A Night at the Movies, Part II: The Female Body On and Off Screen

The day after watching Cinderella (A Night at the Movies, Part I),  I went to see another film.  The Clouds of Sils Maria stars Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloë Grace Moretz. This wasn’t a film I particularly enjoyed in terms of plot, but the acting by all three women is wonderful work. (For a review from someone who did like the flick, click here.)

I especially couldn’t stop watching Binoche. Not only because her performances are always a master class in acting but it was so refreshing to see a female movie star past ingénue age looking so comfortable baring her body on the big screen. That’s not a sight one gets to witness often, especially in American cinema.

CG Cinéma/Pallas Film/CAB Productions/Vortex Sutra Arte France Cinéma/Orange Studio/Radio Télévision Suisse http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2452254/

CG Cinéma/Pallas Film/CAB Productions/Vortex Sutra
Arte France Cinéma/Orange Studio/Radio Télévision Suisse

Binoche didn’t look like she’d toned up at the gym first before letting us see her naked in all her 51-year-old softness.I doubt she was any less beautiful or sensual than if she’d been all muscle.

There is a much needed healing of an old wound that happens when I see images of women that are more expansive than the limited ideas of beauty that I grew up with and surround me still—just like it feels like a balm for me when I see people of color playing significant parts on the big screen or as lead characters in literature. But it wasn’t just how Binoche looked. As I said, she would have been just as beautiful if she’d been all sculpted too. It was more that I felt coming from her body a sense of pleasure and shamelessness in fully inhabiting her own skin… much the way she fully embodies the parts she plays.

I used to think that I was at my best-looking, sexiest self when I managed to get my stomach to go flatter or the number on the scale went down. People’s reactions to me would affirm that—“You look so good! You lost weight!”

Lately, I can’t help but think that their responses were not necessarily because of how I looked but more because those were the times when I’d give myself permission to enjoy being in my body. The way I would carry myself, walk into a room, and interact with people changed, reflecting my own pleasure.

In her blog, Londin Angel Winters, the creator of Metaphysical Fitness and the Mindful Sculpt workout series writes, “Confidence, elegance, sexiness, grace, playfulness… these are all energies that any of us can embody in any moment we choose. Nothing needs to change about our bodies except that we need to stop dragging them behind us like forgotten luggage… we “come home” to them and a world of expression and beauty opens up to us immediately.”

There is a lot that has been written, by myself included, about how the unrealistic standards of beauty thrust at us by society, not to mention the barrage of photoshopped images in the media, make it hard to love our bodies or the way we look. But I doubt that these standards and images are going to go away until we make like Gandhi and “be the change that {we} wish to see in the world.”

Several years ago a friend of mine and I talked about starting a belly revolution. We were going to set up a website calling on women, including ourselves, to love the female belly in all its shapes and forms—round, lean, sculpted, stretch marked…. For me, my challenge has always been learning to love my stomach in its natural round shape and not just when its muscles are toned. (The latter has  happened once for six months in 44 years.) Yet the next day, while browsing through a bookstore, I bought a book on how to lose tummy fat.

I called my friend to back out of our new venture. There was no way I could lead any kind of body revolution unless I learned to love my own first. ” I think I’ll just wait until the rest of the world is on board and then join up,” I told her. “Maybe Madonna will start their own belly loving movement!”

There are definitely plenty of reasons to cheer when female celebrities act as role models by refusing to succumb to the pressures imposed by made up standards of female beauty. I too was inspired when, a few weeks ago, both Kelly Clarkson and Pink refused to let negative comments about their weight get them down.  I loved it when singer Janelle Monae told a fan, who had Tweeted that she needed to focus more on being sexy, less on being soulful: “I’m not for male consumption.” 

Yet ultimately, liberating ourselves from culture’s limiting standards is an inside job. I can find inspiration, courage even in others’ examples. But what I do with my body and how I choose to feel in it, show up in it out in the world, is up to me.

49 Comments on “A Night at the Movies, Part II: The Female Body On and Off Screen”

  1. BroadBlogs says:

    Gandhi and “be the change that {we} wish to see in the world.” I agree that we all must be the change we want to see in the world. Thanks for a thought-provoking post, as usual. I’ll have to check out the movie.

  2. alohaleya says:

    Thank you for this very important message, Diahann. Most of us are programmed at a very young age to find fault with our bodies. For me it’s meant total disconnection from my body – unable to feel its sensations and intuitions, convincing myself that I somehow lacked this ability! I’m developing a new relationship with my body (or rather I’m rediscovering what’s always been there), but this is after years of self-hatred and rejection.

