RIP Elizabeth Taylor: Beauty Icon, Body Image Role Model

We'll miss the star who epitomized Hollywood glamour, but also let us see her flaws

No one ever quite knows what to do about Elizabeth Taylor, the iconic actress who died March 23 at the age of 79. On one hand: She was one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the silver screen. "As cameramen noted, her face was flawlessly symmetrical; she had no bad angle, and her eyes were of the deepest violet," reports Mel Gussow in her official New York Times obituary. Elizabeth Taylor was so beautiful, that critics often wondered whether she was really all that good of an actress underneath that pretty face. As she told Newsweek in 1999: "If you were considered pretty, you might as well have been a waitress trying to act -- you were treated with no respect at all."

On the other hand: Once older, Taylor became the go-to punchline for jokes about formerly beautiful women gaining weight and aging gracelessly. "She has more chins than a Chinese phone book!" quipped Joan Rivers (herself no stranger to jokes about aging actresses) when Liz struggled with binge eating, alcohol and drug addictions. And her double-ex-husband Richard Burton called the notion of his wife as the world's most beautiful woman "absolute nonsense [...] She has a double chin and an overdeveloped chest, and she's rather short in the leg."

Yes, Richard was classy like that.

So was Elizabeth Taylor too beautiful to be also talented? Or just another aging actress with a plastic surgery fixation? I think the answer is neither.

Taylor was so naturally, stunningly beautiful that for much of her career, it would have been easy to coast on her looks. Instead, she gained 20 pounds and an Oscar for her harrowing performance in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" It was Hollywood, the media, and movie-goers everywhere who collectively decided to focus on her beauty and her tumultuous love life instead of her talent -- just like today, we pay more attention to Christina Hendricks' curves than her nuanced performance on "Mad Men." 

And when Taylor started aging and gaining, it was the rest of us who couldn't handle it. Rather than expanding our definition of beauty to include an older, curvier Liz, we turned her into a caricature of herself. Okay, yes, the woman had seven husbands and wore bling the size of small woodland creatures but she also spoke openly about her battles with weight and addiction, even chronicling them in her book, "Elizabeth Takes Off: On Weight Gain, Weight Loss, Self-Image, and Self-Esteem.

So I appreciate how straightforward Taylor was, both about the challenge of earning respect in spite of her beauty -- and her struggle to maintain that beauty that the world so clearly expected of her. Because if us normal women feel pressured to live up to unrealistic beauty expectations, imagine how tough it is to be the bar by which those beauty standards are measured and then, not be able to live up to yourself? 

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