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.