The Marilyn Myth

Why is Monroe still heralded as an icon for women? 

Everyone knows the beautiful Marilyn Monroe – blonde bombshell and iconic sex symbol of the 1950s. Her beauty may not have launched a thousand ships, or at least a poem about launching a thousand ships, but it did earn her fame, fortune, and the hearts of many. Today, her celebrated curves have made her a poster girl for bigger women who wish to battle the dominant paradigm that is the slender frame. We are beautiful, they say, because Marilyn was. She was large, round, curvaceous, and most importantly, healthy. Marilyn was reportedly a size 16, sometimes even 18, so we can put an end to insecurity, we can look to Marilyn, gone but not forgotten, and feel better knowing SHE was adored despite her size, and so shall we be. Healthy, confident Marilyn.

I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but this is complete rubbish.

It's a very nice fantasy, and I am a firm believer that women are beautiful in all shapes and sizes, but Marilyn Monroe was not well, physically or mentally. So why is she still repeatedly used to promote confidence in bigger women (and often as a means to shame thinner women)? She was really much more a poster girl for sexism rather than sex. Care to know more? Well read on, and I will share with you some not-so-fun facts about why it would completely suck to be the world’s sexiest woman.

 “I’ve always thought Marilyn Monroe looked fabulous, but I’d kill myself if I was that fat…I went to see her clothes in the exhibition, and I wanted to take a tape measure and measure what her hips were. She was very big” – Liz Hurley

This comment and ones like it should inspire conniptions, because it wasn’t so much an actual opinion of Hurley’s nor was it a fact as she presented it, but rather a snide quip at the figure of a dead woman who could not retaliate. Supposedly Marilyn was so desired that even today, 40 years after her death; people are still threatened by her. 

So the big question still stands - what size was Marilyn Monroe? Measurements from her A-MAY-ZING preserved dresses and information from her personal dressmakers tell us that she was 5 ft. 5.5 inches tall, hips and bust of 35 inches, and an absolutely tiny waist of 22 inches. With measurements like this, it would have been extremely difficult for Marilyn to find one perfect size that we can label her with, as western society would like, but if we had to guess it would probably range from a UK 4-6 based on waist measurements and an 8-10 based on hips. She was famous enough however to afford to have her clothes stitched right onto her. (Note: her clothes are the one part of her life we can appropriately envy).

In regards to Marilyn’s weight, costume fitters noted that it generally stayed between 115 to 120 pounds, although later in her career her weight ballooned slightly, yet still only reaching about a UK size 12 maximum, and this was likely only due to severe depression, a failing marriage and three unsuccessful pregnancies, enough to throw any woman over the edge – not like my “oh but I was so productive today” excuse for eating yet another chocolate biscuit. 

Most interesting, however, is that while her famous hips may have been a few inches larger than Liz Hurley’s, her waist was actually smaller, so you know… suck on that Hurley.

“I’ve never liked the name Marilyn. I’ve often wished that I had held out that day for Jean Monroe. But I guess it’s too late to do anything about it now” 

Now we get to the nitty gritty, aka why no one should ever really want to be Marilyn Monroe - the complete lack of any control over her own life. Though Marilyn’s figure was genuine, as an actress she was forced to hand over control of her life to film executives who cared about her fame and her figure more than her well-being, which led to many superficial alterations. She was made to change to suit an expectation of beauty, peroxiding her natural brunette locks to platinum blonde, undergoing rhinoplasty to secure a more slender nose, apparently also getting a chin implant which later dissolved, and the transformation became complete when her name was changed from Norma Jean Baker to Marilyn Monroe, which as you can see was not her choice. 

Marilyn had signed on to Twentieth Century Fox Studios, and in doing so signed away the control of her life.

"I knew I belonged to the public and to the world, not because I was talented or even beautiful, but because I had never belonged to anything or anyone else"

Being an actress was all Marilyn ever wanted, which spawned from a world of make believe that she relied upon to survive her incredibly troubled childhood. She claims she belonged to no one because as a child she was passed between foster homes, family friends and even stints in an orphanage where she felt completely abandoned. Both her parents were alive, but her father disappeared before she was born, and her mother was institutionalized for severe schizophrenia, leaving Marilyn feeling alone and unwanted. She herself suffered from poor mental health and was far sicker than people really realised, even being institutionalized on one occasion. 

Poor mental health no doubt stemmed from various factors including her turbulent childhood, a family history of mental illness, drug addiction, failed marriages, miscarriages, Hollywood pressure, and supposedly one or more cases of sexual abuse as a child. Basically a butt-load of awful stuff, which once again trumps my “but I had a really crappy day today, I got rained on and everything” excuse for another biscuit. 

“The world around me then was kind of grim. I had to learn to pretend …I felt on the outside of everything, and all I could do was to dream up any kind of pretend game”

Based on studies and biographies, Marilyn was sexually abused as a child, and is actually rather a classic case of someone who was sexually assaulted at a young age, though when she actually admitted her history of child rape to the public, most people brushed it off, including many male biographers who have since accused her of attention seeking… which is obviously completely true because Marilyn Monroe was someone really needed to seek attention, cough fuckoff cough. If you pay attention to her child-like idiosyncrasies, it seems strange that men’s fantasies have revolved around this as a “sexual” mannerism, yet the tragic truth is probably that this behaviour may be based on a persona that was rooted in being sexually violated as a child. The men who salivated over her body had no real intention of ever acknowledging her as a victim of a terrible crime, especially one involving sex. They didn’t care who she was or what had happened to her, all they cared about was preserving their fantasy.

