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“Why can’t Julia Roberts wear a skirt without being accused of ‘flaunting’ her legs?”

Julia Roberts is the latest woman to be subject to sexist headlines. Why can’t we wear skirts without being accused of ‘flaunting’ our legs?

Julia Roberts, 51, Shows Off Her Toned Legs In Pink Blazer Dress & Doesn’t Look A Day Over 30.

So read the breathless headline, which sat above a click-through photo gallery. The first image saw Julia Roberts in the aforementioned pink blazer dress, houndstooth tights and high-heeled shoes. All of the other images in the gallery? A random array of Julia Roberts photos – some snapped on the red carpet with her full consent and knowledge, others snapped by intrusive paparazzi as she went about her day-to-day life.

What of the accompanying article, I hear you ask? The usual tropes we’ve come to expect, to be honest. Think multiple references to Roberts’ age (as they made abundantly clear in the headline, the actor is 51) – and feigned disbelief over the fact that she looks “ageless”. That she looks “just as good now as she did three decades ago”. And that she has a “perfect physique and toned legs”, of course.

Naturally, this wasn’t the only article to run with a “JULIA ROBERTS SHOWS OFF LEGS” headline: plenty of other tabloids followed suit, all of them acting as though they had never seen a woman wear a skirt cut just above the knee before. As if they’d never laid eyes on a pair of tights before, even. And all of them shoehorned in a reference to Roberts’ “age-defying” looks, too – because, y’know, why not? Every little helps when it comes to perpetuating toxic beauty standards, after all.

So, here we are again. Let’s unpack this, shall we?

Tabloids, age-shaming and the art of ‘negging’

Firstly, I’m sick of the fact that “you look thinner/sexier/younger than predicted” apparently remains the best compliment a woman can hope for. Not only does it promote ‘compare and despair’ culture (even this 30-year-old looked at those ‘Julia Roberts doesn’t look a day over 30’ headlines and felt… well, distinctly inadequate), but it’s also a form of “negging”. Which, for those of you who haven’t read The Game (good life decision, by the way), refers to the act of giving a woman a semi-insulting compliment so that you slightly lower her self-esteem to the point that she craves your approval.

In this instance, the tabloids are using a semi-insulting compliment on one woman in order to ensnare countless others. They want to knock our self-esteem down so that we read articles like this, and buy ‘corrective’ products such as these. They want us to fear the ageing process – and they’re doing a pretty good job of it, too.

This age-shaming is something Roberts herself is all too aware of, despite the fact that the comments usually come sugar-coated in all those “YOU LOOK AMAZING (FOR YOUR AGE)” compliments.

“Really, people?” she exclaimed, when a reporter at InStyle brought up the subject of her “milestone” 50th birthday last year. “Are we still in that space? Did anyone go over this with George Clooney or Brad [Pitt] before their 50th birthdays?”

Roberts added: “I always love my birthday, and [celebrate] with open arms and gratitude…. There’s nothing different about this birthday than any other one.”

She isn’t the only actor to feel this way: indeed, Penélope Cruz spoke to Gwyneth Paltrow for Interview magazine about feeling fed up with being asked “crazy” questions about her age.

“Journalists have been asking me, since I was, like, 22, ‘Are you afraid of aging?’” she said. “That is such a crazy question for a 22-year-old girl or, for that matter, for a 42-year-old.

“I combat that craziness by refusing to answer the question. In fact, when it comes to talking about ageing as an actress, I feel like, ‘What the fuck? I’m not going to give you even two minutes to honour your question. It doesn’t deserve that.’”

Well, quite.

Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in Pretty Woman
Julia Roberts' new campaign photoshoot for Italian fashion brand, Calzedonia, sought to pay homage to her role in Pretty Woman.

The big problem with ‘flaunting’ and ‘showing off’

Let’s get one thing straight: Roberts isn’t ‘showing off’ her legs in these photos. Sure, she’s wearing a skirt and semi-opaque tights. And, yeah, her legs are visible and moving – but that’s because she’s using them to walk around, for Christ’s sake.

This is not “flaunting” a body. This is “having” a body — an unavoidable state which pretty much every single one of us (save the few incorporeal brains in jars reading this) must deal with. And yet, for some reason, the tabloids feel the need to comment on the women who ‘show off’ their ankles, knees, thighs, clavicles. To point out their bra straps, their ‘toned arms’, even the lengths of their fingers. To send photographers into the bushes with long-lens cameras in order to snap them, without permission, as they sun themselves by private pools.

And, in telling us that they’re ‘flaunting’ or ‘showing off’ their figure, the tabloids imply that these women are dressing or behaving in a provocative way. That their aim is to conjure lust. That they are purposefully setting out to tease the world with something the world can’t have, won’t ever have.

Men, however, continue to go unscathed: remember when everyone accused David Beckham of ‘flaunting’ his body when he stripped down to his underwear? No? Of course you bloody don’t: everybody thought that it was the perfect way to celebrate the male form.

W.W.J.D? (What would Jen do?)

Jennifer Aniston – who recently saw blurry, non-consensual photos of herself in a bikini go viral – surmised the situation perfectly when she penned an article on sexist bullying for the Huffington Post.

“I’m fed up,” she wrote. “I’m fed up with the sport-like scrutiny and body shaming that occurs daily under the guise of ‘journalism,’ the ‘First Amendment’ and ‘celebrity news’.”

Aniston continued: “The objectification and scrutiny we put women through is absurd and disturbing. The way I am portrayed by the media is simply a reflection of how we see and portray women in general, measured against some warped standard of beauty. [But] the reality is the stalking and objectification I’ve experienced first-hand, going on decades now, reflects the warped way we calculate a woman’s worth.”

This sort of tabloid gossip, Aniston said, perpetuates a “dehumanising view of females, focused solely on one’s physical appearance… is she pregnant? Is she eating too much? Has she let herself go?”

She was concerned, she wrote, about the impact it would have on young girls to see famous women’s bodies picked apart in this way – as well as the implicit suggestion that as a woman, being pregnant is the ultimate goal.

Aniston concluded: “Here’s where I come out on this topic… we get to decide for ourselves what is beautiful when it comes to our bodies. That decision is ours and ours alone.”

Julia Roberts: “I always love my birthday, and [celebrate] with open arms and gratitude”

So…

You can talk about Roberts’ fashion campaign, her comments about the 30th anniversary of Pretty Woman, her illustrious acting career, but please don’t reduce her to a pair of walking, talking legs.

You’re better than that – and so is she.

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