The Perfection Trap

07.02.14

Face It—We Rubes Will Never Live Like Gwyneth and Jennifer Aniston

No matter how often we mock them, we can’t help but try to live like A-list celebrities—we want Jennifer’s perfect body, Angelina’s perfect family, and Heidi's effortless cool.

I’ll always remember the episode of Friends when Jennifer Aniston went from cute-enough girl next door to oh-my-God-I-want-her-body hot. The very scene, in fact.

I barely remember my first kiss. I have no memory of receiving my first paycheck. But Jennifer Aniston’s sculpted arms? They seared themselves into my brain.

It was the season after the London wedding that wasn’t, when Rachel realized she still loved Ross. During the episode in question (“The One with All the Kissing”), Rachel put Monica in charge of all her decisions. In this particular scene, the friends were in the hallway, fighting over whether Rachel should admit her feelings to Ross. She was wearing a strapless, pale yellow dress with embroidered flowers. It wrapped around her like a sausage casing, barely leaving room to breathe. Jennifer’s was a body that the treadmill and Zone Diet built. It said: “I’ve overhauled my body and I look damn good. I worked for these toned arms, this ripped back, these hot legs, and I’m going to flaunt them.”

Every time I see that scene (fairly often, thanks to constant reruns) my gaze shifts to my own arms. Why can’t you be more like hers?

Yes, I speak to my biceps.

Perhaps I sound more like the men who worship at the Aniston altar, the ones who voted her “Sexiest Woman of All Time” in Men's Health and named her GQ’s inaugural Woman of the Year, than a straight female who considers Taylor Kitsch circa Friday Night Lights the pinnacle of sexy. But as women, we seem to check out our own kind more than men do. We’re constantly, and certainly to our detriment, comparing ourselves to the bodies in magazines or on TV, at the gym, even in the office.

And if there’s anyone we compare ourselves to most, it’s Ms. Aniston. According to the 2012 Hollywood’s Hottest Looks survey, an annual poll conducted by two L.A. plastic surgeons, Jennifer’s body is America’s most coveted. A 2011 Fitness poll found the same thing—34 percent of respondents said Jen’s was the body they most wanted for themselves. In her 20 years in the spotlight, Jennifer has gone from 25-year-old cute and lovable Friend to 45-year-old sex symbol. She was a bit rounder when she first appeared on screen, her hair slightly less shiny; but over the next decade, she went from TV newbie to capital S mega-Star—the namesake of a haircut (sure, it was named for her character, but those layers framed Jennifer’s face), the wife of Brad Pitt (and then, of course, not anymore), and the magazine cover girl guaranteed to fly off the shelves.

This before-our-very-eyes evolution made Jennifer the pinnacle of Everywoman’s affections. Her glow, that aura of The Life, feels—almost—for just a split second, attainable. Because we know she was once a tad more regular, and she feels like an old friend, and we watched her become who she is today. In that one yellow-embroidered-dress moment, she went from regular to luminary, and America’s obsession kicked in.

If she could do it, maybe we could, too.

“While these celebrities should be a source of inspiration, they often become a point of comparison instead.”

I saw Jen once. It was 2006, and she was arriving for an appearance on The Late Show. I worked in New York City at the time, across the street from David Letterman’s studio. My coworkers used to run downstairs to stand on 53rd Street and watch celebrities arrive. We wouldn’t go for just anyone, of course. We were New Yorkers, thankyouverymuch, not tourists—too good, we thought, to stand outside for a mere Kirsten Dunst or Toby Maguire. My friend once stayed late to see Tom Cruise pull up. Not me. I waited along the security gate for one person and one person only: Jennifer. She wore a black button-down shirt and black mini-shorts and heels. She had some serious legs, a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by me or by Dave. Before he even said hello on that night’s episode, he told her: “You have tremendous legs. Fantastic legs.”

In the decade since Friends went off the air, Jennifer’s status has only gotten greater. “When Aniston transitioned to Movie Star, those TV eyeballs came with her,” writes journalist Mickey Rapkin in a 2011 Elle profile. “Her body, a potent advertisement for the dual cocktail of Pilates and hard-earned confidence, quickly became the ideal for American women everywhere.”

And if she isn’t your ideal, some other celebrity probably is. Last week I heard a woman tell a friend that she fired her trainer because he was making her lift too many weights. “I said I wanted to be Eva Longoria,” she said. “Does Eva Longoria have bulky arms?”

We want Eva’s arms. Jennifer’s legs. The Affleck-Garner marriage. Sarah Jessica’s style. And it’d be great if we could cook and master cleanse like Gwyneth, herd our six (six!) kids through the airport like Angelina, and keep a stellar career afloat like, well, all of them.

Celebrity culture has become an ever-present beast over the past two decades—a twenty-four-hour stalk-fest that enables me to click through an eighteen-photo slideshow of Reese Witherspoon’s body evolution, complete with a “Zoom In” feature—so it’s hard not to be consumed with achieving celeb levels of perfection. Or supposed perfection.

Here’s the reality: My life, while far from perfect, is good. Great, even. I’m healthy. I have a husband I love dearly who loves me back. Wonderful friends. A supportive family who, aside from the occasional nagging phone call, doesn’t drive me too crazy. I’ve got a steady career that allows me to be my own boss and work from a coffee shop around the corner.

