On Monday, actress and activist Ashley Judd posted a 1,500-word editorial on the Daily Beast Web site about an issue that had long troubled her: the sexist scrutiny of women’s bodies. By Tuesday, the essay had gone viral and by Wednesday, Judd’s piece was the focus of a three-minute segment on the “NBC Nightly News.”
Judd’s critique — by turns self-possessed and savage — was written in response to weeks of speculation about the Emmy-nominated actress’s appearance: On March 12, while on a promotional tour for her new ABC drama, “Missing,” Judd, 43, sat down on the set of a Canadian talk show looking a bit fuller in the face; within hours, rumors regarding possible plastic surgery began circulating through media outlets like Us Weekly, the Huffington Post and MSNBC.
Anna Holmes is a contributing columnist for the Style section. She is the founder of Jezebel.com.
(Dario Cantatore/Getty Images) - Ashley Judd’s editorial on the Daily Beast Web site pointed out that the discussion about her appearance had little to do with her and everything to do with the absurd and hateful rhetoric about women’s bodies that passes for legitimate discussion these days.
Judd’s face, “puffy” or otherwise, was beside the point: As she pointed out, the discussion about her appearance had little to do with her and everything to do with the absurd and hateful rhetoric about women’s bodies that passes for legitimate discussion these days. This sort of commentary “embodies what all girls and women in our culture, to a greater or lesser degree, endure every day, in ways both outrageous and subtle,” wrote Judd. Tens of thousands — by Thursday, Judd’s essay had been shared on Facebook more than 360,000 times — agreed.
The piece was notable less for what it said — feminist thinkers and media critics have been parsing and pushing back against image-based appraisals of women for decades — than for who said it (a famous actress), and the personalized, impassioned way in which it was said. Although the attention given the piece is unlikely to meaningfully change the way females are portrayed in the media, Judd’s essay provided women, famous or not, with a reminder of the ways in which they too are routinely objectified.
Rapid-fire, image-based appraisals of women’s worth — what I call “objectify first, ask questions later” — have become so commonplace that they are less exception than rule. Perhaps even more troubling, the instigators of such discussions seem either unaware or heedless that such assessments have real psychic consequences. “I don’t think that being a public figure makes it legitimate to criticize people the way they are currently criticized in this cultural climate,” Judd told NBC. But “we are anesthetized to it . . . taught to not to admit how much it hurts. There was an incredibly nasty, vitriolic and gloating tone about [the commentary]. There was no presumption of goodwill.”
Of course, women of Judd’s stature aren’t the only ones subject to society’s unrelenting physical critique: From newsstands to city sidewalks to office water coolers, critiquing and commenting on the female form has long been an accepted, if unofficial sport. As Naomi Wolf noted in her 1991 feminist classic, “The Beauty Myth,” the fact that the scrutiny of women’s appearances is becoming ever more harsh and voluminous at the very moment they are achieving more economic, professional and political influence is not necessarily a coincidence.