Brenda Strong on Beauty in Hollywood

Actress, Brenda Strong My relationship to beauty has been a strange journey. My parents had five girls and one boy, so you can imagine how that went. My sisters and I would do each others hair, share clothes (hand me downs since I was the youngest) and play games together. My mother and father valued nature, music, books, art, and education. We were led by example by two people with great integrity. We were rewarded with praise for our actions, our kindness, our intelligence, but never our beauty. Our mother was beautiful because of who she was “being,” never wore a stitch of makeup and never thought of herself in that value system. I never once was told I was pretty or beautiful. I wasn’t insecure about it either, it just didn’t matter. I was more concerned about getting the citizenship award in 2nd grade and straight A’s like my sisters than caring about how I looked. I was a wild child, free spirited and more boy than girl. My Dad believed in “self actualized” children and raised us to honor and employ our own particular gifts.

When my eldest sister started wearing makeup and nail polish, something shifted inside me. I got in trouble for sneaking into her room and self applying red toenail polish and lipstick, I was fascinated by it. I was six. I learned that I liked glamour. I also grew up watching old movies from the 1930’s and 40’s where yes, the women were beautiful, but they were also strong, intelligent, talented and inspiring. Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, and Katherine Hepburn were my role models. So being “pretty or beautiful” wasn’t important. Being smart and kind were.

Then, when I was in high school my universe shifted on its axis. I was in the honor society, #1 seed on the tennis team, president of the symphonic choir and lead in the school musical. But as a senior, and being the youngest of six, I wanted to go to college, and needed to find a way to help pay for it.

I had won a small academic scholarship, but it wasn’t enough. My sister Bea talked me into doing a local pageant to get scholarship money. I honestly thought it was an awful idea, but since it wasn’t a “beauty pageant” but a preliminary for Miss America (which emphasized intelligence, talent, and citizenship) I reluctantly entered knowing it was a ridiculous shot. I was shocked to come in 1st runner up and Miss Congeniality, both with purses attached that would help with school. It was the first time I was told I was beautiful. It made me uncomfortable. Not uncomfortable enough though as I did it again 2 more times, my freshman and sophomore years in college at Arizona State University. The second time I tried, I landed the title “Miss Arizona” which took me to Atlantic City for a shot at Miss America. I was able to secure more scholarship money and a modeling contact with Plaza III a local modeling agency in Phoenix, Arizona.

Being tall, everyone thought I should model. I wasn’t interested. Focusing on how I looked, not what I thought or felt was uninteresting to me. Looking back, I probably was overly principled and missed a great opportunity, but then again, I didn’t really think I was beautiful. I wanted to ACT, to reveal the human condition in a raw and inspiring way. I got a degree in Singing, Acting and Dancing at Arizona State University and came to Hollywood with dreams of building a name for myself and going to Broadway from there. New York felt too scary and too far away from family so I moved to Los Angeles instead.

My first role on film was as a French Las Vegas Showgirl and my second role was basically a walk on in Space Balls as Nurse Gretchen, a ‘hot to trot’ nurse who Rick Moranis is famous for saying, “I bet she gives great helmet.” “Miss Speedway” in Misfits of Science promptly followed that. Needless to say, my early career was filled with less than inspiring roles that were based primarily ONLY on how I looked. It was disheartening. Where were the roles that I grew up admiring my idols for? I guess I would have to wait and persevere. I remember going home one summer and crying to my mother, embarrassed by the lack of integral roles that inspired people that I had hoped to be playing and she said something I will never forget; “Honey, who you are BEING on set while playing those roles and how you touch others lives, is just as important if not more so than what you are playing.” It gave me the stamina to continue.

Hollywood is a strange place. Beauty is over valued but the reality is, it does open doors. But beauty alone won’t keep them open. Talent will always rise to the top given the opportunity. It is truly hard to navigate a healthy sense of self. Since my pageant days, which emphasized swimsuit competitions, and gliding gracefully in gowns, I have yo yo’d with my weight. I would juice fast, over exercise, cleanse, and over restrict, then indulge. I never thought my body was perfect, nor skinny enough to be an actress. I liked food too much. I remember auditioning for a casting director once and her saying to me, “Oh yeah, you used to be softig” A german word for FAT. I was mortified. I look at pictures from that time and am amazed that I thought something was wrong. Hindsight is 20-20 after all.

