I’m shallow and materialistic. I admire some movie stars for how they look and how I think that I measure up to them has an effect on me. I thought I’d get that out of the way straight off. I go to the gym and I am careful about my diet, and it’s not just about my health. I’m not immune to the effects of celebrity culture. I wish I were.
I was raised in the 70s when the television celebrity culture was really getting going, and women started turning emulating movie and TV stars into a lifestyle. One of the things I knew I needed to convert away from when I started taking the faith seriously in my mid-thirties was the temptation the world presents to make appearance and material things in general the focus of all my attention. It’s a struggle, and I don’t know what I would do if being on the red carpet at the Emmys were part of my job.
Which is why I like Mayim Bialik, an actress, scientist and mother of two small boys who has rejected Hollywood’s “sexy” standards of red carpet attire while maintaining a strong and anything-but-shy professional media presence.
Mayim Bialik is a bit of an anomaly for Hollywood. Those of a certain age will remember her best as the title character in the teen sit-com “Blossom”. On the wildly popular show she now stars in, The Big Bang Theory, she plays a neurobiologist, Dr. Amy Farrah-Fowler, the awkward and aggressively frumpy smart-girl foil to Dr. Sheldon Cooper’s uber-nerd astrophysicist.
But in real life she clearly is working to use her celebrity to depict a more normal, and accessible, standard of femininity, style and beauty. Publicity photos show her to be living the convictions she’s developing. They depict a nice, normal looking person, pretty in a believable and realistic way, and dressed well and attractively. She says she is “not skinny teeny tiny like most Hollywood women and I don’t want to be”. Indeed, not. She’s the girl we could be, not the screen goddess who makes us despair of ever measuring up.
With a real-life PhD in neuroscience and a book out on “attachment parenting,” Dr. Bialik, who describes herself as “not the most socially smooth person,” breaks many of the molds of Hollywood’s celebrity factory, particularly for one who got her start as a child actress.
Bialik has said in a series of blog posts on the Jewish parenting website Kveller, that she sometimes struggles with the professional culture that surrounds her in the entertainment industry. Describing herself as “fashion challenged,” she has written of the difficulties in finding a dress to wear to the Emmy Awards – she was nominated twice – that was attractive while still abiding by her modesty rules: “long sleeves, no unnatural cleavage, no crazy low open back, nothing above the knee.” She succeeded in the end but it wasn’t easy. In one case a designer sent her something unsuitable and then never got back to her before the event.
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Insisting on being covered to the knee and not showing cleavage, she writes, is “often viewed as ‘dowdy,’ ‘fuddy-duddy,’ or just plain ‘not hip’”. Far from deterred by such condemnations, Bialik wrote she would “consider it a personal achievement to obtain the Emmy gown that she feels will allow her neshama (spirit) to shine through”.
Her quest for modest and beautiful clothes suitable for such events she calls “Operation Hot and Holy”. In this project, Bialik is following, she writes, the Jewish rules of “tznius” that “varies in its interpretation but in general terms, reflects modesty and decorum for men and women alike in dress and demeanor”.
“My dedication to a life of tznius gives me structure, makes me feel protected in a world that often violates, and allows me to have control over who sees what part of me, when, and how.”
In another blog post last week, Bialik wrote that young girls deserve to be “protected” and while they are still small should be encouraged to dress modestly and to adopt standards of behaviour based on their self-worth and dignity as people, not their appearance.
Pictured in her knee-length one-piece bathing suit, Bialik wrote that modesty is about more than avoiding bikinis. It’s also about behaviour, about “being humble, not screaming at people from your car when they cut you off, holding your tongue when you are unjustly insulted rather than retaliating and cursing, not doing what Miley Cyrus did at the VMAs the other night; these are all aspects of tznius.”
In following modest standards, she says, “we leave a lot to the imagination of others in a safe way and we learn to develop aspects of ourselves that are often not encouraged to develop when people are busy looking at our outsides.” And this standard “goes for men as well as women”.
So few people seem to understand the importance of this, of making your life and person about something more important than looks, that it’s always heartening when you see someone from TV-land giving it a try too. Modesty is the starting point for so much more. I don’t think the values at the foundation of the pro-life and family movement can really be fully realised without starting there. The foundation is the respect due to one’s self and others as a human being created in the image of God; essentially the same reason I try to be modest is the reason I think unborn children deserve a shot at life.
I am not going to advocate a particular set of “rules”. I usually eschew arguments over the “X inches below the knee” theories, and it seems clear that these standards are mostly culturally determined. What is modest and feminine in 2013 London would have got one arrested in 1913 when my grandmother was a girl. And what is acceptable in Rome this afternoon would be greeted with stares and disapproving clucks in Toronto the next day. In general, my own “rules” are simple and flexible: “don’t be a frump” and “don’t embarrass your friends”.
The “screen goddess” types, the few I admire in that shallow, materialistic, appearance-only way I mentioned above: the icy Diane Kruger, willowy Uma Thurman in our time; Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly in another, all have a style and sense of self that seems to reflect inner strengths. How far they are from the seedy and nauseating, and ultimately desperate antics of poor Miley Cyrus (she’s going to have kids one day; what on earth is she going to tell them?) or the stratospherically weird awfulness of Lady Gaga.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m never going to hold any Hollywood actress up as a moral arbiter. There’s plenty of places where Mayim and I part ways: she’s a vegan and a supporter of PETA, the anti-human “animal rights” extremists who have called for human embryos to be used in medical research instead of animals. I have no idea what her thoughts are on abortion or gay marriage, and wouldn’t want to ask.
(And I’m very sorry to hear that her marriage has failed and she’s divorced. I wish celebrity culture would leave those kinds of thing alone about famous people. It seems intrusive for the rest of us to know such details, and I’m sure it causes the real people behind the celebrity masks as much pain and confusion as it does the rest of us. Life is rough enough without the whole world watching.)
And if I were ever given a chance to give her some girly-advice, I’d suggest that floor length pillar-dresses don’t really work that well on her. You need those ten-mile legs which, sadly, few of us normal people have. Work with your strengths. She should take advantage of her hourglass figure with natural-waist dresses. But that’s something she can take up with her stylist. From the photos, I’m going to guess she’s showing her best side when she’s dressing herself; the interview and talk-show clothes show an urbane, working-girl, New York sophistication she seems to lose in all those professionally styled “red carpet” pics.
But on the whole, Mayim seems to be remaining herself, which is no easy task in her line of work, and is quite prominently avoiding the slow-motion train-wreck that seems to be the standard outcome from most Hollywood ex-child stars. But mostly it’s encouraging to see that I’m not the only one who struggles to maintain a wall between my real self and the expectations created by these artificial and destructive trends. And I salute her for it, and for making it public.