The Pretty Paradox

As a TV news anchor, Frances Leland (not her real name) was well aware that her looks had played a primary role in getting her on air. She was blond, blue-eyed, tall and shapely as a Barbie doll–perfect for the Texas market. But that Barbie label also implied a certain air-headedness, which she fought mightily.

Frances first wrote to me shortly after the release of my book Gaining: The Truth About Life After Eating Disorders, and I was so fascinated by her take on the beauty myth that we began corresponding.  Then I interviewed her for a book I was developing around the phenomenon that sociologist Catherin Hakim calls “erotic capital”–meaning essentially that the more attractive you look, the more you’re worth economically.

“Just because I was a beautiful woman didn’t mean I was an idiot,” Frances told me, looking back over her TV career.  “I went out of my way to prove my worth in the newsroom. I worked my way up as a reporter to the anchor chair.  I knew how to shoot and edit my own stories and I’d produced my own newscasts. I was damned if I’d let anyone think I was going to skate on my looks.”

Nevertheless, her bosses made it clear that all that experience wouldn’t save her career if she let her looks fail.  In particular, she was expected to maintain an ultra-lean body that would still look slim despite the illusory five pounds added by the camera.  Although a dedicated runner, Frances couldn’t sustain her “perfect” weight without resorting to unnatural means. Bulimia became her coping mechanism, a way to keep up that idealized front while “letting herself go” behind the scenes.  “I couldn’t handle the intense scrutiny of being the ‘TV lady’ and living up to others’ expectations,” she told me.  Her eating disorder continued in secret, gradually intensifying over her 15 years in front of the camera.

The secrecy made her cringe whenever her co-workers’ complimented her on her appearance. “Look! She can eat whatever she wants and she doesn’t gain weight!” Those watching her every move were often larger women who worked off-camera in lower-paying jobs that didn’t depend on their looks.  Frances sensed that their envious but objectifying remarks were fueled by the myth that anyone who looks good must also have a perfect life.  Because she was, in a sense, being paid to support this myth, Frances felt she had no choice but to go along with it.  But this made it impossible for her to relax around the people with whom she spent 12 hours a day. She didn’t dare reveal the vulnerabilities that made her human.

The myth of pretty perfection reflects a prejudice that either ignores or trivializes the real lives of people who “look good”. “It was incomprehensible to others that I might have insecurities or my own fears,” Frances recalled.  But those hidden insecurities and fears began to dominate her life.  “Thinking someone else I love will make me a whole person. Never feeling like I do enough, that I’m not worth all the good things I’ve earned–I’ve always wondered how I actually got to where I am.”  She was trapped in the pretty paradox: how could she address her problems if she wasn’t allowed to have any problems?

“As my name and face became better known in the community, I pulled further and further into myself and away from people.” She also got angrier and more resentful of her beauty. “My TV career was based in large part on my looks. Fine, I accepted that. But, I didn’t go out of my way to preserve that illusion of TV anchor perfection in my personal life. Maybe I rebelled against the whole outward beauty thing because that’s what people expected me to be.”

Worst of all, she found, were the proprietary attitudes of men who had risen to positions of power without regard for their looks, yet who treated Frances’s appearance as a commodity that they had the right to control. One incident still made her blood boil years later. She’d stopped in the studio kitchen for a snack.  Despite the emphasis on looks and glamour for the on-air talent, spreads of sugary baked goods are standard fare in most TV newsrooms, and Frances was reaching for a chocolate chip cookie when her male producer snapped, “Don’t eat that. I don’t want my anchor getting fat.”

Stunned, Frances retorted, “Don’t you ever tell me what I should be eating.”

Storming away from him that day was the beginning of the end. “I left TV at the height of my career and a lot of people couldn’t understand why. Of course I know I left because I’d reached a point where I could not live the way I was living anymore.”

Today Frances works in community relations in the energy industry, earns less money and endures considerably less public scrutiny. She’s been treated for her eating disorder and no longer binges or purges. She runs marathons. And her concept of beauty has radically shifted.

“I’m most comfortable in my running clothes, stinky and sweaty after a long run in Houston’s legendary summer heat. I don’t wear makeup when I’m on the roads. I feel strongest when I’m running and looking like hell.  Out there on my own I’m proud not to be ‘beautiful.’”

Photo courtesy of: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pinksherbet/ / CC BY 2.0

Comments

  1. Dominique says:

    Wow. That’s a powerful story. I was never an anchor but did some broadcasting as a correspondent. Even though it was never explicitly stated that I needed to look good, the station said we had to do “stand-ups” and “walk-ins” in front of the camera to build up our recognition factor with the audience. I was told I looked good and this was said with a lot of approval (so the pressure was implicit but there). My boss-colleague on the same show would wear jeans and a leather jacket and I never heard anything about it. However, one time I wore a wrinkled black rain coat – because it was raining – and he frowned at me and told me I couldn’t wear that. He also commented loudly on how “hot” this one anchor on another station was. Then I said I would like to come across just like Bernard Derome, a popular male anchor. My boss frowned and said “why on Earth would you want to be like him? He’s not even cute!” I replied, of course, that the guy was knowledgeable and confident.

  2. this is a powerful story. there was an episode in the final season of nip/tuck where a model purposeful disfigured herself because being pretty was too much of a burden. i didn’t have any sympathy for the character until now. i wrongly assumed that real pretty people were too perfect to feel that way, but this short real life reflection has convinced me otherwise.”the myth of pretty perfection” and “erotic capital” fascinate me because now i know the language to be true.

  3. How awful for this woman. Born into a beauty for which she never asked and forced to bear its burden in the world. How…pathetic. This is like saying we should feel sorry for million-dollar athletes that relentlessly train and punish their bodies in order to do what they love. NO, WE SHOULD NOT! The plain and simple truth is that this female newscaster had the very real CHOICE of letting herself go and risk being fired. She CHOSE to bow down to others so she could keep her job. The only difference between this sob story and “The Elephant Man” is that he couldn’t afford the surgery.

  4. I’m glad Nobody feels boldly enough to heartlessly attack a complete stranger.

    I’m a woman who works in a very male dominated media outlet, and I feel, much like Dominique, I can sympathise.

    We shouldn’t have to starve ourselves to DO WHAT WE LOVE.

    Nobody, I hope you find some love for yourself, because your post reeks of jealous indignation. “How dare the pretty girl ask for my sympathy! She’s pretty! I’m …” You’re what? Do you not feel that you’re pretty? That’s YOUR issue, and I hope that you can solve that issue.

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