My Audrey Hepburn Problem

From about age 15 or so, Audrey Hepburn was my idol. I worshiped the iconic film star, watching her movies again and again, poring over books about her life, and searching for images of her online.

I could have done worse. Hepburn was, by most accounts, an extraordinarily lovely person, both inside and out. In Roman Holiday–my favorite Audrey movie–she’s lovely without trying to be, and the beauty and dignity of her character is apparent even as she portrays a very convincing princess in disguise. In her later years, she was a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, having once herself been on the receiving end of emergency food aid as a child in post-WW2 Europe.

Sadly, although I admired Audrey’s humanitarian legacy and reputed grace and kindness, I was most inspired by her thinness. In the days of my Audrey obsession, her brilliant film performances were less important than the visibility of her long, lovely bones in her various stunning Givenchy and Edith Head designs. That her thinness was likely due to an eating disorder rooted in the wartime starvation she suffered as a child did not dissuade me; neither did her struggles with depression and self-loathing (which are demonstrated side effects of starvation.)

No. I saw a thin, beautiful, kind person who didn’t need to eat AND STILL had the energy to save the world. I wanted to be thin, most of all, and then be kind and save all the starving kids with the food I didn’t eat. After all, Audrey herself loved a poem that seemed to make this connection (“for a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.”) When I looked in the mirror, I saw broad shoulders and curves. I berated myself for being unable, like Audrey, to subsist on next to nothing.  ‘That’s the end of me doing anything worthwhile,’ I’d think–’what good can I do if I don’t look like Audrey? Surely that figure was the fount of all her goodness?’

Of course, this sounds crazy now. It didn’t then, partly because I was not incredibly well nourished (needed some brain food!) and partly because the idea that “you are worth something only if you look great” is a message that’s broadcasted endlessly and ubiquitously–especially to girls. Do a little experiment–listen to what people say to girls, even little ones. How many comments do you hear that are related to appearance (whether of clothing, hair, or whatever)? Do the comments that affirm (or simply call attention to) character outnumber the ones doing the same for appearance?

There are all kinds of beauty, and all kinds of ways of doing good in the world. I still like Audrey Hepburn’s movies, and I can enjoy them now without obsessing about the difference between Audrey’s figure and my own, but I still regret Hollywood’s move (beginning, some say, with Audrey) toward ever-increasing unreality in the area of women’s bodies. And so, for years now, I’ve actively looked for female role models who embody beauty that I find compelling and unusual and unrelated to body size, like Wangari Muta Maathai–women I can imagine sitting down to a meal and eating with–with gratitude and goodwill, and no guilt.

Because I want people like this girl to know that she can save the world, be beautiful in every way, and eat a great meal–and maybe all at the same time.

my niece Elli, helping pick an early spring salad

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14 thoughts on “My Audrey Hepburn Problem

  1. Exactly. Thanks for writing so well what so many of us – men and women – find ourselves thinking about our bodies compared to the people and images we see around us.

    Tim

  2. This is a message that is very lovely, but I have too say…you look beautifully thin in all of your pictures. It seems to me that it is somewhat easier to share the epiphany now your figure is closer to Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

    I am not nearly at the place where I want my body to be, which, admittedly, is much thinner. Though I would love to shower this message on every other woman I know, because it is true, but personally…I just can’t buy only this. I cannot be dishonest with myself. I want to be wholesome and wonderful, but I think it will be that condition will be much more fulfilling if I am also thin.

    Also, I very much enjoy your blog.

    • Rip Van Winkle, I understand.

      You know, I STILL sometimes look at myself critically. I occasionally look at pictures of myself and think, “hmn, I wish I was thinner!” Also, I’m very short–just a hair over 5 feet, with quite broad shoulders. So the tall and lanky Audrey Hepburn is STILL very unlike me.

      I think my peace with my body (and yes, by most standards, I’m thin) came not by achieving a certain size or weight (if you look in the FAQ, I do share that my overall weight has changed little–I’ve neither gained nor lost very much–and this is probably more to do with my genetic make up than anything else, since I’ve gorged, starved, overexercised, underexercised, and everything in between) BUT by finding peace and comfort with eating and let my body take care of itself. At the same time, looking to truly beautiful women like Wangari Maathai (who happens to be quite large) helped me beat back the lies that “thin is happy,” “you can never be too thin,” and “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”

      Our culture–and it’s fast becoming a global thing–says that you need to be thin to be happy. Yeah, I’m thin. But it’s not the source of my happiness. I hope that my message of acceptance is not invalid because this is the shape and size I happen to be. Because once upon a time, this same shape and size was a torment to me. What’s changed? Only my perspective, and that slowly and by degrees. And, as I said, there are days when I find myself in the same struggle–thinking that I would be more wholesome and more wonderful if I looked ‘better’–better legs, better teeth, better eyes, better whatever. So on those days, I just try to be kind to my body and myself, and remind myself that my value is not connected to how I look.

      (Maybe it is in the eyes of some, but not of those who love me and certainly, not to God.)

      Peace to you–I’m so glad that you enjoy the blog!

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  9. Thank you for this. I have struggled with my weight for a long time. In high school I was constantly trying to lose weight, always dreaming about coming back from summer vacation looking like a Baywatch lifeguard. Then in college I did lose weight–about 20 pounds–and I did it without really trying. It was great. But now that i’m post college and plateaued in my weight loss I find myself struggling again–just always wanting to lose another 5 lbs. Then I’d be satisfied.

    But I know deep down I wouldn’t be and that there’d always be something else I’d be unhappy with. God is slowly working on my heart, teaching me to eat without guilt, but with respect for my body and the places and people it came from. The more I cook and eat at home, and the more I share with others, the more I”m learning to eat with joy (a phrase I love by the way). This article reminded me again that happiness shouldn’t be based in my body image, but in my identity in Christ.

  10. I am 17 at the moment and I am obsessed with Audrey Hepburn as it seems you were…
    But reading this opened my eyes… I feel the exact same! Do I only admire Audrey for her outer being? I think I do!
    Your article was beautifully written, and I now realise that I need to love myself as much as everyone else! I need to embrace the fact that I don’t have Audrey hepburns body… But realistic women don’t!
    Thank you dearly for writing this as it has helped me a lot! :)

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