Last week, Elizabeth Banks made celebrity headlines when she admitted she had not seen herself as pretty when she was younger.
"I didn’t quite believe I was pretty for a long time,” the actress said to New Look magazine. “I never thought about it. I’m very genetically blessed,” she continued. “I cannot deny it, but I work hard at keeping myself together. Yes, I have nice cheekbones and skinny legs but I can’t take any credit for it.”
While it's surprising when a celebrity says anything remotely self-effacing about their looks, there's something even more remarkable about Banks' quote than the sentiment. In a culture where diet and fitness are viewed as a gateway to a "celebrity body," Banks attributing her own physique to anything other than working her butt off is almost revolutionary.
If you reside in a place with regular access to popular television, magazines, or the Internet, it’s likely difficult to get through a single day without an onslaught of articles telling you how to “GET JENNIFER ANISTON’S ABS…in 30 DAYS OR LESS.” Interviews where celebrities thank their Pilates instructors, grilled salmon dinners and Soul Cycle Wednesdays as the sole sources of their traditionally attractive bodies are commonplace. There is so little variation in actress' response to fitness-related questions that I sometimes wonder if entrance into the exclusive A-list comes with a script spelling out a finite list of potential options. (Pilates, green juice, and lean meat would all make frequent appearances.)
The cultural narrative underlying these articles, while never spoken out loud, is clear: Celebrities have thin, normatively attractive bodies because they work hard for them. If you don’t have the body of a celebrity, it’s because you’re not putting in the work.
Genetics not even coming in to play, the logic behind admiring bodies that are hard to achieve completely falls in on itself: Why must we value bodies that come from a lot of work? Why do we prefer those we believe to be “physically disciplined”? How does this logic apply to bodies that don’t conform to societal standards of attractiveness, but do adhere to societally endorsed routines of exercise?
But even without delving into the our culture’s greater obsession with asceticism, Banks' comment (which falls in line with previous ones the star has made on the subject) reveals the fraudulence of the celebrity fitness myth. By attributing her skinny legs to genetics and not a “five-step celeb workout," the actress suggests she didn’t have any kind of superior discipline which allowed her to achieve the look. Moreover, Banks is asserting that there’s no concrete exercise those at home can perform to get those same lean limbs (save from being born of her same lineage, which, good luck with that). Nobody doubts that many Hollywood stars put in a lot of effort to keep up with society’s increasingly stringent standards of beauty. But in a reality where the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders cites a statistic that says only 5 percent of American females naturally possess the body type portrayed in advertising as the ideal, Banks acknowledges the additional -- often ignored -- truth that a good portion of those stars also have bodies that are predisposed to take on a traditionally attractive physical form in response to their work.
By going “off script,” the actress exposes the billion-dollar diet and fitness industries to questions they'd likely not wish to face: If we can’t get Elizabeth Banks’ legs no matter the weight-loss products, boutique gym memberships and personal training videos we purchase, then why should we give away our money in the first place? Follow that line of inquiry one step further and it becomes: Why should we place more value on a single type of body that so many people cannot physically achieve no matter what, and that some people can achieve through no work at all?
Upholding the idea that anyone can get a “celeb bod” with enough work creates an environment in which the oppression of non-thin people is normalized through the logic that they are “choosing” to not put in the effort to get a so-called "better" look. That exact kind of attitude leads to widespread issues of size discrimination in this country. Acknowledging genetic diversity, however, recognizes that it’s not actually better (or worse) to be thin -- a fact that if widely accepted could strip the weight loss and fitness industries of their cultural power, and improve the lives of those 95 percent of people whose bodies fall outside the narrow media ideal.