Emotional Health · Film & Television

Hollywood’s Pressure to Be Objects of Beauty

At this year’s Golden Globes, we heard from women in Hollywood who haven’t forgotten the tumultuous events of the past eighteen months. Many attendees and winners referred to the ongoing issue of sexism in the film business. For example, Regina King, accepting her award for best actress in If Beale Street Could Talk, announced she was committed to employing a minimum of 50% women in future productions.

But no one came close to the high note Oprah Winfrey hit in her speech last year. Emotions were high then, and the wounds of the revelations about Harvey Weinstein and others were still raw.

As Alexandra MacAaron pointed out, this year’s ceremony represented something of a regression.  The solidarity of the parade of black dresses at last year’s red carpet was replaced by a vivid spectrum and, significantly, plunging necklines. MacAaron observed, “I fully support a woman’s right to express herself and love her body. But, I do wonder whether some women were sending a mixed message: ‘I should be taken seriously and not treated as a sex object. And, by the way, here are my breasts.’ ”

As role models, powerful women in Hollywood have a unique opportunity to send messages and push for social change. But more than most of us, they are in a tough spot when it comes to using their sexuality. Though women are also producers and director now more than ever, many performers know that their looks are critical to their careers. Talent may be paramount, but at least in the beginning, good looks are a large part of what gets you noticed.

Men and women both have asserted their right not to be forced to trade sexual favors for advancement, nor to be harassed and assaulted. But Hollywood’s glamorization of the stars and their beauty is part of what fuels the industry. And everyone knows a large part of why audiences watch awards shows is to see the stars in their version of their “Sunday Best.”

We also enjoy photos of stars caught on camera without make-up, wearing everyday clothes, reminding us that they are “just like us,” as one magazine puts it in a regular section devoted to these shots. But we still crave the images of them as creatures who are exceptional. Big stars like Greta Garbo, Elizabeth Taylor, and Grace Kelly were lauded for their great beauty and their careers were founded on this, if not entirely dependent on it. Taylor, for example, proved her acting chops as she got older and started gaining weight. Kelly retired to be a princess, and Garbo famously became a semi-recluse.

Hollywood has always had a category for performers whose career success is more exclusively about talent, rather than looks, and often they get very meaty roles. But traditionally, the less beautiful have been relegated to the “best supporting” category. And when beautiful women disguise their looks for a role (or gain weight!) their chances for winning an award skyrocket. Nicole Kidman’s fake nose in The Hours or Charlize Theron’s weight gain for Monster are remembered for the stars’ willingness to transform themselves from perfect to, well, human. This year, Kidman has done it again for Destroyer, where she appears on camera actually looking destroyed.

Patricia Arquette’s Golden Globe award this year was well-deserved for her acting, but her performance was richly enhanced, if not dependent on, her physical transformation. In her role as a prison guard in Showtime’s Escape from Dannemora, she is heavy, sloppy and wears crooked teeth and ugly glasses. The effect is very dramatic: her physical portrait instantly communicates her down-trodden and disrespected place in the world. Looking literally like the cat dragged her in, her vulnerability to being preyed upon and manipulated by dangerous criminals is instantly communicated.

Like Arquette, Eric Lange, who plays her husband Lyle, is also vulnerable and plain but his weakness is portrayed more in his voice and demeanor. In our society, a man does not lose as much if he is not good looking, and sometimes physical unattractiveness can be imposing, as Benecio del Toro proves in his own performance in the same show.

But actresses know that maintaining their looks is important if they want to keep pace within this highly competitive industry. Accepting the normal aging process means you become relegated to less prominent roles, though in recent years things have gotten (a little) better. Glenn Close, 71, won a Golden Globe for her performance in The Wife, a film in which she looks beautiful, but plays a woman her own age. Just this week it was reported that Maggie Gyllenhal, at 36, was deemed too old to play against a 55 year-old man. Really?


My mother Nancy Guild in a photo shoot for LIFE Magazine.

Really. And so we have to be compassionate to these women and the special pressures they face, which are an exaggerated version of issues that affect us all. I had a front row seat watching this play out in my own family. My mother was an actress. Her name was Nancy Guild, and as  a freshman in college, studying journalism, she hoped to be a reporter. It was during WWII, when a LIFE Magazine photographer took some pictures of her, illustrating the current fashion trends on campus. When the photos were published, she got calls from five different movie studios. She signed a contract with 20th Century Fox, and within a few months was making a film, starring as the romantic lead.

This was in old days, when studios were looking for “star power” first and talent was considered something to be developed later. Though she was exceptionally beautiful, my mother had never considered becoming an actress, even though she was born and grew up in Los Angeles. The offer she got was too good to pass up, especially as it allowed her to support her ailing father and stranded mother while her brothers were fighting the War.

She made about ten  films during the course of her seven year contract, but never broke into the top tier. She did some TV later, but essentially retired when she married my father. Yet, she had done fairly well for someone with no training, starring in films with actors like Orson Welles and dating Tyrone Power. Now only serious movie buffs remember her.


An advertisement for one of my mother’s films.

Looking back at the LIFE photos, you can see how the movie business transformed her from a fresh-faced young beauty to a glamorous woman. Long after she quit acting, people would ask for her autograph, even if they didn’t know exactly who she was—she looked like she must be famous. She became used to attracting a lot of attention for her looks, and her self-esteem became dependent on it in a way it might not have if she had pursued her original dream (which she did in later years, as a writer for Architectural Digest).

But she never recovered from being an object of beauty. Having learned the art of professional make-up, she never went out without looking perfect. Even her kids hardly ever saw her without it—I remember being astonished to see she had blond eyebrows and pale eyelashes. On Christmas morning, we had to wait 45 minutes for her to get ready before we could open presents. And though she was a former a Los Angeles County-wide Champion in swimming, she only went in the water once a year, when there was an annual parent-child competition. We always won because of her.

If you are only valued for one thing, it scares you to lose it, especially if your career success is dependent on it. For an actress, looking good is a job, one that may be hard to give up even if you want to. There’s no doubt that many Hollywood women are seriously devoted to social change. They are intelligent, creative, and worthy in many ways beyond beauty. But we can’t blame them if they wonder if the world would still listen to them if they didn’t look quite so good.


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  • Neri Axtell January 17, 2019 at 10:56 am

    My maternal grandmother’s whole reason for being was to look beautiful. While she was exceptionally beautiful in her youth, hard core drinking and smoking took her looks from her when she hit her mid 50’s. Her self-esteem was so tied to beauty that she committed suicide feeling that her life was over because she wasn’t pretty. I was devastated by her suicide and vowed to raise my children by fostering intrinsic self-esteem. They are great kids and while good-looking, they do not count their worth by their looks alone. I struggle between the two worlds beauty and self-worth and must work at finding my worth in other areas daily. I long for the day when the world believes that beauty, or lack of, is window dressing. The inside is infinitely more important.