Exposure to beauty standards

Mara Wilson’s new book addresses what it meant to be “cute” in Hollywood

I wonder how many people will recognize the name Mara Wilson if I don’t mention what movies she’s been in. Some, of course, would recognize the name right away as the girl who played Matilda, or maybe even Natalie in Mrs. Doubtfire. But, I think for a lot of people, her name faded away with her career over time.

The reason I bring her up, though, is because she recently wrote a book. Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame discusses quite a few things regarding her childhood acting career, her experiences with puberty, and female beauty standards.

Wilson and I share a few common experiences. I used to act when I was a kid (shameless plug), and I was exposed to the same beauty standards that she was. I’m not saying that I was on the same level of stardom as Wilson, but I can at least empathize with her struggles.

I barely remember anything from my acting career. I remember being cast in this probable straight-to-DVD movie, the name of which I’ve already forgotten. I remember going to downtown Toronto with my uncle, surrounded by skyscrapers and men in suits who walked too fast. I was completely out of my element, but I loved feeling like I had some kind of purpose as a six-year-old kid.

What made it for me, though, was this idea of feeling like I was cute. Like Wilson, I was never thought of to be the pretty girl in my class. This problem only worsened as I got older and began to spend time with noticeably pretty girls who received more attention than I ever did. But here, in downtown Toronto, I was cute to someone. Cute enough to be cast in something.

Then I managed to score a gig on Treehouse; this silly little show where me and a few other kids would play games with each other in between the real TV shows. I wasn’t rolling in money or signing autographs, but there were several kids who would seek me out during recess to tell me that they saw me on TV. I would walk with my friends in elementary school and be the only one in the group to get attention. As a little kid actor, this was important to me. I was taught that being the center of attention was the most important thing.  So, I ate up their words.

But as I got older and my teeth began to grow more crooked and my chest began to fill out, casting agents stopped calling me back. The other girls waiting to audition didn’t have crooked teeth. They didn’t have rolls on their stomachs. Not one pimple touched their face. And casting agents noticed. I noticed.

Thus began the introduction to society’s beauty standards.

Wilson writes, “At 13, no one had called me cute or mentioned the way I looked in years, at least not in a positive way. My sixth-grade crush had called me ugly, film reviewers said I was “odd-looking”, and a boy at my preteen day camp had said to me, ‘You were Matilda? Heh. You’ve gained a little weight since then!’ I went home and cried into a milkshake.”

This was pretty much my life. Age 13 hit, my breasts came in, and boys teased me relentlessly. My grade five teacher constructed a seating chart which sandwiched me between two boys. I remember one of them insulting the fact that I had large breasts and I pulled his hair. I regret nothing.

But this is the kind of stuff that girls had to deal with. No matter what size you were, what you wore, or how you looked, you were getting teased in one way or another.

What sparked my interest in Wilson’s book was the overall idea of being exposed to these ideas of beauty standards from such an early age. Puberty is already a difficult enough time to deal with without having these added ideas of what “beauty” means. Not to mention, to learn it as an actress means to learn it more superficially/from a superficial lens. This is unfortunately the reality of the business. But, for a child to go through this… it opens their eyes to the world in an entirely different way.

Wilson continues, “At 13, being pretty mattered­­—and not just in the world of movies and TV. The pretty girls at school had always had an air of superiority, but once we hit puberty, they seemed to matter more. My career was the only thing I had over them. Now that it was waning, I was just another weird, nerdy, loud girl with bad teeth and bad hair, whose bra strap was always showing.”

I never thought that my career held me above the other girls in my school. However, not being as pretty as them, my acting served as the crutch I needed for the occasional confidence booster when they were being asked to school dances and I wasn’t.

In all honesty, I also never thought of myself as being superior or more popular because I was a part of some crappy TV show one time. Besides, looking back on it now, I’m pretty sure I was the only Latina that they hired. So good for them for filling their minority quota.

But to take away the callbacks and get thrust into the real world when I was still trying to adjust to having breasts was a little too much to handle at 13. I was still looking at myself and critiquing my appearance through the eyes of casting directors. And now boys were doing the same. And my parents. And anyone else who looked at me. That kind of stuff has the tendency to hit a kid hard.

Wilson writes, “…I knew I wasn’t a gorgon, but I guessed that if 10 strangers were to look at a photo of me, probably about four or five of them would find me attractive. That would not be good enough for Hollywood, where an actress had to be attractive to eight out of 10 people to be considered for even the homely best friend character.”

“The real world was more forgiving. Plenty of boys were interested in me and it got easier at New York University where I fell in love with Sam, a film student with curly dark hair and warm brown eyes. But my appearance anxieties were always there, and my past was never gone.”

Entering university, I can say that I feel the same things. Sure, some guys hit on me and I’ve had dates and whatnot. But, the shadow of my inner voice telling me what I had heard my whole childhood still lingered. Still spoke to me. Still convinced me that having people care about me or love me wasn’t good enough. I needed to be beautiful. I needed to be better.

Wilson continues, “‘Maybe I should just get plastic surgery,’ I said to Sam. Sometimes I secretly wished for an accident where I’d injure my nose and jaw so I could get guilt-free reconstruction. ‘If you want to, you can,’ he said, shrugging. ‘But I want you to know I love you the way you are. You’re beautiful.’ I tried to believe him, but it was as if he were pouring water into a glass with a hole in the bottom. It took a toll on our relationship. In the last fight before our breakup, he told me, ‘Mara, the one thing I could never stand about you is how much you put yourself down.’”

I’ve been told this myself. Guys I’ve gone out with and close friends of mine have told me that one of the biggest things I need to work on is my self-confidence. Then a vicious cycle emerges where you’re not attractive if you’re always putting yourself down, but you always put yourself down because you don’t think you’re attractive.

Wilson writes, “The ones who are most critical seem to be normal people who are deeply unhappy with themselves. They want someone else to tear down, and people like me are considered public domain. I understand that celebrities have a contract with the public: they get to be the target of jealousy and criticism, and sometimes admiration, in exchange for money and recognition. […] So the next time someone hiding behind a username decides to tell me what would make me prettier, I’m going to propose the following: I will meet them in person and ask them to listen. I will tell them about going through puberty in the public eye after my mother died of cancer. I will tell them how it feels to find a website advertising nude photos of yourself as a 12 year old. I will tell them I’ve looked at ‘cute’ from both sides now, and in both cases it just made me miserable. […] I will tell them how my mother wanted me to prove myself through my actions and skills, rather than my looks.”

I think this message speaks to pretty much every person. I feel that men and women alike have stood in the mirror or heard a comment from someone that made them question their worth or their attractiveness. I believe that one of the saddest things about all of this is how it took Wilson so long to find things that she liked about herself.

Having an acting job when I was young seemed fun at the time, but it really just led me down a path of other people telling me how I needed to look and what I needed to do in order to be accepted. Their voices will occasionally still run rampant in my head. I haven’t really reached Wilson’s success of shutting them out yet.

And, yeah, sure, I know that this is the typical inspirational piece that people have grown tired of by now, but this is also still important enough to write about. I don’t think this will ever stop being a problem, which means that it’ll always be worth talking about.

I don’t mean to preach to people or to tell you guys the things that you can hear in any Buzzfeed article titled, “Don’t Give Up On Yourself!” The messages of self-love and acceptance are important, though. Especially considering that we’re all taught from a young age what that means, and it could take decades to break free from that mentality.

I mean, I may not have the self-confidence of Kanye West, but I like to think of myself as Benjamin Clawhauser from Zootopia—the adorable fat cat that eats everything and says hilarious things. And hey, I’m okay with that.


Leave a reply

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here