And yet, when I spot a picture of Heidi Klum walking down the street with daughter in one hand, Marc Jacobs bag in the other, and summer scarf tied in that effortlessly cool what-this-old-thing? manner, my first thought is this: “Rachel, get your act together.”

I’ve gained seventeen pounds since I got married three years ago. My house is constantly a mess and no matter how many times I clean my room and say “This time for good!” it’s messy within hours. I haven’t woken up with my alarm in approximately nine months and I think I might actually have a disabling television addiction. I spend the majority of my days dressed in some combination of pajamas and exercise clothes, which are more often than not interchangeable.

I’m not exactly the picture of perfection.
 Wait, what’s that? Nobody’s perfect, you say?
 But what about Jennifer? 
I kid, I kid. Sort of. I understand that even the Goddess Aniston doesn’t exactly have it made. There was the whole Brad-and-Angelina thing, after all. And Heidi Klum nursed a pretty public divorce under that winning smile and effortlessly cool scarf. They’ve certainly had hard times. And yet these A-listers seem to have that “strength in adversity” image down cold. It’s as if that $265 Crème de la Mer face cream actually equips them to weather a storm more resolutely than the rest of us. When I have a truly bad day, I cry in public, often to the awkward discomfort of the Chicago El passengers around me. When Heidi Klum has a rough month, when her iron-clad marriage falls apart for the world to see, she simply muses to the media, “Sometimes I think a curve-ball just comes at you…With my life, my family, my business— I want to go forward.”

Perhaps there is actual wisdom infused in those jars of moisturizer.

Here’s the thing about celebrities: It doesn’t matter to us if their personal lives are perfect or not. No one actually expects to go through life without a couple of bumps and bruises. But aside from the Lindsay Lohans of the world, who seem to ping-pong between rehab and jail, our A-listers hide their troubles so well. They might lose a loved one, or a job, and you’ll see those trials in the headlines, but never on their faces. No matter what’s going on behind the scenes (and how are we Average Janes to know what happens behind closed doors?) they still embody that image of perfection.

And we still want to be just like them.

Because as life gets more hectic and schedules get crazier, these are the people who seem to have it all together. Even when they’re Just Like Us, pushing grocery carts or kids on swings, they have the glow of those who’ve got life figured out. And that’s all us regular folk want. To have it under control. To appear perfect, if not actually be perfect.

Or maybe we’ve become so inundated with the images of outward perfection—photo spreads of Eva Longoria’s shoe-lined closets, the impeccably dressed Beckham clan—that People readers everywhere think we’re dropping the ball.

It’s a chicken-or-the-egg issue. Do we obsess over celebrities because we want to be perfect? Or do we want to be perfect because we obsess over celebrities?

There’s no way to be sure. Recent research has shown perfectionism to be an issue of genetics. One study found that identical twins are more similar than fraternal twins in terms of how much they idolize celebrity bodies, which would make this tendency more nature than nurture. But it can’t all be hereditary, unless every woman I know—and plenty of men—shares this same gene. And perfectionism comes in degrees. Mine, I think, is fairly mild, and seems to emerge only when I’m comparing myself with other people. I don’t need to make my bed with hospital corners (or at all), and I’m willing to be seen in public wearing a slightly wrinkled shirt. It’s only when I see images of those who I deem “better” that I start to feel inadequate, as if I should really be a much-improved version of myself.

Other research finds that celebrities don’t necessarily promote perfectionism, but instead help people build their own self-images. We create imagined relationships with stars to form the blueprint of who we want to be. Take Zara, a participant in a University of Arkansas, Fayetteville study on these relationships. According to the researchers: “Zara labeled different aspects of herself as ‘goofball,’ ‘wanting to study,’ ‘positive,’ and ‘old-fashioned,’ and she relied upon different celebrities—singer and X Factor judge Nicole Scherzinger (goofball); Emma Watson, ‘Hermione’ in the Harry Potter films (wanting to study); Victoria’s Secret model Miranda Kerr (positive self); and Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge (old-fashioned)—to execute and move between these various identities.”

I do the same thing, and while these celebrities should be a source of inspiration, they often become a point of comparison instead. Once I’ve connected a part of my identity with a celebrity, I can’t help but hold myself to that standard. You can label yourself as “positive like Miranda Kerr,” but once you decide you must be as positive as Miranda Kerr, or as proper as Kate Middleton, you’re demanding a lot.

The root of our perfectionism—the chicken or the egg—is hardly the point. These days, perfection and celebrity go hand in hand, whether we’re talking about Jennifer or Martha Stewart or anyone in between. Magazines, twenty-four-hour entertainment channels, blogs, even the A-listers themselves, thrive on the celeb-perfection connection. Every day, pop culture sells us on the idea that both roads lead to happiness.

If I’m perfect, or at least more perfect, and if I live like the rich and famous, maybe I’ll have complete life satisfaction.

Our rational sides reject this notion, but deep down we wonder. And we try our best to be a little bit more fabulous, just in case.

Or, at least, I certainly do.

From the Book JENNIFER, GWYNETH & ME by Rachel Bertsche.  Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Rachel Bertsche Levine.