Melissa and Me

I was in high school when “Never Enough” was released and I wouldn’t have been aware of its existence if it hadn’t been for my school’s annual dance recital. Most of the show was choreographed by the students, but the dance instructor did the opening and closing numbers. She used “2001” for the finale my junior year. I was floored. I still adore the song, unspeakably 90s beat and all.

So I bought the album. And just as a reminder for those of you born decades after me, that meant I had to go to a physical store and pay physical money for a physical CD. This is the album cover.

melissa

In my opinion, the song is fabulous, and the rest of the album is decent … but the unexpected bonus for me was this photo of Melissa. She’s certainly svelte and it’s possible she’s been retouched a bit, but she looked different than just about every other famous woman I’d seen to that point. She was curvy but not skinny with thighs that filled out her jeans. She was solid and strong. She looked kinda like me.

I wasn’t quite that buff, but if you added an inch or two all around, that was my rough shape as a teen. And although she wasn’t winning “sexiest woman of the year,” she was a bona-fide famous person. And she was proud enough of her vaguely me-like figure to pose topless (if from the back) on her album cover. I remember staring at this image and working through the puzzle: She wasn’t shaped like a fashion model, she was roughly my shape, she was famous and she was proud. What did this mean about me? And my body? And my shape?

Obviously, my body image hang ups weren’t cured on the spot. In fact, I couldn’t really say that I made the leap from her being proud to me being proud. Or even me being OK. But something about seeing her – an image of a figure that didn’t fit perfectly into the current beauty-body paradigm on an internationally selling album cover – made me feel less alone and less “wrong.” It was a little pocket of solace that I could crawl into, that photo.

“2001” came up on shuffle at the gym the other day. I had been thinking recently about why it’s significant for us to see people like ourselves on TV, in the movies, in music videos. I mean, it’s not like all of us want to be actors or rock stars or famous in any way. So why do we need famous people – or, at least, a few famous people – to look like us? Relatability, sure, but it had to be something deeper than that. And when that unabashedly rocking, undeniably dated song brought up the image of the album cover on my phone, I was reminded.

We may not want to be famous ourselves, but we know that famous people are part of a very special club. Knowing that someone who looks like us can join that very special club means that we’re not as “wrong” as we might’ve felt or thought. We feel cooler, more accepted, even more beautiful by proxy. It’s the flip side of “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” Their success bolsters our confidence. And this holds true not just for body shape and size, but for ethnicity, ability, gender identity, and more. In retrospect, I guess it’s a little obvious, but my brain got hung up on the idea of a famous-to-famous connection and overlooked the overarching success-to-success connection and the more subtle acceptability-to-acceptability connection. It’s not that we want to BE them, it’s that we’re encouraged and inspired when we see them looking like us and rising to the top.

There’s still a long road ahead, but I see progress being made. Jillian Mercado modeling for Diesel, Laverne Cox‘s Emmy nomination and Time cover, Evans launching a runway show during London Fashion Week, Ellen DeGeneres‘s wildly successful talk show, and other successes too numerous to recount here. So encouraging. And hopefully just the beginning. In an ideal world, we’d all feel beautiful and worthy and special and capable of infinite success from birth, inherently, without examples. But the world isn’t quite ideal yet.

So here’s hoping we all have a Melissa Etheridge album cover out there somewhere.

P.S. Never doubt that M.E. remains awesome.

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2 Responses to “Melissa and Me”

  1. loubeelou

    Beautiful! I have a high forehead and seeing glamorous actresses with that similar feature – Helen Hunt and Mary Stuart Masterson in particular – did help me to embrace it more.

  2. Rebecca Roueche

    Ahhh this is such a good post.
    We discussed a similar concept in my Educational Psychology class. We are always comparing ourselves to other people, consciously or not, and teachers will often use modeling to demonstrate things not only like proper classroom behavior or the correct way to solve a problem, but also in everyday life skills. We are more likely to align ourselves, so to speak, with the model when they are seen as both competent in their field and similar to ourselves. That’s why it is so important to invite a female scientist or engineer to a classroom to encourage girls to explore those fields for themselves: they are obviously successful but are also relatable.

    So yes, being encouraged by seeing famous people that look like us, have the same sexual orientation, similar age, etc etc, absolutely makes sense from a psychological standpoint.