Tuned In

The World According to Jessica Simpson

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The first thing you need to know about Jessica Simpson’s The Price of Beauty is that it contains a possessive, not a contraction. It is a show called The Price of Beauty that stars Jessica Simpson. The title is not telling us that Jessica Simpson Is The Price of Beauty.

But in a way both reads are accurate. That is, Jessica Simpson is the kind of celebrity you get in a pop culture that rewards beauty; she didn’t get to be a famous singer/actress/reality star/pinup by being harsh on the eyes. But she also experienced the costs of that attention last year, when a series of photos suggested she may have —gasp!—gained ten pounds or so, raising the urgent national question: Is Jessica Simpson fat? (Answer: no, and have a sandwich.)

“It’s a very blessed life that I live,” Simpson says at the opening of Price of Beauty, which debuted last night on VH1. “But I live in this fishbowl.” The natural response in today’s celeb world, of course, is to put yourself in another fishbowl; in this case a travel/beauty show about different standards of aesthetics in other countries. But to Simpson’s credit, she makes her show about something more than herself.

The premise of Beauty is that Simpson and two friends, Cacee and Ken, travel the world looking at how different cultures measure female beauty, and the sometimes harmful steps women take to meet those standards.

It’s obvious, so we may as well say it up front, that it’s ironic that a show about the tyranny of beauty could only be made by a bombshell celebrity making up for some bad press in the tabloid media. But that’s TV. VH1 is not going to ask me to do a beauty show, and you can thank your god for that. Within its parameters, though, Beauty’s first episode had a certain geeky charm, and made some points about beauty pressures on women that you rarely see in the beauty-normative, product-placement happy world of The Bachelor and Project Runway.

In the premiere episode, Jessica and her crew visited Thailand, for an encounter that was part light documentary, part Amazing Race and part Newlyweds minus Nick Lachey. In one scene, the three visit a food stall selling cooked worms and bugs, which make Simpson gag: “How are you going to do this, Jessica? You can’t even eat salmon!”

But it also—in a breezy, VH1-show way—looks at how a culture’s different definitions of beauty can have very familiar, dangerous side effects on women. Simpson visits a Thai singer, for instance, whose face was burned and disfigured by a bad skin-lightening cream, ending her career and her marriage in the process. (Along the way we learn that in Thailand, light skin is culturally prized because of class connotations; a tan implies you’ve been working in the sun.) Later, they visit a village of the Karen tribe, where women begin wearing neck rings to elongate their necks from the age of five; it’s both striking and a dramatic example of how beauty traditions can make women literally alter their bodies.

Now, you can criticize the show nine ways to Sunday. The tribal visit skips over the exploitative “human zoo” aspects of the Karen villages as they’re run for tourists. And while the show’s about different standards of beauty, it still celebrates the most beautiful—the “beauty ambassador” in episode one is a model and host of Thailand’s equivalent of ANTM—suggesting that being beautiful is still all-important, no matter where you live. And, yes, it’s a shame that, while Price can tell us all this about other countries, it can only critique the effects of American beauty standards by implication.

But that implication is hard to miss; previews of upcoming episodes (like a visit to Uganda, where fat is valued rather than insulted) repeatedly hit the theme that beauty, far from being universal, is a social construct, that its pressures can be dangerous, and that it can be attained by means other than our sponsors’ fabulous products. And while Simpson can be, shall we say, less than culturally sensitive at times (she gets a Thai massage and says she assumed it came with a “happy ending”), she comes across not snarky or superior but as a good-naturedly clueless American willing to learn something. It’s not Frontline, but it’s a refreshing change from VH1’s dating shows.

Is this show, in the end, about a celebrity getting more famous by doing a show in which she works out her issues with fame? I guess. But if that’s the price of The Price of Beauty, I can live with it.