There once was a boy who had a crush on me, in 1995 or 1996, who said I looked like Jennifer Aniston. It was right around the time Ross and Rachel got together, and it was sweet and flattering and totally delusional. I have the same color eyes as Jennifer. I had her famous hair cut, and by nature my hair had the right color to it. I let my sixteen-year-old self be complimented, let myself be compared to a star and feel puffed up for a bit. I knew I would have been happier to be thought of as attractive on my own terms, but it was better than being heckled for looking mannish in the oversized t-shirts and flannel I had chosen in 1994 or 1995. Once in a while I would watch Friends and Rachel might make a face I recognized as my own, usually when she pouted or pined away or tripped up, when her face was scrunched or sad or embarrassed.
There was a drama teacher in 1996 or 1997 who was about to walk past me during a rehearsal for a musical. I was sitting, reading as I always did. My “Rachel” layers had mostly grown out and my fear that I would be taken for a boy had as well. I was wearing a larger t-shirt, biting on my nails as I concentrated on my book. He paused in front of me and said, “I have noticed something about you. You aren’t vain. The good actresses aren’t. They can’t be,” and he walked on. And I let my seventeen-year-old self be complimented and compared to a star. And some vanity crept back in with a compliment about its absence. And I let myself feel puffed up for a bit.
Sometime in 2014 or 2015, a movie named Cake was released starring Jennifer Aniston. Much has been made of how she has physically transformed for the role. She goes without makeup, her hair is greasy, her clothes dowdy, her visage twisted. In it her character is unpleasant, spiritually somewhat ugly and in constant physical pain. Or so I have read. Some people are applauding the way she abandoned her clean-cut good looks for the role, that it is a credit to her acting talent and craft. Some people aren’t as glowing in the reviews of her acting skills, but still credit her bravery in allowing her image to alter. Good actresses cannot be vain. The worst of the gossip rags exclaim how glad they are that she shows up on the red carpet as her old attractive self.
I have not seen the movie. I have seen stills from the set of the movie. I still look like Jennifer Aniston when her face is scrunched and sad and embarrassed. I still look like Jennifer Aniston, but now only when she is greasy, and dowdy and acting as if she is a woman with a chronic pain condition. The difference now is that I am a woman with a chronic pain condition, who on some days cannot help but leave the house when I am still in horrible sweatpants, matted hair and bare face. When I cannot help but grimace and cry instead of smiling politely.
Seeing Jennifer Aniston this way, this mirror of what I sometimes look like now, was ego-crushing. In this movie, she does look awful. Purposefully so, but still. So I can look pretty awful, too. Even if I don’t witness it myself, because many days I don’t even look in a real mirror, it is still there. I cried some. I growled that Jennifer Aniston wasn’t really sick, just pretending, but I was. So I might always look this way. Obsessively swiping through images, searching out all the horrible things said about Aniston’s appearance, cataloguing the disparaging adjectives, showing the pictures to my husband against his will: the tailspin I let this put me in was ugly.
Despite the compliment from my teacher, I absolutely can be vain. I don’t think I can get around that. I can give myself a break and say, “There will be some days I feel like shit. And sometimes that will show. And that is okay.”
And… despite being flattered by a teenaged boy when I was a teenaged girl, I can still decide that he was wrong, and that I look like no one but me. Mercifully I have the power to release myself from any comparisons, good or bad.