I resent being made to feel “less than” because my body is changing and/or I had a burger for lunch and was photographed from a weird angle and therefore deemed one of two things: “pregnant” or “fat.”
Aniston argued her situation, of constantly being asked about pregnancy and the constant speculation about whether or not she was pregnant, is:
[...] a lens, through which we, as a society, view our mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, female friends and colleagues. The objectification and scrutiny we put women through is absurd and disturbing. The way I am portrayed by the media is simply a reflection of how we see and portray women in general, measured against some warped standard of beauty.
Aniston’s post made its way appropriately through the news cycle, covered by nearly every women’s and celebrity magazine and blog, including Jezebel. And, as is standard with this particular type of media coverage, Aniston was celebrated for her brave and bold stance; “Jennifer Aniston’s Fed Up, and Millions of Women Know Just How She Feels,” a headline at The Guardian insisted.
Aniston’s post was fine. The continued speculation on whether or not she is with child, the close-up photographs of her stomach, the search for a potentially emerging baby bump is undoubtedly fetishistic. Yet, there’s something that rankles about her employment of shame, coupled with an abstract sense of “society” that serves up “warped standards of beauty.” This is not to single out Aniston specifically, but rather her post is emblematic of the public performance of shame that’s now a central component of female celebrity.
Aniston’s post was the most recent addition to a story that’s, by now, canonical: A celebrity—young, generally white, and, of course, female—shares a selfie or wears a swimsuit or shows what’s deemed a titillating amount of skin. In turn, this female celebrity (let’s say it’s Amy Schumer or Ariel Winter or Kim Kardashian or Lena Dunham or Jennifer Lawrence) is criticized, her body commented on by Instagram or Twitter users. In turn, this script demands that the female celebrity acknowledges and embraces her shame over said criticism and either “clap back” or pen a moving essay or take another selfie where she embraces her now-shamed body and, ultimately, “shut body shamers the fuck down.”
This is usually a two- or three-act arc for the celebrity: First, a post about her photo, generally written in a celebratory tone. Second, a post on the body-shamers’ demeaning comments left on the Instagram-shared selfie. This second-day story is more often than not prompted by the celebrity herself responding directly to the troll. Here’s a prime example from Entertainment Tonight, in a post celebrating Ariana Grande: “Ariana Grande Slams a Body Shamer Who Says She’s too Skinny.”
In the third installment, words like “empowering” “powerful,” and “brave” are used. By confessing her shame, the celebrity is granted a certain penance and, in turn, is said to have empowered other women. Sometimes, the news cycle of celebrity shame can be thinly stretched a fourth time, in which another female celebrity who is already a visible face in the narrative of shame, defends her celebrity sister.
And there are variations. A cursory search shows that in the last month, celebrity women have been body-shamed, mom-shamed, fat-shamed and slut-shamed. Judging by the news cycle, famous women are constantly in a state of shame, constantly slamming or pushing back (or some other weirdly violent kind of response), constantly empowering average women who are, apparently, also in a constant state of shame. The shame-clapback-cycle requires an audience, and to be effective, it needs to strike the perfect chord of empowerment and understanding. Not too radical, not too weak, just general enough to appeal to you.
In her op-ed, shame, Aniston acknowledges, is a product of comparison to others; she writes that she was made to feel “less than.” Ostensibly Aniston had a comparison in mind and though she does not elaborate on what exactly that it, it’s safe to assume that an abstract ideal of female beauty is her reference. Later she condemns “society,” for “warped beauty standards.” Aniston’s post is unsurprisingly slippery about who and what creates female beauty standards and her censure of society—amorphous and hard to locate—positions herself as an outsider.
It’s an odd turn. Aniston is allowed to perform shame, and the resulting anger—following a clearly written script already established by numerous actresses, hitting all of the key words—without any culpability in the production of comparative beauty standards. Yet Aniston, and many of the celebrity women who employ the language of shame, are part of a multi-billion-dollar industry that’s, more often than not, deeply invested in preserving ideal female form: white, thin, heterosexual and cis.
