When watching TV and film, reading magazines, or choosing toys — most of the time — little girls love to see someone who looks like them.
It’s the reason that, growing up, Mulan was a friend’s favorite Disney princess. (“Who else was there who looked like me?”) It’s the reason another friend makes sure to tell black and bi-racial children she meets how beautiful their natural hair is.
It’s also the reason my mom bought my Kirsten American Girl doll a pair of Molly’s glasses, so she’d look more like me. (But I hated having to wear glasses, so I wasn’t so stoked about that one.)
During my child and teenage years, I was lucky enough to be flooded with images of women who shared my blonde hair, pale skin, and blue eyes. I’d never want to pretend I had it rough in that area — because the media never once told me that my skin, hair, or eyes were even remotely unattractive. I know that’s a huge luxury. I know it’s something not a ton of other humans in our world can say.
But I spend a good deal of my teen and pre-teen years between a size 8 and 12, which, for a 6th grader, is not exactly the size people think you’re supposed to be.
So 15+ years later, when I say that Hilary Duff from Lizzie McGuire was one of the most powerful media figures in my journey towards a more positive self image … I know it seems a bit silly. I’m blonde, she’s blonde, and we’re about the same age. Big deal.
But for me, Hilary Duff in the The Lizzie McGuire Movie was the first time I’d seen anyone on TV who looked like she might wear something at least close to my jean size. Starting midway through elementary school, I spent the better part of a decade hating my stupid chubby legs, and I had no idea why almost all my friends got to have thin, normal-looking legs and I didn’t.
Like a number of other girls at that age, I began to watch what I ate like a hawk, and quickly fell into that familiar cycle: guilt (over eating too much dessert) and powerlessness (feeling too like I lacked the self control to cut back on sweets enough to “fix” my chubby thigh problem).
I was 12. I just wanted to know if I was pretty or not. And you can bet I compared my stupid, ugly legs to every TV and movie character I saw — hoping that at least one of them somewhere could prove to me that it was possible to be beautiful and wear size 10 jeans.
If The Mindy Project had been on in 2000, Mindy Kaling (who has said she’s a size 8) would have been my favorite actress. But on the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, in the Star Wars movies, on Power Rangers — everywhere I turned, most of the women appeared to be a size 2 or smaller.
I was 15 years old when Hilary starred in The Lizzie McGuire Movie. She was 16. At that point, she’d been starring as Lizzie on TV for three years, and had been a Hollywood actress since age 10. Lizzie McGuire was one the most popular shows for kids/teens, and Hilary was pretty much Disney Channel royalty. (I mean, she’d dated Aaron Carter. How much more popular could a person get?)
But there was something different about Hilary in The Lizzie McGuire Movie than in her TV show. Her jeans didn’t look like they were size 2. She wasn’t overweight … by any stretch of the imagination, but she did appear to weigh slightly more than before.
I could barely believe it. One of the most popular, sweet, beautiful, and famous teenagers in Hollywood was wearing pants larger than a size 2. It’s the first time — and one of the only times — growing up that I remember seeing a bone fide star whose jean size looked like mine, and who was still clearly considered beautiful.
This next part, it feels like most people seem to have forgotten about, but 2005 Hilary Duff looked very different from 2003 Hilary. I’m not going to guess her jean size — and I’m definitely not going to repeat her weight. She’s said it, you can Google it if you really want to, but when actresses suddenly lose significant amounts of weight, I think that tossing around specific numbers is one of the most harmful things you can do.
Every person’s body is different, and any weight — 120 pounds, for example — will look completely different on someone who is 5’2″ than someone who is 5’8′. As a teenager with poor body image, hearing different specific numbers for ideal or unacceptable weights tossed was one of the most subjective and harmful factors in my body image journey. Trying to figure out — and achieve — a specific number on the scale might be built on an inherently false premise, but it is also incredibly addicting.
All that to say, for a few years, Hilary appeared significantly underweight: her face shaped was completely different, her eyes sunken, her appearance noticeably gaunt. I get that it’s Hollywood. I understand that there are all sorts of pressures to look like a human Barbie, and that people expect you to do whatever necessary to maintain that waiflike frame.
But that’s why, when the internet freaked out a few months ago about how Hilary was “thick” now — some people were nicer about it than others — I felt like she was, once again, living out my journey with body image (in her own glamorous parallel universe).
She recently wrote on Instagram, “I am posting this on behalf of young girls, women, and mothers of all ages. I’m enjoying a vacation with my son after a long season of shooting and being away from him for weeks at a time over those months. Since websites and magazines love to share ‘celeb flaws’ – well I have them! My body has given me the greatest gift of my life: Luca, 5 years ago. I’m turning 30 in September and my body is healthy and gets me where I need to go. Ladies, lets be proud of what we’ve got and stop wasting precious time in the day wishing we were different, better, and unflawed. You guys (you know who you are!) already know how to ruin a good time, and now you are body shamers as well.”
2017 Hilary Duff is not overweight. Not even close. But she is one of relatively few women in Hollywood whose body looks slightly closer to that of an average American woman.
My weight yo-yo’d up and down many times throughout my teen and pre-teen years. I know what it’s like do the tough, discouraging, nuanced, and complex work of learning to feed and take care of your body in a way that is both healthy and normal: nutritious, but not over-the-top, self-aware, but relaxed.
It took me 15 years to get to the point where I feel completely comfortable and happy: with my jean size, with how I look, and also with the way I approach eating in a both healthful and enjoyable way. Some of those 15 years were harder than others, but it took consistent effort for all 15 of them for me to get to the point I am today. (And at some point, my metabolism will change, or I’ll hit a new stressful season, and I’ll have to figure out how to best and most healthily adjust my approach, in response.)
And you know what? My size 8 behind (I know pre-teen me, but just wait until you get here; you have no idea how happy you’ll be with it) thinks that Hilary Duff is flawless, admirable, and real. I wish more women in Hollywood could take a page from her book. Because it clearly took her a long time to get to this point. It doesn’t appear to have been a quick or simple journey. That’s real.
In Hollywood these days, she’s just one of an increasing number of women who offer positive examples of body image — from people the media genuinely and authentically labels as beautiful. I hope more girls will be able to see people who look like them on TV being shown as beautiful and valuable: no matter who they are, or what they look like.
I’m so grateful for the actors and actresses who make their health a priority. Very few people have weight and body image struggles completely figured out. No one is going to be perfect all the time. But seeing people who are willing to do the difficult work of living healthfully and not giving up control of their life and happiness to our society’s unrealistic beauty standards — it gives me hope.
Thank you, Hilary, for being confident and brave enough to be a better example of health and a positive body image journey. It meant the world to me at 15. And it still means plenty at 29.