Can Any Woman’s Body Hold Up To Public Scrutiny?

There’s a great moment in Mean Girls in which the trio of titular Plastics—Karen (Amanda Seyfried), Regina (Rachel McAdams), and Gretchen (Lacey Chabert)—appraise themselves in the mirror. “My nail beds suck,” Karen comments. “My hairline is so weird,” Gretchen piles on. For Cady, this is a teachable moment. She explains—via voiceover: “I used to think there was just fat and skinny, but apparently there’s lots of things that can be wrong on your body.”

If there are endless number of ways we set women up to fail at the seemingly simple act of being female—and achieving that elusive, ever-shifting goal of beauty—the Internet has only made that problem even worse. After conceiving via in-vitro fertilization last October, supermodel Teigen was told by her Instagram followers that she was simply too fat to only be carrying one child. Was she sure she wasn’t pregnant with twins? But in addition to fat shaming, the relative anonymity of social media has allowed every kind of body negativity to proliferate—even creating heretofore-unknown ways of telling a woman she’s not good enough.

Last week witnessed the dawn of armpit shaming: Teigen—again—posted a picture of herself to Instagram, posed in a modest bikini. As a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, Teigen is just about as close to mythic “perfection” as we get—someone who is paid millions of dollars every year to stand around and be Photoshopped for our sins. But apparently, even Chrissy Teigen didn’t measure up: Her followers harangued her for having too much armpit jiggle, suggesting that it might be some kind of cancerous growth. She assured her fans that, no, it’s just her body being pregnant.

In an article last year for the Daily Dot, my friend, Dana Norris, argued that cases like Teigen’s are indicative of our culture’s relationship with pregnant women’s bodies. “When a woman becomes pregnant, we begin to treat her body as public property,” Norris wrote. But we have this kind of relationship with every woman’s body—whether she’s too fat, too skinny, too old, too muscular, or even has too big of breasts. These comments appear to be the increasing byproduct of being a woman in public, in which there’s absolutely no way of winning. Beauty is a rigged game.

Take these two cases of body shaming. Last year, Modern Family actress Ariel Winter posted an innocent photo with her nieces to Instagram. According to CNN, The 17-year-old was attacked with a barrage of “lewd and disparaging comments” about her breast size. After the incident, Winter underwent reduction surgery. xoJane writer Kadia Blagrove, however, had the same operation in 2015 and wrote publicly about her experiences. Blagrove experienced the exact opposite type of shaming—as male readers emailed to ask why she would ever give up what god “blessed” her with. After all, why would someone want to have small breasts? One wrote to her, “I feel bad that your self-esteem never allowed you to openly display the perfection that is you.”

Big-breast shaming might feel a bit novel, but this “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” mentality is pervasive in how we evaluate women. Female celebrities like Kim Novak and Renee Zellweger have been the targets of ridicule for undergoing plastic surgery in the public eye. After Novak, famous for her role as the femme fatale in Vertigo, appeared at the Oscars in 2014, media outlets responded in disgust to the star’s apparent plastic surgery. “What happened to Kim Novak’s face?” asked the Daily Mail. Zellweger—who made her first public appearance in years last summer—was subject to similar handwringing for going under the knife, but would the reaction have been any different if she showed up on a red carpet with—gasp—wrinkles?

Of course it wouldn’t. While Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams praised the fact that Star Wars allowed Carrie Fisher to actually age, not everyone was so jazzed about seeing aging women on screen. Ms. Fisher recently reprised her iconic role as Princess (now General) Leia in The Force Awakens, and Star Wars fans quickly debated about whether Fisher is “aging well.” But the always-outspoken actress schooled them in a series of Twitter posts. “Youth and beauty are not accomplishments,” she wrote. Instead of applauding her for standing up to bullying, the New York Post’s Kyle Smith told her to sit down: “[S]he and other actresses who profited nicely from their looks should be grateful they had a turn at the top.”

Every female celebrity has been subjected to this amorphous body criticism—from Tia Mowry to Serena Williams—but what’s most appalling is that we continue to insist that women should thank us for our input. They should be “grateful.” Doesn’t Serena Williams want to know that she “looks like a man” and that despite winning every tennis championship in the books, she isn’t “fuckable” enough? Doesn’t Mowry, who has “put on a few pounds” since starting her own cooking show, want to be skinnier? These women might or might not want to be skinnier or younger or what have you (insecurity is only human), but that’s not anyone else’s appraisal to make.

No matter what anyone says, there’s no wrong way to be a woman. Instead of playing the shame game, we should be praising women like Serena Williams for fiercely challenging notions of what female beauty looks like by demanding respect on their own terms. Williams recently posed nude for photographer Annie Leibovitz, and in the spread, her gorgeousness is utterly defiant. In Carrie Fisher’s case, it’s also about demanding her right to opt out of that system altogether: On Twitter, Fisher recently referred to her body as merely a “brain bag” that takes her places.

These are incredible women who have done extraordinary things, respected trailblazers and continued leaders in their respective fields. Serena Williams is arguably the most dominant athlete of the past decade, and Chrissy Teigen is one of the most recognizable faces in the modeling industry. On top of being part of the highest-grossing franchise of all time, Carrie Fisher is a cultural treasure, an acclaimed author, and one of the sharpest women on the planet. That achievement is what we should be recognizing, as a way of creating a system where all women inherently win at femininity—whether you’re a famous model or just posing in front your mirror.
Nico Lang is a Meryl Streep enthusiast, critic, and essayist. You can read his work on Salon,Rolling Stone, L.A. Times, Washington Post, Advocate, and the Guardian. He’s also the author of The Young People Who Traverse Dimensions and the co-editor of the best-selling BOYS anthology series.