    Carrying ourselves with grace, confidence, and elegance is naturally magnetic and radiant, as it reflects our own self-love and compassion. Posts like yours make me very happy that more and more women are coming to this place within – that we can support each other in healing, instead of competing and division. Much love! ❤ Aleya

    • diahannreyes says:

      I agree, It’s so lovely that more and more women are going inward first. It sounds like you are immersed in you own tracking and rediscovery and redeepening of that innate connection are born with but are taught to pull away from.

      I was just thinking the other day about how I am still learning to listen to my gut because I tried for years to make my stomach go flat and disappear… no wonder I disconnected from it!

  3. Jay says:

    …Of course, Gandhi never had to wear skinny jeans, did he?
    Great, thoughtful post. I have a chronic disease that means my body can’t compete with standards of health, let alone beauty. When bedridden, I get heavy. I’m scarred from constant surgeries. But I know I’m a beautiful woman even if you’ll never come across anyone like me in a magazine. I’m still hardest on myself when I compare me to my own former self – a leaner version of me, for example, or clearer skin, or better hair, and certainly younger. But I’m trying to fight those feelings with just being the best that I can be now – happy, first and foremost, because happiness is the shiniest thing on a woman (or man for that matter), I think.

    • diahannreyes says:

      “Happiness is the shiniest thing.” I love that, Jay. And you made me laugh about your Gandhi comment. So true.. LOL. Sounds like you’re embodying your own reflection in the best way possible.

  4. Oh, your message is so much needed, Diahann. I am constantly measuring my sense of “feeling good” about myself by my belly. I’m always telling myself that I’ve got to get it flatter as if having a flat belly will make me more attractive.
    I was happy to read about Binoche exposing her softness on screen.Softness and roundness is very feminine and yet so many women (myself included) tend to fight this.
    Thanks for this enlightening post. This is a post apropos for the title of your blog, isn’t it? 🙂

    • diahannreyes says:

      LOL. Yes :). I love that reminder that softness and rounds are so feminine, Carol.

      It’s also interesting to me that although Binoche became famous at a young age she doesn’t seem to be subjected to the same pressures as actresses in America who were famous as ingenues too.

  5. Katalina4 says:

    “Imagine what we could achieve if we weren’t beholden to society’s unreasonable expectations about how we should look…” 🙂

    • diahannreyes says:

      Well said, Katalina. Yes! All that freed up energy and attention to access and utilize.

      • Katalina4 says:

        Ran into another quote along similar lines today and thought of you –
        “Imagine if every woman on this earth woke up tomorrow without any concept that there was anything wrong with the way her body looked.
        Imagine if every woman and girl woke up tomorrow without any sense of inadequacy or self-judgement, self-loathing, self-abuse.
        Imagine if every single woman and girl woke up tomorrow with their minds and hearts wiped completely clean from the relentless, systematic and mass-cultural attack upon the female body.
        Imagine if all the women in the world woke up with total amnesia with regards to the patriarchal war against female body wisdom and intuitive power.
        Take a moment and feel just how much energy that would release and make available to the universe.
        Can you feel it?”
        – Sophie Bashford

        • diahannreyes says:

          Thanks for sharing, Katalina. (I just went to Sophie’s website. She sounds like a fascinating woman). The thought of a world where all this that she describes were reality- it would be a completely different world. I pray for that if not in our lifetime then sometime soon.

  6. Benn Bell says:

    Nice piece! Clouds of Sils Maria is on my radar.

  7. culbia says:

    “Several years ago a friend of mine and I talked about starting a belly revolution. We were going to set up a website calling on women, including ourselves, to love the female belly in all its shapes and forms—…
    Yet the next day, while browsing through a bookstore, I bought a book on how to lose tummy fat.”

    Haha, I think we can all relate to that, even women`s magazines. ON one page they invite us to embrace our curves, and on the next they`ve designed a 3-day-diet plan…

    • diahannreyes says:

      The conflicting messages we get as women are definitely all over the place for sure! To paraphrase Katalina who commented above, they serve to keep us busy trying to “fix” ourselves rather than using our creative energy for better uses.

  8. SirenaTales says:

    Diahann, Your insightful post, and especially your observations of one of my idols, Juliette Binoche, reminds me of some fabulous advice I received years ago from a dance mentor who was talking about performance: “Integrity reads.” So true.

