Thursday, April 25, 2013

Why I’m Breaking Up With The World’s Most Beautiful Woman: Gwyneth Paltrow Was My Thinspo

Yesterday afternoon I was interviewed by a news reporter who is interested in possibly reviewing my book, Mirror Mirror Off the Wall. I was nervous about the interview, partially because being interviewed is always stressful, partially because it felt like a “big deal” interview, and mostly because I was 10 minutes late. I hate being late.

I think (hope!) I made up for my tardiness by being a pleasant-enough person to speak with for an hour or so. I also think (hope!) that the interview went well. Or, good enough, I should say. But a few of the questions threw me for a loop. One, in particular, left me muttering alternative answers to myself as I drove away.  

It wasn’t the question about my relationship with Sherry, my mother-in-law (though I got a bit verklempt when describing what it felt like to worry that Sherry wouldn’t like me.) It also wasn’t the question that started with, “So I found it interesting that you were so open about your sex life in the book.” (I was!? Shit.) Nope, the question that left me almost speechless was this one: “So you probably know that Gwyneth Paltrow was just named the World’s Most Beautiful Woman by People Magazine. What do you think about that?”

What did I think about that?

The question was innocent enough, and certainly on topic, considering the body-image theme of my book. But Gwyneth Paltrow isn’t just any celebrity to me. She was my “thinspo” celebrity – my anorexic drug of choice – for almost a decade. Hearing her name randomly pop up as the new “Worlds Most Beautiful Woman!” felt like it might have felt if I’d been told that an epic-ex, the he-who-shall-not-be-named kind of ex, was going to be the next Bachelor, “didn’tcha know?”  It was a great question, and I got through it with a generic “hate the beauty game, not the players” kind of answer, but my head was spinning on the inside.

There are hundreds of female celebrities who are very thin and stereotypically “beautiful,” but Gwynie was the one I became attached to, almost 15 years ago. She was 25 and earning an Oscar; I was 15 and developing an eating disorder. We were both pale-skinned natural blondes with thick straightish hair. Sure, she had blue eyes and mine were brown, but I still imagined that she was the gracefully thin girl living inside of my unruly and not-thin-enough body, just waiting to come out.

A snapshot from my college "look book."
(Otherwise known as retro Pinterest.)
It wasn’t just her looks, but also her presence that so captured me. I was frantic, anxious, and insecure; high-achieving, yes, but never satisfied. I blurted out answers in class (very unladylike) and feared that my appetite for food was insatiable and out-of-control. Gwyneth, in contrast, seemed characterized by an aura of calm entitlement, i.e.,  the opposite of frantic insecurity. The pleasure of being privileged in every possible way that a woman can be, and feeling as though you deserve it.  This is what I saw in Gwyneth Paltrow, and I wanted it for myself. (Never mind that by most standards I am quite privileged, but I wanted her privileges too, those of great wealth, old-ish money, and extreme slenderness – sans guilt.)

So I saw her every chance that I could. I tore out magazine photographs of her and pasted them into my journals. I watched all of her movies, starting with Se7en, The Pallbearer, and Emma. At first it could have been any teenage girl’s celebrity worship, but when I started restricting food – during the same year as Sliding Doors, Great Expectations, A Perfect Murder, and Shakespeare in Lovemy worship of Gwyneth’s graceful physical perfection helped me get sicker, and helped me stay sick.

I don't want to be quite this harsh... hate the game not the player, right?
Hate the pedestal, not the woman you've put on it.
In 1999, when Gwyneth played Marge, the cultured and unattainable fiancĂ© character in The Talented Mr. Ripley, I imagined an entirely different movie; one in which I played a female version of Tom Ripley, managing to take over Marge’s privileged life. (Of course in my movie I didn’t have to beat her to death with a boat oar to take her place; she just gracefully handed over her identity, saying that I deserved it more than she did!) Funny, yes. But this fantasy was also a symptom of darker times; I really wanted somebody else’s life. Gwyneth Paltrow’s would have suited me just fine.