Aniston herself, perhaps more so than others who have claimed the mantle of shame, hews most closely to the Hollywood-generated image of ideal beauty. And she’s capitalized on it, promoting her diet and lifestyle and, in turn, used that established brand to sell beauty products. The “lens” through which women are filtered, the expectations of looks, marriage, and motherhood, clearly have root in an economy that’s deeply rewarded Aniston and other celebrities. If shame is tied to the assessment of the self, then it’s impossible to sever that self into ideal and independent pieces.
In her essay on “confessional darlings of millennial feminist writing,” like Dunham and Schumer, Rafia Zakaria argues that this particular type of writing, focused as it is on the bodies and emotions of white women:
[...] is indicative of the wider attitude in this brand of feminism; not only do the privileged have an equal and pressing claim to the world’s empathy, feminism is also protected from critique. Questioning the reality of suffering – however self-absorbed – marks us as sour, lacking compassion.
[...] in their eager elevation of the white, upper-middle-class woman as representative of all her sisters, their agonies requiring commiseration and consideration from the world.
None are more than tangentially bothered with how their narrative self-absorption blots out the women who, in feminist poet Adrienne Rich’s words, “are washing other people’s dishes and caring for other people’s children”. Entitlement of the white, female confessional kind is the name of this new feminist game.
The celebrity shame narrative, too, continually refocuses the issue on a particular kind of body, bodies that were already allowed to exist in public space and on television and in movies. It doesn’t, in its current usage, fundamentally alter what kinds of bodies are allowed to exist in the public sphere; in positioning themselves as “other”, as outside of society or culture, the celebrity reifies her authorship over beauty and bodies and space.
There are exceptions, of course; Gabourey Sidibe is probably the most visible example. But Sidibe’s body, her narrative of body shaming, is tethered to race and historic constructs of black women’s bodies and ownership. “Not a day goes by that I don’t have to block someone from calling me a fat n——,” Sidibe told People Magazine. It’s a wide gulf between the shame narrative of Aniston and Sidibe, and that gulf makes the celebrity confession of feeling shame and being shamed feel very meaningless. There is, too, the element of emotion; the expression of emotions like shame and vulnerability have never been neutral but, as Zakaria notes, bound to race and class.
The celebrity confessing shame and “slamming” or “pushing back” remains in a perpetual cycle of repeating these emotions, of constantly internalizing shame, over and over again. Take Amy Schumer. For all of the work she does, her public persona is still fundamentally about her body and perceptions of it. Schumer might clap back, but it hasn’t changed the narrative. Her influence remains almost entirely in the discussion of her body. Her anger or vulnerability, and its expression, are reduced to her own physicality. That seems like a limited space for authoritative expression. A recent headline on People (“Amy Schumer Shuts Down the Body Shaming ‘Trolls’”) was filed under the tag “Bodywatch.”
But that’s the nature of the coverage which, by Aniston’s account, is preferential to an older tabloid narrative of women’s bodies. It’s likely that Aniston, like many of her counterparts, feels compelled to participate in this narrative, in part because we place that demand on female celebrities. They are asked to be a spokeswoman for womankind; to feel and express and empower.
It’s a weird thing to demand of women, and by proxy, female celebrities, that they constantly exist in a state of shame, or at least regularly confess to it and perform it a series of empowering steps. And it’s not just bodies or motherhood or sex. According to Elle’s 2015 Shame Issue, such feelings extend to writing clickbait (ahem), eating, shopping and ghosting. The list of women’s shame is now so long, it seems as though shame is the only option; that a handful of clearly defined feelings are acceptable. These articles get clicks and sell magazines because the celebrity narrative of shame is a slick packaging of “empowerment.” But it doesn’t feel empowering; it’s so diluted that it feels meaningless.
Image via AP.