I had pretty much abused my body, trying to be perfect in my 20’s and 30’s until I started practicing and teaching yoga. I started to have a different relationship to food after that. I was more focused on health, energy, vitality and sustainability. My lessons weren’t over though. After the birth of my son I decided I wanted to get in the best shape of my life and hired a trainer. He put me on a regimen of 6 meals a day, very low carbs and high cardio. I dropped fat like crazy. I got cast as a murderous socialite in a film and thought being super thin was so important for the role that I eventually lost my menstrual cycle. My hormones were completely out of whack, because my BMI was too low. It was the last straw in a cycle of not feeling thin or beautiful enough to work as an actress in Hollywood. I had to stop. I wanted a second child and couldn’t conceive. Enough was enough.

My entire focus shifted to balance. I used Yoga as a tool to start to balance my hormones again, I researched which poses helped support the reproductive organs and endocrine system. I even started teaching other women how to breathe and move and balance themselves from the inside out. Strong Yoga4Fertility and Strong Yoga4Women was born out of wanting to teach myself and other women how to love and accept their bodies. I realized I was not the only one who hated her body, who was overly self critical and had abused her body with over or under restriction of food.

A cycle of health and well being followed. Eventually my cycle returned and I conceived again (although miscarried) and my body righted itself. The True 2nd child that was born out of this journey was my work in helping other women learn how to love their bodies even when they weren’t co operating with them. Knowing that what ever is happening is for you. And is temporary. The nature of life is change. Learning to live with the uncertainty of not knowing the outcome yet being fully committed and engaged with the journey, gives one great confidence.

I taught couples how to manage stress and accept what is, so they could eventually get to where they wanted to be. And it was beautiful to watch them transform from fear to loving the process, as scary as it was at times.

Honestly, I believe True Beauty is a state of mind, a sense of wholeness, valuing the divine power we all have access to if we can learn to receive it and lean back into its strength. That is the embodiment of health, a sense of oneness with it all; the good, the bad and the ugly. I have seen physically beautiful women whom once they open their mouths become ugly, and I have seen supposedly plain women become radiant because of who they are inside.

I am now at an age where everyone is saying I won’t be cast as much, “It’s all downhill from here.” Actually, my career took off after 40 and continues to thrive. My past accomplishments not withstanding, my husband says that my best and most celebrated years are before me. And I believe him. I think it has to do with the fact that I FEEL GOOD. It’s not so much how I look anymore that is important to me, but how I FEEL. However, in spite of this, the pressure to do “something” to my face is continues to be great. I’ve watched as actresses my age over the years have gotten work done, lasers, botox, starved themselves. I understand. Keeping up with the industry’s youth ideal is immense pressure. It is just a bald reality we all must face as women.

I get it. I remember I would go into a panic every time there was an awards show or appearance and would feel the pressure to starve myself in order to fit into the dresses that designers inevitably made for women smaller than me. At 6’ not a lot of dresses were made for women my size (8) and it would send me into another tailspin when things were too tight. I am not unaware of the external pressure to age “well” and that other women “my age” are succumbing to the pressure. I will continue to evaluate how I feel and what I choose to do based on what is right for me. Not anyone else. I have earned that sense of self care.

It has taken me a lifetime, but now my values have returned to the little girl that didn’t know that beauty was important, but was valued for how she thought and felt, her actions and her kindness. I am grateful to my parents for the values they gave me steeped in integrity and actions and not in appearances. It took me awhile, but the joy I have in my life has returned and regardless of how I look, I will continue to love what I do and embrace what is coming with the knowledge that this too will change. I took too much of my youth for granted. I wish I would have loved myself more.

Whether we like it or not, time passes through us all. I believe, like Abraham Lincoln, that after 40 we are all responsible for our own faces. He once said to his secretary when she mentioned that he had a meeting with a particular Senator, “I don’t like his face.” And his secretary responded by saying, “Well, Mr President, he can’t help what his face looks like,” and President Lincoln responded by saying, “After 40 years of age, every man is responsible for his own face.” I don’t disagree. I take full responsibility for mine as it is a sum of all of my thoughts, feelings and experiences. And that, is a thing of Beauty.