…And That’s When Ashley Judd Fucked it Up.

After speculation that her ‘puffy’ face was a sign that she’d undergone plastic surgery, Ashley Judd responded at the Daily Beast with what has been harkened as a kickass feminist essay, a comment on how patriarchy functions and a response to the Mentality of Patriarchy. And it’s received such a positive response from feminist* sites for a good reason: it’s a good, strong argument against the negative effects of patriarchy in general and the objectification of women in particular.

Of course, not only is it good, but, coming from someone who has been in the business for over twenty years – and who therefore has the ability to take this conversation to the media in a way that most feminists probably only wish they could emulate – it has the potential to bring this ongoing conversation to the forefront of popular culture. Until the next hot topic pops up, at least.

Jumping right into her commentary on the way in which women’s bodies are objectified, Judd opens the essay with the following:

The Conversation about women’s bodies exists largely outside of us, while it is also directed at (and marketed to) us, and used to define and control us. The Conversation about women happens everywhere, publicly and privately. We are described and detailed, our faces and bodies analyzed and picked apart, our worth ascertained and ascribed based on the reduction of personhood to simple physical objectification. Our voices, our personhood, our potential, and our accomplishments are regularly minimized and muted.

Judd goes on to argue that patriarchy “is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it,” challenging the idea that patriarchy is simply the product of men’s subjugation of women and insisting, rather, that it’s a system in which we all take part, but which “privileges, inter alia, the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women.”

If you’re like me, you’re reading all of this so far and thinking, ‘Yes, yes, YES!’ This is a feminist argument, there’s no denying that. And it’s great to hear it coming from someone on ‘the inside,’ as it were.

The response to Judd’s essay has been explosive enough that she’s been able to continue her conversation on a number of shows (according to the Jezebel article, within “the past 24-hours, Judd has appeared on the NBC Nightly News, Rock Center, The Today Show and Access Hollywood Live“) and as much as I would like to say that she’s done an absolutely amazing job of following through on her argument, this is, unfortunately, where it starts to fall apart for me.

The following is an excerpt of the conversation that Judd and the hosts had on Access Hollywood Live (the second video in the Jezebel article):

Billy Bush: Let me ask you this. Every time – often times – if a woman comes in – and let’s use, [I couldn't work out her name] was in the other day, I’ll use her as an example, she lost 50 pounds, said to her ‘wow, you’ve lost 50 pounds’ – she’s been open about it – ‘you look fantastic! God, you look great.’ Is that – that’s an objectification, in – to some degree. Is that okay? ‘cause I think most women, when you tell them ‘you’ve lost weight, boy, you look wonderful,’ they feel good about it – they like that.

Ashley Judd: And I believe that is one of the ways that it’s very cunning and insidious. Because it is a compliment, yet it’s a backhanded compliment. And, you know, when I hear…or see someone who’s carrying that kind of weight, what I think is that there’s probably some disordered eating, that there are health problems, that there’s self-esteem issues, that there – that, you know, that there’s a lot more than just the number on the scale.

[emphasis added]


I understand that I might be expecting a bit much from Judd – after all, this was an off-the-cuff question and she didn’t exactly have time to think about her response before giving it – but I find that her pathologisation of fat within the framework of a discussion about the damaging effects of the media’s focus on women’s bodies is, at best, highly problematic.

There’s also more than a hint of this same concern about fat within Judd’s essay:

Four: When I have gained weight, going from my usual size two/four to a six/eight after a lazy six months of not exercising, and that weight gain shows in my face and arms, I am a “cow” and a “pig” and I “better watch out” because my husband “is looking for his second wife.” (Did you catch how this one engenders competition and fear between women? How it also suggests that my husband values me based only on my physical appearance? Classic sexism. We won’t even address how extraordinary it is that a size eight would be heckled as “fat.”)

Within this paragraph, Judd is making a salient point about how weight gain is used as a weapon against women, with the media trying to tell them that they should feel insecure about themselves and, as she says herself, creating a sense of competition between women as a result.

But she also goes to great length to justify, or explain away, her weight gain, by saying that she just didn’t exercise for six months (which is “lazy”). And, while she makes the point that heckling a woman for being “fat” at a size eight is “extraordinary,” there’s something that I find troubling about her specificity in this instance. I wonder if, in light of her comment about weight on Access Hollywood Live, she would feel the same about a woman who was a size ten, or eighteen, or thirty-two? I admit, this is conjecture on my part – and perhaps it’s even unhelpful conjecture, insofar as it is attempting to go beyond what is said and therefore risks being completely off the mark – but there is an almost nervous repudiation of fat here that, again, I find troublingly problematic.

There is a similar distancing from fat in Judd’s closing paragraph, where she asks the question, “who makes the fantastic leap from being sick, or gaining some weight over the winter, to a conclusion of plastic surgery?” Again, the justification – It happened over winter! That happens to everyone! – makes for an odd bump in an otherwise smooth argument.

I don’t think that any of this makes Judd’s overall argument less worthy of the positive recognition that it has received. This is a conversation that needs to continue – and if Judd can use her celebrity to push this in the mainstream media, then all the power to her! She is clearly more then capable of making the points that need to be made; and she’s doing it within an overtly feminist framework, using words like “patriarchy” on talk shows and filling me with happiness along the way.

