Aaron R. Davis
I’m a fan of Jessica Simpson. And not just because I think she’s hot (though, I mean, she is pretty damn hot).
I had only barely heard of her before her hit MTV series Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, a reality show dedicated to taking two pop singers who weren’t really famous and making them famous by pretending they were already famous – if that makes sense to anyone else. I only ended up watching the show because my mom called to tell me she’d just seen the dumbest person alive ask the dumbest question alive about the contents of her tuna salad. Being easily amused, I decided to watch and, right hand up, I fell in love with Jessica. She just seemed so genuine and realistic and likable, especially for someone on MTV post-Puck, and it turned out I liked her music, too. Even through her terrible straight-to-video movies and her cynical detour into country music, I remained a die hard Jessica fan.
Well, there’s a difference between “die hard” and “die never.”
I was pretty excited when Jessica started doing publicity for her new VH1 series The Price of Beauty. The premise of the show is that Jessica (with her best friends Ken and CaCee) travels around the world examining standards of beauty and how women in other parts of the world pursue them. It’s actually a pretty interesting and novel idea for a show, and Jessica and VH1 have sold as a sort of learning experience; that even as we see women pursue what their culture holds up as beautiful, we’re supposed to see that real beauty comes from within and that an obsessive pursuit of surface beauty can be harmful. Jessica in particular has mentioned in a few interviews that doing the show taught her that she should be more comfortable with who she is and let what’s inside be the beauty on the outside.
But here’s the thing: she didn’t learn that. And worse, I don’t think she cares. She can talk all she wants about what she learned while filming The Price of Beauty, but she didn’t learn a thing.
How do I know? Because I caught Jessica’s appearance on Oprah Winfrey a couple of weeks ago and watched as this woman — promoting a show about inner beauty, with a theme song about finding inner strength and being comfortable in yourself, which purports to be all about taking pride in yourself no matter how you look — told a total lie about her size.
See, a year ago, Jessica underwent what she refers to as the “Mom Jeans Incident.” You might remember the pictures of her, performing at a chili cook-off, wearing a tight tank top and high-wasted jeans. She had obviously put on weight; she even looked a little chubby, especially compared to her Daisy Duke publicity blitz from five years ago. I thought she looked sexy, but this being the Internet, the fat jokes began flying immediately. Jessica’s talked about her weight issues in the past, and this one pretty obviously stung.
Now, I understand being weight-sensitive, because I’m a fat dude. There’s no way around that reality at this moment in time: I’m overweight. You don’t stop being weight-sensitive overnight. So I understand when someone lies about their size or sidesteps the question.
But you know what the difference is between me and Jessica Simpson? I’m not trying to sell the idea that I went on a magical learning journey that made me realize what’s really beautiful is being confident and embracing who I am. I’m not trying to get people to watch a TV series with that message.
But you know what? I’m pretty sure that if I was doing that, I would go with honesty instead of telling Oprah that, at my heaviest, I was a size four. But that’s what Jessica Simpson did.
I was totally astonished as she claimed, at the time of the “Mom Jeans Incident,” she was a size four. Everyone with eyes knows that’s just an outright lie. She’s not as heavy now as she was then, and just to look at her I’d say she’s at least a size 10. I’ve seen pictures of her out pushing the show where you can tell she’s wearing a corset.
How much did she really learn from this experience if she’s lying about her size and assuming we’re all stupid enough to believe it? And while I understand she’s self-conscious about it (hey, who isn’t?), this is the wrong time for her to not be honest, because the theme of The Price of Beauty makes the kind of story she’s spinning seem cynical and hollow.
(This does seem to be something that runs in her family, doesn’t it? Her sister Ashlee gave an interview to Jane a couple of years ago about how girls shouldn’t run off and get plastic surgery, but instead should be happy with what God gave them … and the issue was still on the stands when she got her nose job and the first of what appears to be several cosmetic surgeries on her face.)
So I watched the first episode of The Price of Beauty and I was disappointed even further. I already had to take it with a grain of salt going in, since it’s obvious that whatever “lessons” Jessica learns about herself obviously haven’t sunken in. But the tone of the show itself is even worse. They can try to serious things up all they want — Jessica is obviously touched by a Thai woman who has irreparably damaged her skin in the pursuit of ideal paleness — but what it really amounts to is Jess and her pals getting free spa treatments around the world.
But the biggest disappointment of all — and this is coming from a guy who has every season of Newlyweds on DVD — is that Jessica is now pushing 30 and still trying to trade on that dumb blond persona that drew in so many viewers half a decade ago. And it’s just not cute anymore; it feels like half-reality and half-shtick. There’s this wide-eyed innocence that Jessica tries to affect, but on The Price of Beauty she’s less of an innocent abroad and more of an Ugly American. Everything different is weird and funny to her and her friends. As much as she pretends she’s examining other cultures objectively, there’s no real cultural objectivity: it’s more like a freak show disguised as a study lecture to make it more palatable. It doesn’t make her more “real” that she can’t get through a Buddhist meditation without giggling, or that — on the way to visit tribal women to find out why they wear those elongating, heavy neck rings — Jessica jokes that the rings “look like a scrotum.” It’s just an unattractive indication that she hasn’t matured at all in the last five years.
I thought it was too easy to dismiss The Price of Beauty as being a vanity project for a reality TV star with nothing else to do, since her other careers are pretty much dead. But given the attitude with which she approaches the show — and the way she still talks about her weight in order to minimize her embarrassment — it’s pretty obvious that the only reason she’s doing this show (which, incidentally, bombed in the ratings) is because she’s got hurt feelings to work through regarding what everyone thought of her mom jeans.
So what Jessica Simpson is telling us is that she wants us to be sympathetic to what women go through to meet society’s standards of surface beauty. But she’s not telling us this in order to celebrate the inner beauty of a woman, or because a woman’s inner strength is what’s really beautiful about her, or even because women are too often told that surface perfection is their real worth. Let’s not mince words: she wants us to be sympathetic because, now that she’s fat, she wants people to focus on the beauty within. But watching The Price of Beauty, I don’t see a lot of beauty within. What I see is a woman so uncomfortable with herself that she diverts attention away by acting out, laughing at others, or being as loud as possible.
Which is a shame because she’s got nothing to be ashamed of in the weight department. It’s her maturity that she needs to work on.
The premise of The Price of Beauty is potentially fascinating. The execution is dim and sometimes embarrassing. The promotion of the show is unfortunate.
How about next time we do Jessica Goes to College, instead?
Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.