    But integrity reads far beyond the stage, as we all know, and as your quoted blogger Londin Angel Winters so eloquently describes. We can sense when someone, e.g. a woman, is “in a state of being whole, of being undivided….” How cool if we can just commit to our bodies and fully “embody” them, we not only feel better and more powerful, but also we exude the allure, elegance, grace- we (I :)) sometimes foolishly trick myself into believing that belly flatness, etc. will provide.

    Ironically, I find it’s a harder row to hoe than mere crunches and core work, as important as those can be for healthfulness, this cultivating integrity and wholeness. Maybe that’s why I so admire Binoche and those like her: They have done the deeper work and are living the rewards of cultivating true beauty of the self. As always, thank YOU, my beautiful friend for digging deeper and inspiring me to do the same. xxo

    • diahannreyes says:

      Your thoughts Chloe, make me think about my acting teacher’s words in that authenticity and aliveness are unmistakeable and the audience sees right through when that isn’t there. I also love the reminder that there is more to embodiment than just loving how our bodies look and feel. That deeper work and bringing it fully into filling the flesh- that’s the totality of beauty right there.

  9. livelytwist says:

    There’s definitely something to be said about the woman who loves her, her body and is comfortable in her own skin. She’s it! Thanks for reminding us that no matter our body shape, that is what we need to reach for.

  10. Jean says:

    Or be like me: I seem to watch a new movie/any movie 1-2 times yr. I don’t have a tv. I flip through fashion magazines at the store rack for a few min. But don’t buy them. And haven’t for …last decade. I like seeing fashion for artistic trends.

    I have to pay off a home mortgage so that prevents me from wanting to browse fashion clothing racks and follow latest trends, imagery.

    So really I am truly a Luddite in terms of what is latest media hot craze for women’s bodies.

    If you remove yourself from all that media influence, believe me, it is more peaceful existence concerning body, beauty and fashion. You just don’t care much at all. Other things in life come to prominence: health, fitness, mobility and living each day well.

    • diahannreyes says:

      Love that you don’t consume the “junk” out there- creating your own world for what you will let in and not. And also that health fitness.. etc become the focus. That’s a great teaching, Jean. Thank you.

    • I think you look great, Jean. And you’re certainly more fit and agile than many of your peers.


      • Jean says:

        Generous of you holistic wayfarer. I allow 1-2 sweaty photos and helmet hair of myself via blog.

        It helps I’m with a guy who is seriously allergic to makeup and any time of fragrance (even the lifestyle home air fresheners). He gets a headache within a few min. An indoor greenhouse with flowers and plants is not a good place because smells and natural (good) moulds in the ground.

        Lovely scented lotions….well, I must be careful a use very little or use it, then air bathroom.

  11. reocochran says:

    I am one who likes depth in my movies, but on the other hand, loves laughter and lightness. I am glad there are women who are older in movies, also ones who don’t mind being a little rounder or softer. This was a great post and you got some wonderful reactions, too, Diahann! We need to love ourselves, seems to need to be a ‘mantra’ we will chant together!! Smiles, Robin

    • diahannreyes says:

      Yes. A mantra of empowerment for sure, Robin!

      • reocochran says:

        🙂 and hugs to you, dear!

      • reocochran says:

        I like “Chocolat,” (Johnny Depp, Juliette Binoche and Lena Olin) “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” (Lena Olin, Juliette Binoche, Jeremy Irons) and “The English Patient (Juliette Binoche, Ralph Fiennes).” All of these were sexy to me and I was surprised they have overlapping actors and actresses. I did not look up this movie but really want to see it now, Diahann. I named my favorite sensuous movies and then there was Juliette Binoche. In the 2nd one, Lena Olin shows her curves. 🙂

        • diahannreyes says:

          I love that you point that out- they definitely seem to be very much in their bodies, these two women… interesting that they are European…which I think speaks a lot to culture. Women in Europe it strikes me don’t have as much pressure to stay young or skinny or whatever- at least from what I’ve heard.

  12. ledrakenoir says:

    Makes me think of that often so talented actors have “raised” a ‘bad’ script – simply because of their abilities – this we see in real life too, some have been able to lift situations over expected levels – so we have to think, never give up… 🙂

  13. vnp1210 says:

    I struggle with this a lot. There’s a balance between loving ones body as is vs knowing when you’re underweight and knowing when you’re overweight. I always worry about the implications on my health when I carry extra pounds around. Abdominal fat is the worst kind, hormonally and medically speaking. And that’s where I’ve put on the most in the past few years it seems! Yes I think we need to see better portrayals of women’s bodies in the media, but importantly we need to know if these bodies are healthy or not. That girl with a BMI of 18 may look too ton but has a really active and healthy lifestyle. That girl who might fit the “overweight” category at first glance may also be leading a similar lifestyle. Or either one could be scarfing down McD’s every day. These nuances are important to know and remember.

