Not long ago, I took my father to a film premiere to celebrate his 60th birthday. I got to do this because I am a writer and comedian, and I lead a strange, lucky life in which I occasionally get to stand within waving distance of talented people of great renown and excellent bone structure. We stood amidst the upscale crowd in Manhattan, two overgrown kids from Jersey in fancy shoes from Nordstrom Rack. I pointed out Kendall Jenner and explained who she was. I pointed out Josh Ostrovsky and explained who he was (this took much longer).
And then Jennifer Aniston walked by.
Needless to say, Aniston’s presence required no explanation. My father turned to me and whispered, “Now that’s a real star.”
I knew what he meant. There were plenty of celebrities around us, one of whom was the brilliant writer-actor-producer Justin Theroux, himself a real star who happens to be married to Aniston and whose back muscles were featured in one of the most stirring HBO ad campaigns I can recall (The Leftovers, season one. Google it. You’re welcome). Some of the folks in the crowd had found attention and success through YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter (Does anyone use Vine anymore or did it go to wherever Angelfire websites went?) But none of these pretty people occupied the rarified place in the popular imagination that has long been held by theJennifer Aniston.
It occurred to me then that I couldn’t remember if she had any social media accounts (she does not). “Good for her, dammit,” I thought. Then I went and got free fancy popcorn.
So I was particularly surprised today when Aniston, who has long engaged in a most revolutionary act of self-care by refusing to talk shit in public, wrote a marvellous piece on the Huffington Post on Thursday. In For the Record, she does not engage in gossip or trash-talking. She does briefly discuss her frustration at being constantly hounded and stalked by paparazzi who bother her endlessly about pregnancy rumors. And then she quickly puts her experience in a wider context:
If I am some kind of symbol to some people out there, then clearly I am an example of the lens through which we, as a society, view our mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, female friends and colleagues. The objectification and scrutiny we put women through is absurd and disturbing. The way I am portrayed by the media is simply a reflection of how we see and portray women in general, measured against some warped standard of beauty. Sometimes cultural standards just need a different perspective so we can see them for what they really are – a collective acceptance … a subconscious agreement. We are in charge of our agreement. Little girls everywhere are absorbing our agreement, passive or otherwise. And it begins early. The message that girls are not pretty unless they’re incredibly thin, that they’re not worthy of our attention unless they look like a supermodel or an actress on the cover of a magazine is something we’re all willingly buying into. This conditioning is something girls then carry into womanhood.
It wasn’t Aniston’s way with words that surprised me. It’s that she chose to share them at all. The media has been obsessed with her body in general and her fecundity in particular since I was in the eighth grade. I am now 35 years old. Her reluctance to become a brood mare for tiny Instagram props seems to frustrate the hell out of some people. And she knows it, and she knows where it’s coming from:
Here’s where I come out on this topic: we are complete with or without a mate, with or without a child. We get to decide for ourselves what is beautiful when it comes to our bodies. That decision is ours and ours alone. Let’s make that decision for ourselves and for the young women in this world who look to us as examples. Let’s make that decision consciously, outside of the tabloid noise. We don’t need to be married or mothers to be complete. We get to determine our own ‘happily ever after’ for ourselves.
Jennifer Aniston, who is not now and never has been your or my girl next door, just dropped some fine truth on us. And because she’s Jennifer Aniston, many folks who’ve never considered ideas of body image and a woman’s worth will now consider them, at least for a moment.
In the United States in 2016, there are many women (though still not enough) who have the freedom and the privilege to choose to remain child-free. We may leave the option open for the future; we may not. We each have our own reasons. Nearly all of us share experiences with friends, family, or even complete strangers who demand we justify our use of birth control, or our miscarriages, or our abortions, or our struggles with fertility, or our ambivalence about motherhood. It’s a real pain in the ass, to be honest.
Jennifer Aniston gets it, and she gets that she’s a big deal, and she gets that if she writes about something universal, it’ll draw more attention because she’s a big deal. And maybe, in using her privilege (earned and unearned) for a good reason, she’ll help some of the rest of us out.
Now that’s a real star.