By the time The Royal Tenenbaums came out I was in therapy but still struggling. I’d started to worry about my fascination with Gwyneth by then. It had seemed so normal to want to be her, but suddenly I was getting kidney stones and osteopenia, learning about feminism, and fighting to come to terms with the fact that I was never ever (like, ever) going to look like GP.  So it was a godsend for her to finally play a character who was weird, sexual, and somber, instead of pure and perfect. I had renewed hope that I could take her with me into recovery.  So I had my hair cut into a Margot Tenenbaum bob and kept going to therapy.

And then GP (in a fat suit) starred in Shallow Hal, the movie that was supposed to be about inner beauty, but instead had dozens of misogynistic fat jokes. The nice women were all ugly and the mean women were all gorgeous. It ended with Jack Black’s character heroically “accepting” the fact that the wonderful woman he’d thought looked like Gwyneth Paltrow was actually just a fat blonde chick who he was still in love with, but, like, bummer about the fat chick thing.

It pissed me off. A lot. So finally I gave up Gwynie. Cold turkey.

It was a clean break in the sense that I avoided seeing her, but I never completely got over her, or what she meant to me. Gwyneth was the “one who got away,” I couldn’t talk about because the loss was still painful. But when she started talking about her extremely restrictive macrobiotic diet I knew I’d made the right choice.

Since 2001, I’ve only seen three of Gwyneth Paltrow’s films: Proof (which I loved, as I love most films that deal with mental illness), Iron Man (which I didn’t realize she was in, but dealt with it with the bewilderment of running into an ex at the grocery store), and Contagion (I loved the movie and felt proud that I'd finally seen Gwyneth on film without having a strong emotional reaction.)

The story should have ended there, but it didn’t. Gwyneth is still all over the media, and has become quite the fashion maven with "Iconic Style." She’s become a fitness expert freak and a cookbook author. Oh, and she can sing! And dance! She’s even a blogger. Bit-by-bit, this new (improved?!? MORE perfect?!) Gwynie slipped back into my life.

It’s okay. I told myself, I’m recovered now, and she’s just so cool! It’s not thinspo anymore, just good old-fashioned inspo!

A year ago, on Day 314 of my no-mirrors project, I decided to give myself Gwyneth Paltrow hair a few days before visiting family for the holidays. It went disastrously. I guess GP doesn’t color her own hair from a $5 box of drugstore hair dye. (Shocking, I know.)

And a few weeks ago reality swooped in again, and I’m so, so grateful.

First I learned that she’d modeled several spring fashion “must haves” on her website, and that the cost of purchasing all of them added up to $450,000. This was not reality; it was comically absurd. Gwyneth had finally made a serious gaffe. That calm privilege was certainly going strong, but I suddenly realized that I’d been worshiping someone who is so privileged that she was completely out of touch with reality. I guess I had been too.

Then she published her second cookbook, It’s All Good, and, let me tell you, it ain’t all good. It was like reading a manual for orthorexia: no caffeine, alcohol, dairy, eggs, sugar, shellfish, deep-water fish, wheat, soy or any processed foods. Now, I respect food allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities; these are real things that cause a lot of discomfort, pain, inconvenience, and ill health to those who can’t eat foods with common ingredients. But this wasn’t touted as a cookbook for people who had to avoid these ingredients, but for people who want to “LOOK GOOD and FEEL GREAT!” Note the order. There are more pictures of Gwyneth in the book (usually eating, or contemplating eating), than images of food. As one author wrote: it reads like “the manifesto of some sort of creepy healthy-girl sorority with members who use beet juice rather than permanent marker to circle the ‘problem areas’ on each other’s bodies.”
This creeped me out. I simply could not ignore a book like this. This was Shallow Hal but worse. So Gwyneth had to go. Again. She was the the pair of skinny-jeans I hadn't been able to throw out, even though the mere thought of trying to fit into them made me feel bad about myself.