    • diahannreyes says:

      Yes for sure. It’s not so much about the weight or the shape when it comes to health. I’ve weighed a certain weight and been super healthy at one point, and unhealthy at another point with nothing looking different on the surface. At the end of the day it’s about finding that personal balance.

  14. You describe Binoche beautifully. =) Really important, how you caught on to the way she inhabited her skin the way she did her role. This ties in to living the moment, too – rather than focusing on some ideal image of ourself (in an alternate universe). This is what I am NOW. And I’m living it.

    • diahannreyes says:

      Yes, D. Fully filling in our form and being in our bodies – “embodied” – and inside job and not about trying to imitate some made up idea outside of ourselves.

  15. Also, it seems that women are harder on each other about what makes their bodies ‘beautiful’ than men are (to women). Men aren’t the ones asking a woman to have a ‘perfect’ body – women are! I cringe when a friend of mine (who is about 10 pounds too thin) complains about the fat on her belly. She’s over 50, attractive, and active. Yet she thinks she has too much of a belly. Come on, women, get real! And stop blaming others for your poor self-image – look in the mirror and LIKE yourself. That’s a good start…

    • diahannreyes says:

      Women have definitely internalized and taken out on each other that pressure to meet some made up ideal. Love the call for personal accountability! No reflection is going to make us feel good unless we learn to feel good.

  16. Alice says:

    This post — together with the preceding one — made me think about Witches of East End, a tv series (adapted from a book) on the Lifetime channel. It’s got plenty of cheesy, Lifetime-style soap opera elements, no doubt. But it also has as headlines actresses Julia Ormond and Mädchen Amick, who both play characters that are powerful, delightful, sensual, flawed, loving, and dangerous. Occasionally nude, too, and engaging in all the love affairs and one-night-stands one might expect from Lifetime — but not from roles given to two women who are 50 and 44 years old, respectively. As with you and Binoche, I can’t get enough of watching them.

    • diahannreyes says:

      I’ve never heard of this show and I now must check it out right away, Alice! I have esp. fallen in love with Ormond’s work in Mad Men and was impressed by her willingness to play the mother of an adult woman in the show even as a lot of her male peers- Brad Pitt, etc. continue to remain cultural hearthrobs. She did wonderful work and I can totally see her filling out a part like the one you described as well. Not familiar with Amick but look forward to finding out more.

  17. Lisa says:

    Strong post as usual, Diahann! I, too, am always grateful, relieved, and validated when I see women on screen who inhabit their un-enhanced, real bodies with confidence and calm. Kate Winslet in IRIS comes to mind.
    There’s an agonizing scene in THE MAGDALENE SISTERS in which the young female characters are lined up and made to jog in place, nude, in front of their vicious “caretakers.” Every one of the actresses is wildly talented, and had not been “nipped & tucked” for the film–and while the scene is painful because of the cruelty and humiliation to which the young women are subjected, I’ll always be grateful to those actresses for their courage, talent, and skill, AND for reminding me that the average person doesn’t have an Olympian’s shape and symmetry, and isn’t “supposed” to.
    We’re here to create, connect, share–not destroy, imo.

    • diahannreyes says:

      Yes, Kate! She’s another one. I don’t remember the scene in Magdalene (I wasn’t as aware of this stuff back then)> And so agree, as an actress esp. with all the scrutiny, that took guts and commitment to telling the story. Your thoughts Lisa affrm to me that the female body when witnessed can be so potent with what it transmits- it’s just through the lens of objectification that all that gets distorted and missed.

  18. I identified with so much of what you wrote here–especially the part about resolving to love your belly and then the next day buying a book about how to lose belly fat. That sounds just like me. 😉 It’s such a battle to be cognizant of all these oppressive pressures we face, and yet at the same time that awareness can’t prevent us from internalizing them.

    • diahannreyes says:

      Hi Jenn, just realized that I never responded to this. I agree- I feel like I’m constantly trying to find that balance and the same time not beat myself up for doing counter to what I’d like- at least I’m making the choice rather than just reacting unconsciously and I think that counts for something.

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