I can even understand that, as someone who has lived in the lime light for so long, she would have internalised issues about her weight. It makes sense!

I just wish that, when making the point that objectification “affects each and every one of us, in multiple and nefarious ways: our self-image, how we show up in our relationships and at work, our sense of our worth, value, and potential as human being,” that she wasn’t simultaneously making comments about weight that reinforce the very same system that she’s set out to fight. Because this is not a conversation that should have any “buts” or “unlesses” attached to it.

* I’m only including this because, well, Jezebel

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  • Fat Girl

    For Judd, it’s possible that she does gain weight when she is lazy and doesn’t exercise. I think a mistake is being made here in going from the specific to the general. She’s not speaking for other people and saying they are lazy and therefore fat. She’s speaking for herself. In fact, I think that if she could be speaking to the fact that, without specific structured effort, it is impossible for her (or anyone) to be so tiny as a size 2 or 4. 

    As for pathologizing fatness, well, I think that the fact that the fat acceptance movement exists and is necessary provides support for her comments about self-esteem. It is not possible to be fat in this world without suffering esteem issues. That’s part of why fat people need support sites like this one.

    I don’t think the way in which you pick apart and extrapolate what she’s saying is really doing anybody any good. You jump to all sorts of conclusions based on her comments and if someone did the same to your arguments, I’m pretty sure you would not be pleased. She never said everyone gains weight over winter and that it’s natural. She was the one accused of having had plastic surgery. She was the one who said she looks different because she gained weight over winter. Let’s not put words in her mouth lest others put words in ours in response. 

  • Elizabeth

    It’s pretty damn obvious in Judd’s comment that she manifestly does NOT mean “being fat in this culture leads to self-esteem issues because of how fat people are treated.”

    She means that when she “sees a person carrying that kind of weight” she believes she is justified in assuming that they’re carrying that weight BECAUSE they have “self-esteem issues” and “disordered eating.”

    I’m sure you’re aware of how prevalent this line of argument is against fat people–particularly women. You’re fat because: You’re scared of men! You were abused as a child! You’re self-destructive! Etc, ad infinitum. Solve your emotional problems and you’ll magically become thin!

    Judd is,
    for all the good points she makes, still engaging in hypocrisy. She is making–damaging!–assumptions about OTHER WOMEN’S bodies while at the same time claiming this behavior needs to stop.

    It’s important to say that.


  • David

    She didn’t just make the comment about weight gain happening over the Winter period once in a general conversation; she made it twice, in an essay about how the focus on women’s bodies is damaging, in conjunction with a pathologising comment about fat on a TV show in a media tour about the same topic.

    Linking weight gain to the Winter period isn’t just something that Judd has said in a vaccum. It’s a common meme and is often used as a justification for weight gain. And the unstated flipside of that meme is that, once it’s no longer Winter and that lazy funk is over, the weight will be lost.

    Now, please note, I stated repeatedly in the post that Judd’s overall argument is a strong one and that I don’t think that this necessarily weakens it at all. I just find it problematic that in this interview she pathologised fat (going out of her way to say that there must be some underlying reason for why someone is fat) and that in her essay she seems to go out of her way to explain her weight gain. In a narrative about how objectifcation is damaging, what purpose does this serve, except to indicate that it’s not the norm?

    The only place where I think I could be accused of “picking apart” what she says and “extrapolating” is with respect to the specificity of her comment about a size eight being heckled for being fat – and I go to great lengths to acknowledge that within the post. Otherwise I’m commenting specifically on her own words.

  • David

     Thanks, Elizabeth! That’s what I was trying to point out.

    It’s an extremely important conversation that I think has been marred by a counterproductive point.

  • http://loveashley.net Ashley

    I agree that her comments here wren’t as carefully constructed as her words in the essay, but I don’t see where she referred to size 8 as fat. It’s definitely not fat but it is larger for her. 

    However, I do think her comment about “carrying that kind of weight” reveals that she does judge people for being weighty past a certain point. As someone who is thin, I have felt the sting when people say similarly to what Judd said but about thin people, “When I see people THAT skinny, I can’t help but think there is some disordered eating.” It’s not ok to assume disordered eating in either fat or thin people.

  • LittleBigGirl

    Based on Judd’s words I feel she has a fairly good grasp on feminism and the Beauty Myth, but she does not seem to be as aware or knowledgeable when it comes to the concepts of self acceptance and fat acceptance. (My understanding of) SA/FA includes the building block concepts that a) every is different for many different reasons and b) people should not be judged by, or treated according to, their weight and doing so is put in the same category as using skin color or (perceived) gender to determine how much acknowledgment and respect an individual is “allowed.”
    I would like to be optimistic and call Judd’s comments about weight and fat more a “stumble” than an out and out fuck up. It is just one more example of how we still have a ways to go. I think for her to be defending herself at all is a minor miracle and we should be glad for the dialogue opportunity.

  • David_Lenton

    Oh, I wasn’t trying to say that she was suggesting a size 8 was fat – I think she’s doing the exact opposite. But there was something about the specificity of her words (that heckling a size 8 for being fat was “extraordinary”) that I think left room open for the heckling of someone of a larger size. Although I do admit that this is a point at which I could be taking the analysis a bit far.

  • David_Lenton


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