I literally penned a break-up letter in my journal. It was all like, “Dear Gwyneth, It’s not you, it’s me. Well, actually, it’s me having a problem with you.” There was profession of love lost, what she’d meant to me at different times, and admitting that we never actually knew each other at all. It’s funny how so many breakups end with these words. I apologized for objectifying her for 15 years (because that’s what thinspo is, really), and accepted responsibility for putting her on a pedestal she didn’t ask to be put on. (Well, I’m not actually sure whether or not she likes being put on pedestals, but you have to say some nice things in breakup letters. Karma and all that.). Finally, I wished her health and happiness and said goodbye. "I'm sorry but just can't see you anymore."

So what do I really think of Gwyneth Paltrow being chosen as “The World’s Most Beautiful Woman?” It makes weary. Mere days after I finally took her off of my pedestal, she was hoisted onto another one, a bigger one. I admit to being a little sick of GP right now, but I know that it’s the pedestals, not the women on them, that are the problem.

But what do you think? 
Have any of you had to give up a thinspo celeb to be healthier and happier? 


  1. I LOVE THIS. I so completely can relate to what you are saying. And as far as pedestals, I have "thinspro" syndrome for all sorts of people, not just celebrities...moms about town who look so cool that I immediately imagine their lives are so much better than mine. But I agree, it's the pedestals are the problem. When we admire someone for their thinness, we all put down all the other wonderful things that each of us has to offer.

    1. You are so right: "When we admire someone for their thinness, we put down all the other wonderful things that each of us has to offer."

  2. Totally get this, Gwynnie has always been a little the same for me! During my worst ED years she wasn't number 1, but certainly appears. I really appreciate how honest you can be about all of this, refreshing read :-) x

    1. Always nice to hear from somebody else who understands.... Thanks Emily!

  3. Great post. I remember reading on her blog a post about how to combine motherhood with your career. There was lots of advice from her privileged friends including, I kid you not, paying someone to blowdry your hair every week so you look immaculate for work without fuss every morning. I am lucky if I even make it to work every morning without going insane let alone what I look like. I was absolutely blown away by how out of touch with the conerns of the average working mother she was.

    I saw GP on the British show "Who Do You Think You Are". I thought she came across quite well on that but it definitely displayed her privilege. Her ancestor was a great kabbalist/rabbi and she used that to explain why she was so spiritual. Hah hah hah.

    1. Yeah.... I never really saw her the same after the $450,000 wardrobe thing. It was a relief, actually, for her to be soooo out of touch!

  4. She doesn't bother me. I guess I just don't pay attention to her that much. I never thought of her as an insanely beautiful and charismatic woman as, say Charlize Theron or Salma Hayek. I always thought she was stylish and poised, but she didn't really wow me... I used to intern at Us Weekly so knowing how these "Most Beautiful People" are picked, these whole thing is just irrelevant to me.

    1. IP - it make sense that once you've seen the "behind the scenes" part of how these lists are decided, that they would lose their allure. Still... it sounds like you've got a few celebs on your list that you find "insanely beautiful and charismatic." Different from thinspo, but not unrelated. P.S. - I would LOVE to know how these lists are built! Back when I worked as a marketing intern we would send out spam surveys each week to rank and re-rank different celebrities by popularity and likeability... so bizarre and so calculated.

  5. I think Gwynneth is beautiful but I have come to a comfortable spot in my life where I know I am not willing to make the dire food choices she does to be that thin. I want to be healthy and enjoy my life. I constantly tweak and improve my diet but no food is totally off the menu forever. I strive to eat a balanced, healthy diet 90% of the time and the other 10% I can enjoy eating what I want at parties and out to dinner with friends and family. Life is too short to starve and deny yourself when food is used as a celebration in so many venues. I just don't stuff myself anymore to compensate for confusing emotions and stress.

  6. This was a powerful article and asks a larger question about our idolization of celebrities and other women whose real lives we do not actually know.
    I have worked with a lot of celebrities over the years and I can tell you they have their insecurities just like the rest of us. Some of them even have it written into their contracts to avoid certain situations that may throw them off when performing, such as "no beautiful women in the front row"...."do not show my side profile on the jumbotron"...."no flourescent lights above any mirrors in the dressing room or green room". Their IMAGE is a fantasy, but THEY are real people.

  7. Gwyneth looks sadly too thin. No, not a paragon of beauty. Just flawed like us.

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