I had a heart-to-heart about body image with Amy Schumer
Amy Schumer looks at herself in the mirror. She is nearly naked, save her bra and the nude Spanx she has on to flatten her belly. As she stares at her reflection, her eyes begin to fill with tears. She doesn’t say anything, but what she is thinking is very clear: “I’m disgusting. I hate the way I look. Who could ever love me?”
Although this describes a moment in Schumer’s new movie, “I Feel Pretty,” it’s a scene we all know — facing your mirror image, completely devoid of confidence and overwhelmed by a crippling self-hatred.
I know it, anyway. I know it so well that lately, as I head through my early thirties, I avoid looking at my reflection at all — in elevator mirrors, glossy windows — except for when I’m applying makeup to cover my flaws. It’s not easy to admit that. I know, for a fact, that I am not an ogre and that I possess many qualities more valuable than my looks. I am a successful journalist who recently managed to write a New York Times best-selling book and keep my dog, Riggins, alive and thriving.
And yet, I still worry that when people look at me, all they see is my double chin.
This is part of why I’ve felt connected to Schumer ever since I met her in 2015 when she was promoting her first movie, “Trainwreck.” Here was a woman whose body looked a lot like mine, and she was starring as a romantic lead in a major studio comedy. Everyone in town couldn’t stop talking about how funny and smart she was. Her double chin hadn’t stopped her from anything.
Since then, our relationship has evolved into something more of a friendship than a traditional interviewer/celebrity rapport. I wasn’t, like, chilling with her and J-Law at her recent wedding or anything, but we message a lot, and she wrote a really nice blurb for my book, which is about “The Bachelor.”
Which is why when I wound up at the fancy house where she was staying in Beverly Hills, our conversation about “I Feel Pretty” became less of an interview and more of a heart-to-heart.
When I walked in, Schumer’s husband, chef Chris Fischer, had just finished cooking lunch so she was eating a very professional-looking plate of sea bass and Brussels sprouts while wearing sweatpants. Her dog, Tati — named after the actress Tatiana Maslany — was staring at her longingly, hoping for a spare piece of fish.
There were a couple of stylists wandering around, unloading heels and dresses for the “I Feel Pretty” press tour, so she suggested we move to the backyard to talk. I told her I wanted us to candidly discuss body image, as well as the backlash to the new movie.
When the first trailer for the film was released this spring, it made a lot of people mad. In the movie, Schumer plays Renee, a thirtysomething with low self-esteem who yearns to be what she describes as “undeniably pretty.” One day, during a SoulCycle class, she falls off her bike and hits her head, and when she comes to, it appears her wish has been granted: She looks in the mirror and sees everything she’s always dreamed of.
On Twitter, critics argued that the premise was tone deaf. Schumer is “blonde, white, able-bodied, femme and yes, thin … society’s beauty ideal,” so how are those even further outside of traditional beauty norms supposed to feel about themselves if Schumer is considered ugly?
But while Schumer doesn’t think it’s fair to “say who you do and don’t think should be insecure,” she understands why the story makes some people uncomfortable.
“I don’t know that the country really has an appetite to hear the story of a white, blonde woman with a belly,” she admitted. “I get it. I personally feel woken up about inequality for women and people of color in a way I didn’t before seeing ‘Get Out’ and ‘Hamilton’ and ‘Atlanta’ — and all these police shootings and the election. I thought things had gotten better. But I had no idea. I just grew up thinking everybody was equal, and that’s not enough. I need to do something, otherwise I’m just part of the problem.”
But she also thinks the message behind “I Feel Pretty” is important. She wants women to feel “empowered to live up to their full potential” — to not be held back by the fear of being perceived as fat or ugly.
Which, are, in fact, things she says she’s been called since the moment she entered Hollywood. After watching the trailer for “Trainwreck,” one award season blogger argued that there was “no way she’d be an object of heated romantic interest in the real world” given her “wide facial features” that made her look like a “blonde Lou Costello.”
“She’s not grade-A or even B-plus material, certainly by my standards as well as those of any moderately attractive, fair-minded youngish heterosexual dude who’s feeling hormonal or what-have-you,” argued this blogger, who was instantly ridiculed for his post.
The backlash he faced made it seem as if he were just a lone voice in the crowd — an older white dude hung up on antiquated standards of attractiveness. But in her comedy, Schumer has made it clear that this is, in fact, the way in which many people see her. In her 2015 stand-up special, “Live at the Apollo,” she joked that her arms “register as legs” in Los Angeles, and her “legs register as firewood.” At auditions, she kidded, she was asked if she was “reading for the girl getting gastric bypass.”
“I don’t know if you guys noticed, but I am what Hollywood calls ‘very fat,’” she said two years later in “The Leather Special.” “They photographed me once, and this was the headline: ‘Schumer buys pastry so she can work out.’ Kind of mean, right? No, they hit the nail right on the [expletive] head. That’s what I do to work out. Before I work out, I go buy a scone, and then I slowly walk around a reservoir, and I eat it. My workouts are like a woman in hospice. Just, like, nibbling on a baked good, looking at the trees and the birds.”
I asked Schumer what her aim was in saying such mean things about herself, even in jest. She said she’d grown up watching female comedians like Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller — women she thought were beautiful — make cruel jokes about their appearance, and that “worked.”
