In his treatise "Of Beauty," the philosopher Francis Bacon observed, "There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion." Sadly, nobody ever told the "Law & Order: SVU" star Mariska Hargitay. In an interview with People magazine, Hargitay revealed an unnerving relationship with her nose: "It tips down and does weird things in photographs. It scares me sometimes."
And Hargitay is not alone. She is just one of the current crop of celebrities who, despite every genetic — and often surgical — advantage, feel compelled to parade their physical imperfections before us huddled, misshapen masses. "I have cellulite," Salma Hayek declares. "Don't be too impressed with me." Jessica Biel, named Esquire's 2005 Sexiest Woman Alive, is uncomfortable revealing her "bum, thighs and legs," while the actress Eva Mendes lays claim to "the hugest overbite," likening herself to a human "bottle opener." Even Angelina Jolie says that in the past she has "often felt unattractive."
Is this just deluded narcissism, or a new aesthetic trend where nobody, not even the wealthiest and most celebrated, can ever be beautiful enough? The psychologists Dr. Sara Gutierres and Dr. Douglas Kenrick, of Arizona State University, have been studying perceptions of beauty for 20 years. One of the key findings has been that people will assess their level of attractiveness differently, depending on the situation in which they find themselves. Not surprisingly, women who are surrounded by other attractive women, as female celebrities are in Hollywood, consistently describe themselves as being dissatisfied with their appearance.
Albert Lee, a senior editor at the celebrity glossy Us Weekly, is not buying it. "It's a preemptive strike," he says. "The paparazzi are hiding everywhere, hoping to catch stars without their makeup or flashing some cellulite. So when they look like hell, it's like, 'See, I told you.'
"There's so much disingenuousness," Lee continues. "Nicole Kidman says she has a boy's body. Most women would kill for that figure. The girl does have her issues — I mean, her face looks like it has been absolutely blasted with Botox. But she's not going to talk about that, is she?"
Today, the omnipresent paparazzi and the voracious tabloid media they feed mean that, visually at least, our relationship with stars is very intimate. We see them as we might a friend or a lover — bed-headed, grabbing a morning latte; pushing a supermarket cart; even scooping up after their dog. While it's hard to imagine Marlene Dietrich ever complaining that her pores were ridiculously clogged, as Jessica Simpson has, this kind of unappetizing admission seems almost a natural offshoot of such intimacy.
The spiritual godmother of today's "flaunt the flaw" movement is the legendary comedian Phyllis Diller. Diller, admittedly no beauty, has made a long and lucrative career out of presenting herself as a cartoon gargoyle with pancake makeup, garish and unflattering clothes, and a line of self-loathing repartee typified by a quip: "I was in a beauty contest once. I not only came in last. I was hit in the mouth by Miss Congeniality." Diller's denigration of her looks was a calculated strategy to desexualize herself, making it possible for her to survive on the male-dominated, and often openly misogynistic, 1950's comedy circuit.
For Tyra Banks, the public dissection of her physical imperfections is a rebranding exercise aimed at transforming her from Amazonian supermodel to the Generation-Y Oprah. Accordingly, subjects covered on her "Tyra" chat show have ranged from her "big booty" and cellulite to the high forehead that earned her the nickname "Light-Bulb Head." She has, on camera, removed both her makeup — to show her dark under-eye circles — and, more notoriously, her bra, allowing her breasts to be scanned by an expert with a bleeping machine in an effort, as a tearful Banks informed us, to put to rest hurtful rumors that she has had implants. After much manhandling, it was confirmed that her now sagging cleavage was indeed real, but not as "real" as Banks herself.
At a time when so many gorgeous celebrities are, for whatever reasons, trying to convince us that they are ugly, comments like those made to British Cosmopolitan magazine by the "OC" starlet Mischa Barton come almost as a breath of fresh air. Her pain is that she is too beautiful: "The truth is, pretty people aren't as accepted as other people. It comes with all these stigmas."
While that might not be attractive when compared with the keening of Hollywood's beauty sob sisters, there is a visceral honesty to Barton's brand of self-involvement, and just a dash of authentic, if silly, glamour.
Are these cases of false modesty or is there truly an image crisis among women? I don't think it's that serious, it's just a way for women to connect over their imperfections because we all have them. I don't think any of these women are trying to "convince us they are ugly". Sometimes women want to be appreciated for something other than their appearance. Sometimes it's endearing and sometimes is down right insulting. The writer fails to mention the few stars who have spoken out about body issues in Hollywood. Someone needs to tell Mischa that there have been studies that conclude ugly people get paid less and commit more crime.