Jewish World Review Nov. 27, 2001 /12 Kislev, 5762

Lenoard Pitts, Jr.

Leonard Pitts, Jr.
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Beauty reflects an ugly truth -- Beauty's only skin deep -- The Temptations, 1966

My baby, she's cute as can be -- The Temptations, 1965

The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance won't like this, but I saw Shallow Hal the other day. It's the story of a superficial fellow who's put under a whammy that blinds him to a woman's external appearance. Instead, he sees each woman for what she is inside. Thus, he falls for a sweet, funny, sensitive and exceedingly large young woman who, to his eyes, looks like Gwyneth Paltrow.

The Sacramento-based NAAFA has called for a boycott of the movie, saying it ``reinforces stereotypes and myths about fat people.'' Indeed, Paltrow's character, Rosemary, is unhappily aware that she is not, by any conventional standard, attractive. She squishes chairs in restaurants. She cannonballs into a pool and a little boy swimming there is catapulted into a tree. She eats cake by the hunk.

The plot turns on the question of what Hal will do when he finally sees her as she is. Will he learn the trite but true lesson that true beauty resides within?

There is, I will grant, something inherently hypocritical in receiving that lesson from Hollywood, which has, after all, done more than any other institution to sell the lie that physicality is personality. The image factory says clearly and repeatedly to women that, no matter your other achievements or attributes, you are an incomplete person if not an abject failure to the degree you do not resemble Gwyneth Paltrow, Halle Berry or Elizabeth Hurley.


You know what, though? For all that, I think Shallow Hal is worth seeing. Two reasons. First, though I'm not calling it one of the great pictures of the year, it's a better movie than the tepid reviews indicate. Not particularly funny, I'll grant. And yes, some of the fat jokes are, well, thin. But the movie is also unexpectedly poignant in its depiction of a lonely woman, simultaneously flattered, nonplussed and wary at the notion that someone might find her attractive.

The second and more important reason Hal deserves a viewing is that the movie offers the opportunity for a discussion about women's bodies and men's attitudes toward them. For instance, I found it interesting that it never occurs to Hal that he might be judged by his own superficial standards. That, with his doughy midsection and his bulging eyes, the supermodels he's fixated upon might find him less than physically attractive.

It's a myopia that is, unfortunately, common among men. I'm reminded of this guy I used to know -- soft in the middle, thin on the top -- who was always haranguing his wife about her weight. She dieted and exercised to please him, yet neither of them ever said a thing about his Pillsbury Doughboy figure.


Point being, it's different for men. While there are surely some women as shallow as Hal, women do not, by and large, hold men to as harsh a physical standard as men hold women. I tend to believe there's biology involved in that dichotomy somewhere -- that something in the hard-wiring compels men to obsess on the external. I also tend to believe that, even if true, that doesn't excuse or explain the prism of myopic entitlement through which men tend to view women.

We behave sometimes as if we have a right -- G-d-given and absolute -- to judge women boldly and solely on the basis of their bodies. Indeed, a famous woman's body seems almost to become public property, open for general discussion. The conversations that result sound not unlike ranchers judging horseflesh. Is Calista Flockhart too thin for your taste? Oprah Winfrey too heavy? Pamela Anderson too chesty?

Personality, character, intelligence and humor seldom enter the discussion.

Certainly, we say all the right things -- beauty's only skin deep, yeah, yeah, yeah -- but our attitude belies what we say. Truth is, we are loathe to dig deeper than skin.

Small wonder some women wind up confused, conflicted and even emotionally disturbed about their bodies. It's as if, not being svelte or not being pretty equals not being, at all.

So it's good to see anything -- even a flawed movie -- that raises a mirror to our sense of male prerogative and invites a good, long look.

Because it's not only Hal who's shallow.

Comment on JWR contributor Leonard Pitts, Jr.'s column by clicking here.

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