!—also about Renee’s romance with herself; it concludes with an uplifting message about the merits of self-confidence. But that ultimate embrace of self-esteem, I Feel Pretty’s answer to a chase-the-love-interest-down-at-the-airport finale, comes in the middle of Renee’s pitch for a new line of … makeup. Nathan Poe did not, to my knowledge, extend his theory of parody to social commentary, but the logic applies here nonetheless: I Feel Pretty tries to make a joke at the expense of superficial notions of beauty. It gives those ideas, though, the last laugh.

So here, again, as so often happens in works of commercialized feminism, is the person questioned while the system she’s caught in remains intact and assumed and inevitable. Here is beauty, still, treated by easy default as the axis around which so many lives must spin. Here is that convenient catch-all, “self-esteem,” portrayed as both the corrective to the beauty myth and the evidence of its continued power. I Feel Pretty, in all that, comes to feel distinctly petty: Love yourself, despite your flaws! the movie cheers. And then it whispers: But remember that they’re really massive flaws.

There’s an air of soft defeatism that permeates these proceedings—one that reads as a referendum not just on a well-intentioned-but-deeply-misguided film, but also on the stories we tell ourselves in order to live. The film’s confusion, after all, is America’s confusion. Renee is Fat Monica, chomping on a doughnut while dancing. Renee is Shallow Hal’s Rosemary, tipping the canoe. Renee is a walking, talking, bikini-contest-entering reminder that self-confidence, as long as the world around it insists on equating physical beauty with moral achievement, will be laughably insufficient.

Today’s culture is one that treats “wellness” itself as a matter of economic privilege (and one in which the star of Shallow Hal would like to sell you some $36 coconut oil from a brand named Skinny & Co). In that landscape, ideals of beauty, which have so long been targeted by gender and race and class—which have so long been weaponized—become even more insidious. When I recently spoke with Heather Widdows, the author of Perfect Me, she put it this way: “The fact that we think it’s normal to be dissatisfied with one’s body in some way—I mean, that says an awful lot. How did we get to the point where that’s not regarded as odd?”

It’s an extremely good question. Part of the answer, as Naomi Wolf suggested, is that the capitalistic enterprises that shape American culture have a deeply vested interest in keeping the public insecure—always looking for self-improvement, always looking to fix what isn’t broken, always looking for a bit of modern magic. But part of the answer, too, is in the very things that are meant, in theory, to transcend the vagaries of quotidian concerns: our art. Our leisure. American popular culture still insists, product by product, on the truth of the beauty myth.

The myth is there, masquerading as fact, on Jessica Jones, when the show’s protagonist comments, disgust in her voice, on a woman who has stopped exercising to eat a doughnut. And on Master of None, when Dev and Rachel engage in a joking discussion about the most polite thing to call a fat person. And on 30 Rock, when Jenna’s weight gain finds her employing the demeaning catchphrase “Me Want Fooooood.” And on Glee, when Quinn’s competition for prom queen reveals that the cheerleader had once been an overweight 8th-grader nicknamed “Lucy Caboosey.” And on American Housewife, which dedicated its pilot episode to fat jokes made by the titular character—about herself. And on How I Met Your Mother, when the show’s writers, for a brief arc, put Barney—vain, clothes-obsessed Barney—in a fat suit. And on New Girl, which imagines Fat Schmidt, the show’s answer to Friends’ flashback figure, as someone who is a little bit silly. And a little bit sad.

Friends ended its run 14 years ago; Fat Monica, however, remains. Not just as an inspiration for other sitcomic characters, and not just as an occasional appearance on a Netflix screen or a basic-cable station near you, but also as a specter. As a joke. As a warning. “I called you fat?” Chandler says, when he is reminded that, in college, he made an off-handed remark about Ross’s “fat sister”—and when he learns that Monica had overheard him making the comment. With that, Chandler Bing, the human embodiment of the mordancy of the ’90s—could he be more sarcastic?—proceeds to express the most sincere regret he will ever demonstrate over 10 seasons of Friends. “I’m so, so sorry,” he tells the no-longer-Fat Monica. And he means it. He is thoroughly chastened. He called her fat, after all; and he can’t imagine—nor can his TV show imagine, on his behalf—a more terrible insult.