The Practice of Creativity

Learning from Pamela Anderson

Posted on: May 12, 2013

Ever since I started as a monthly columnist for The Chapel Hill News I have found myself paying more attention to tidbits of news in ways that I didn’t before. Weeks ago, I randomly came across several news stories about actress Pamela Anderson turning 45. I’m turning 45 this year, so I was curious about her insights on aging. As you’ll see below, I was quite surprised by what she said and her statements led me to ruminate about issues of beauty and self-esteem. Everyone has something to teach us!

Me, you and Pamela Anderson

By Michele Tracy Berger

I had forgotten about television star Pamela Anderson until she recently showed up in the news, last month, talking about turning 45.

Pamela Anderson is the actress who appeared in Playboy and “Baywatch.” She held a special place in 1990s popular culture, simultaneously serving as a great American “sex symbol” and as a contemporary joke about the excesses of cosmetic surgery and the stereotypical Hollywood blonde. The media fascination with Anderson subtly reminded other women of an unobtainable standard of beauty.

Pamela Anderson Arriving At A Beauty Show In NYC

In an interview Anderson admitted: “I don’t know if I ever really felt beautiful. I always feel like I don’t – I don’t, really.”

This comment made me pause and reconsider my assumptions about her life. I am actually saddened by Anderson’s confession. It is another reminder that judging ourselves against Hollywood’s standards of beauty is a losing and self-defeating battle.

As a women’s studies professor, I have see how today’s media’s messages about beauty affect young women’s self-esteem.

One of the classes I teach is “Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies,” usually enrolling 300 women and men. One of the two most powerful sections that carries big “aha” moments, for students, are the weeks on “women’s bodies and the beauty industry” and “body image” (the other is the section on gender and violence).

I teach a variety of materials to explore the research, theory and everyday realities of “beauty politics.” We read from the classic bestseller “The Beauty Myth,” by Naomi Wolf, on how the diet and cosmetic industries help to heighten women’s insecurities and dislike of their bodies and how unrealistic demands about beauty can act as a type of social control.

We read Jessica Weiner’s memoir, “A Very Hungry Girl,” about her experience “hungering” to be someone else (slim and beautiful) – so much so, she found herself with an eating disorder at the age of 12. We discuss how Western notions of beauty feed into the pressure some Asian and Asian American women feel to have “double eyelid” surgery, to change the shape of their eyes, and the lucrative global industry of skin-lightening products.

Starting young

Students are genuinely shocked when they read excerpts from the 2007 Report by the American Psychological Association’s Taskforce on “The Sexualization of Girls.” The report found that girls as young as 7 are exposed to advertising (toys, music, magazines and televisions) that encourages them to be “hot” or “sexy.”

We also read supermodel and writer Veronica Webb’s essay, “How does a Supermodel do Feminism?” that argues models are neither victims of the fashion industry nor all powerful entrepreneurs, thus adding complexity to understanding fashion industry. By analyzing the ongoing controversy of whether or not Beyoncé lightens her skin to how Christina Hendricks, Ashley Judd and Courtney Love respond to being deemed overweight by the press to the way in which actresses over 40 are constantly photoshopped to look younger (and slimmer), we examine how celebrities navigate the ongoing pressures of beauty politics.

In both the lecture and sections (taught by the teaching assistants), we make space for personal accounts to emerge: the student who reveals her mother’s obsession with dieting and its impact on both their lives, the lesbian student who is searching to find a self-defined standard of beauty, male students who disclose having sisters or girlfriends with an eating disorder.

When I compare my experiences in making sense of beauty norms as a teenager during the ’80s, I know they are not all that different to what my students face now. I still remember weighing 98 lbs, in high school, and thinking I was fat (!) and that I was too curvy. Brooke Shields and Christine Brinkley were the dominant icons of beauty during my youth. I still remember the feeling of elation when I saw Whitney Houston on the cover of Seventeen – their first black model.

We discuss the success of Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, the visibility of plus-size models, the diversity of CoverGirl ads that include Ellen DeGeneres and Queen Latifa. Students discover that hard-fought changes in media representations of women have often been due to activism by second-wave and third-wave feminists. By the end of the section students are better able to see that they have a stake in coming up with their own definition of beauty, becoming media literate, and an educated consumer and that an obsession with dominant beauty norms is not a natural condition.

Pamela Anderson says she’s getting more comfortable with liking her body and her own way of being glamorous. I’m glad that getting older has given her a new perspective. But, that’s not nearly enough for the rest of us.

A society that can breed feelings of antipathy toward the physical body, for half the population, is one that is in need of change. We need inspired actresses and actors and other creative folk in Hollywood to continue pushing back on unobtainable standards of beauty. We also need consistent consumer pressure. But, that is all outer-directed work; we also need to undertake inner-directed work. We need to learn to love ourselves in spite of those images. And, that takes individual and collective practice.

Column reprinted with permission. Originally published on May 11:

Photo: FameFlynet



7 Responses to "Learning from Pamela Anderson"

Great essay! It’s not only women who have body image problems, though. Men I’m close to have expressed similar struggles. …I remember hitting my thighs repeatedly when I was about 7 years old because they were so ‘fat.’ I’m slim and quite fit for 56, but I still think I “ought” to have the body I did in my 30s. Argh!

Thanks Helen for stopping by. Yes, men do struggle with these issues but the overall life consequences for them are different than women.

What a great column. Thank you. It’s been a real victory for short, curvy women like me to see myself finally somewhat represented in media, but there’s still so far for us to go.

Hi Kiersi,
Thanks for the kudos. Yes, we petite and curvy women are definitely finding our voices in the marketplace. But, as you note, we do have a long way to go!

Michele, I keep meaning to ask you how the column is going. Now I know that it’s still plugging along. Great news.

This month’s installment brings me back to my youth as a competitive swimmer. I remember one girl in particular who was constantly and publicly chided by her own mother that she was too fat to be a good swimmer. I always thought that we looked quite thin.

The girl eventually developed an eating disorder which was unheard of in the 60s & 70s except for pop singer Karen Carpenter who died a result of her disorder.

It makes me wonder the role of parents in creating a healthy self-image of their young children. I hope, but doubt, that this foolishness still happens in the 2010s.


Hi Todd,
Thanks for stopping by. So sad to hear the story about the swimmer. I have heard other cases of this issue for both male and female swimmers as well as male and female gymnasts. Yes, I think parents can play a crucial role in being informed and wary of the kinds of messages about body image and life that they pass on to kids as well as teaching kids media literacy.

BTW. I thought you were 35, not 45!

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Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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