But these were also the kind of things Schumer has heard herself since she was a girl. In sixth grade, she bought an outfit at the Gap she really liked: A ribbed maroon top and tight black pants. When she walked into school, a boy looked at her and exclaimed: “Whoa, Big Bertha!”
“It just robbed me,” she remembered. “It just set me back. And then, instead of crying, I would just fire back and make a joke myself. It was like training for a roast.”
She regained her confidence in high school, finding self-worth as an athlete on the volleyball team. But when she entered college at Towson University in Maryland, she felt like she was back at square one — judged solely based on her looks again.
“I’d never get hit on at bars — I was just invisible,” she recalled, echoing an experience that has also been my own. “One hundred percent of the guys I’ve dated have been because I was the aggressor. I’ve always been with guys that I was friends with — guys who knew me for a while who would then become attracted to me.”
On one episode of her Comedy Central series, “Inside Amy Schumer,” she had a matchmaker set her up. She was told she was going out with a great guy — a musician who was also a public defender.
“And I think I met him and he was wearing denim and a leather vest and he was very old and he had a toupee and he also sucked,” she said. “And he told me that the matchmaker said, ‘Well, look, she’s no model.’”
At one point, Schumer felt so bad about her appearance that she even attempted to get an eating disorder — a journey she said lasted all of two hours, when she realized she couldn’t stand being hungry. She really hates being hungry. When she shot “Trainwreck,” she decided to go on a diet, per the studio’s suggestion. (“They really made it my idea, like, ‘This isn’t “Girls.” This is a movie. I think you’ll feel great if you prepare for it.’”) She got down to a size 4, and when the movie came out, she was “still being trolled for being heavy.”
“So I just decided, ‘Oh, cool. Well, then, I’m not gonna play this game at all,’” she said. “It’s not worth it to me to live this life where I have to be really hungry.”
And in a weird way, the trolling freed her, too.
“In boxing, you know how you’re scared of getting punched and then you get punched and you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m OK?’” she asked, and I nodded my head, even though I had no idea. “I’ve been told I’m fat. I’m ugly. I’ve seen memes of me being the grossest woman in the world — me as Jabba the Hut. The fear is gone.”
She also started going to therapy and began focusing on the things she was grateful for. Her dad has suffered from multiple sclerosis for years, and seeing his physical limitations made her appreciate the use of her legs. She changed her diet a bit, still “eating crap” sometimes but balancing it out with nourishing food that energizes her. And she let herself have fun: drinking, smoking pot, and relaxing.
“I just decided to believe my own hype,” she explained. “If you think of the things you would say to your friends when they’re having a bad day — why don’t you let yourself take care of yourself like that? I understand that that’s really scary and makes you feel really vulnerable. But, like, Obama’s ‘The Audacity of Hope,’ how about the audacity of loving yourself? Seriously, let yourself do it for 30 seconds. It’s all in our heads.
It is, Ame, I’m telling you.”
I shook my head.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “But it’s just hard for me to truly believe that if I had confidence that the world — and the dating pool — would magically open up to me.”
“I wouldn’t make this if I thought it was bull,” she replied. “And again, someone would look at you and say ‘[Screw] you.’ You happen to be gorgeous, but that’s not the point.”
“Also, ‘The Bachelor’ gets to you,” she continued. “It gets to me. I’m so fired up watching that show. The girls on there — you can’t have three black people with the same body as the white people and say ‘we [are diverse].’ That show glorifies [a specific body type]. I love that show, and I’ll watch it to my death, but I think it’s really bad for women.”
In “I Feel Pretty,” Schumer wanted to be sure she showed her body on screen the way it truly is. There’s one scene in which her character — post head-bump — decides to compete in a bikini contest alongside a half dozen statuesque women who are stick thin.
“In post, they asked me if I wanted to retouch anything, and I was like, ‘What? No,’” she said. “I love it. I think I look sexy and strong.”
A few months after shooting that scene last summer, Schumer met her husband. (They wed on Feb. 13.) She was the heaviest she’d ever been — about 15 more pounds than she weighs now. At first, there was no spark. He was just the brother of her assistant, whom Schumer had hired to cook for her family on a vacation. During the trip, she had a bad reaction to an antibiotic and got sick while she was out for a walk.
“I came back to the house and told everyone I’d had to stop to [defecate] in the woods,” she said with a laugh. “And there he was, cooking. We really got to know each other as people, and then when we became interested in each other, it was like, ‘Cool, you’ve seen me at my physical worst.’”
“But, Ame, everything aside, I know you’re gonna find your person,” she said, unprompted. “And I can’t wait to read your writing after that. And I can’t wait to talk to you after that.”
We hugged and I walked back to my car, feeling awkward that an interview with Amy Schumer ended up turning into an inspirational pep talk. That night, I emailed her some follow-up questions. She responded, sent me a photo of some pasta without any explanation and this James Baldwin quote:
“In order to survive this, you have to really dig down into yourself and re-create yourself, really, according to no image which yet exists in America. You have to impose, in fact — this may sound very strange — you have to decide who you are, and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.”
Follow me on Twitter @AmyKinLA
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