I Feel Pretty, the third cinematic project featuring Comedy Central star Amy Schumer, presents a philosophy about the power of confidence that is both deeply concerning and unoriginal: Confidence is something to be bought.
Following the life of Schumer’s Renee Bennett, an online editor for fictional magazine and beauty business LeClaire, viewers are invited to slip on the woes of a woman who perpetually craves “better” and “thinner.” We watch Renee religiously subscribe to a culture of fashion, spin classes, and hair tutorials. After a traumatic fall from her SoulCycle bike, she wakes up believing she has been magically gifted the body she has always wished for.
In a wave of newfound confidence — unaware that she is the only one able to see the change — Renee applies for her dream job at LeClaire, gives an unsuspecting man her number, and ties up her t-shirt to enter a bikini contest. For a moment, it appears Renee has successfully escaped the confines of modern beauty standards, simply by leveraging the power of self-confidence!
But beneath the inspiring revelations of self-determination and Schumer’s raw talent, there is a naïve, and dangerous, undercurrent propping up the film’s pretext of wellness.
Renee empathetically faces some of the purchasing — and therefore, social — obstacles posed by the hierarchy of the beauty industry. When asked for her shoe size by a SoulCycle employee, Renee requests a smaller size but whispers her true fit: a larger, double-wide — a size often associated with plus-size women. Met by a judgmental glance, the woman shouts her needs across the store, unsure if this is even an option. (Noticeably, Renee does not experience the product-purchasing-social limitations facing people of color, nor is this reality included in the film.)
At the beginning of the film, in the privacy of her home, Renee faces a mirror and begins to take off her work clothes. She stops when she gets to her nude bra and SPANX, and turns away from the mirror. In this moment, Renee polices herself in her most vulnerable state. She refuses to face her own reality, let alone see herself as beautiful.
This impulse toward self-policing has deep cultural roots. The 19th-century utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham designed the infamous Panopticon, or prison-like “inspection house,” as a structure ostensibly to foster social wellness and control. The circular building makes each resident feel permanently, consciously visible — whether they are actually being watched or not. Bentham’s preface to Panopticon opens with a list of the benefits to this structure: “Morals reformed – health preserved – industry invigorated. … all by a simple idea in architecture!”
In other words, wellness is a product of power: Individuals become their own watchdog, conforming to society’s perpetual eye.
I Feel Pretty’s parade of products and brands — like SoulCycle, where instructors chant mantras such as, “Change your mind, change your body, change your life” — eerily resonate with Bentham’s mission. While under her beauty veil, Renee is promoted to work on a new LeClaire “diffusion” line dedicated to reaching everyday women who shop at Target. Yet even after a second concussion forces her to discover that she has looked the same the entire time, Renee chooses to defend LeClaire’s new products, declaring that this makeup is “for every girl ready to believe in herself.” The decision presented to women is one of a choice between products, not whether to buy makeup at all. Choosing to believe in yourself — a different version of yourself — is the internal self-policing. Achieving confidence requires purchasing power. Companies make money selling products they tell us are the keys to freedom, when in fact they are the very bricks with which we build our prison. In our conditioning, disguised as discipline or necessity, markets prosper.
“The panopticon is a marvelous machine which, whatever use one may wish to put it to, produces homogenous effects of power,” wrote French philosopher Michel Foucault. Is there an alternative, biblical way to navigate the modern panopticon of society’s self-inflicted but pervasive beauty standards?
As I watched Renee lose grip of her friendships and foundation, I began to consider how I change each time I worry about what I will eat, drink, or wear. What am I gaining, each time I ask, “Do I look good in those pictures? Who will see them? Should I learn to wear makeup? How long can I go without shaving my legs? How do I look in that mirror?” How do I react to the weight of my own internal interrogation?
But then I am gently reminded: Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
As the recipient of childhood taunts and pointed whispers, I want to be supportive of Schumer’s mission to deflate the power of bullies and to encourage young people — young girls, especially — to love themselves. And I, too, want to believe in myself.
And yet — among the relentless fitness classes and beauty product placements, all sold as the vessel that will take you to the land of liberation — this doesn’t seem to be I Feel Pretty’s lasting message. I left the theater wondering how many people believe they can buy their happiness — and if, on some level, I still believe it too.