“In Hollywood a girl’s virtue is much less important than her hair-do. You’re judged by how you look, not by what you are”

Marilyn knew better than others that purely focusing on looks can destroy a person, so using her in posters for “healthy beauty” and "value based on looks" really does her no favours. While promoting confidence in people is never a bad thing, Marilyn will always be remembered for her beauty, despite much of it being artificial, because she died for it,  but who wouldn't rather live a rich full life of looking like a real person, as long as I have the choice?

Her beauty led her on to a career that was dictated by men who promoted her looks, but never anything else. Her many airhead characters were considered a typical “blonde bimbo” typecast, and as such she struggled with confidence issues throughout her career, with some even describing her stage fright as "sheer terror". It seems wiggling her bum and having to flirt was hardly difficult for Marilyn, but when it came to situations that required her to rely on her character or intellect, though she proved more than capable, she was absolutely petrified. All she knew was she was valued for her physical assets, and once she realised that this would lead her down a dangerous path, she sought the be respected for more than her figure, and it terrified her.

“Some people have been unkind. If I say I want to grow as an actress, they look at my figure. If I say I want to develop, to learn my craft, they laugh. Somehow they don’t expect me to be serious about my work.”

The false dichotomy of sex vs intellect was stringently applied to Marylin. You can be clever, or you can be sexy, but never both at once. There was no more poignant victim of the “dumb blonde” than Marilyn Monroe, and yet she was smart enough to become one of the most famous “stupid women” in history, in a very cut throat industry. This is a classic move for sexism, assuming a beautiful woman is only worth how she looks, and men who were nervous about her animal magnetism could feel superior by making fun of her intellectually. 

This problem not only existed in the public eye, but also with the men with whom she shared intimate relationships. Despite rumours to the contrary, Marilyn didn’t just have looks, but brains as well. Her IQ came out at a full 33 points above the national average when she was tested. Sadly though, she never even graduated high school, due mostly to her terrible upbringing, leading her to seek the attention and adoration she never had in show business rather than academic pursuits. Marilyn’s attempts to be seen as a smart woman were often met with aggression, though she was very interested in books and developing her craft. Once she gave a press conference announcing her intentions to form a production company and develop her own work, which was born out of an interest in adapting Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov into a film. To this she met retorts from reporters who called out: “Do you know how to spell Dostoevsky, Marilyn?”

“People had a habit of looking at me as if I were some kind of mirror instead of a person. They didn’t see me, they saw their own lewd thoughts, then they white-masked themselves by calling me the lewd one.”

Marilyn’s defence mechanism for her sex symbol status was merely to laugh off the attention, however inappropriate, in order to either completely block it out, or lick her wounds in private. The great Orson Welles once gave his account of public perversion which Marilyn fell victim to. Welles claimed he was at a party with Marilyn when she was an up and coming young starlet, surrounded by gushing men, when all of a sudden one man reached out and pulled down her dress, revealing her breast to everyone in the room. 

Obviously you or I would have left this guy within an inch of his life (actually, maybe an inch is too generous) but Marilyn? She just laughed. A sad day where a woman was reduced entirely to her body parts, as her breasts was forcibly dished up to the crowd instead of her conversation or personality, and I wonder, based on her reaction, how often this happened, and how many stood up for her, rather than saying she brought it on herself?

“I’m a failure as a woman. My men expect so much of me, because of the image they’ve made of me and that I’ve made of myself, as a sex symbol. Men expect so much, and I can’t live up to it.”

Though Marilyn’s supposedly sordid love life included famous heart throbs such as obsessive husband baseball player Joe Dimaggio, crooner Frank Sinatra, political leaders such as the Kennedy brothers (affairs which reportedly were very dangerous.... but that's another story), the biggest let down in Marilyn’s love life was perhaps when she was wed to famous playwright Arthur Miller. Believing herself to be happily married, Marilyn suffered a breakdown after discovering derogatory notes he had written about her which said she was a disappointment as a wife who embarrassed him in front of his intellectual peers. While Marilyn may have been a handful with her insecurities and addiction to barbiturates and booze, I believe Miller wanted her to be perceived as stupid, and relished such ideas about her so as to never allow her to outshine him. 

Her issues weren't a concern, but a disappointment, and that says it all. He often didn’t stand up for her when others patronised her, and he would promise to write her a role in a film that would showcase her as a real actress. Miller then created “The Misfits” in which Marilyn was cast as a ditzy blonde girl who sleeps with the main character, gets her bum smacked in a pub, and tends to whinge a lot. This was an obvious effort not to further her career but rather to hold her back. Marilyn Monroe was only a beautiful thing to Miller, and the idea of making his wife a real person was not high on his ‘to do’ list, leading Marilyn to believe that she was the failure. 

“I would win overwhelmingly if the Academy gave an Oscar for faking orgasms. I have done some of my best acting convincing my partners I was in the throes of ecstasy.”

Now this is the real shocker. Branded, to this day, as one of the world’s sexiest women, inspiring pleasure for generations of men, and yet Marilyn Monroe didn’t have an orgasm until the last year of her life, in 1962 at the age of 36. I shit you not. Though this may come as no surprise to some, as the sexual anatomy of women was only first properly explored by Alfred Kinsey in the 40s and 50s. Still, despite oozing sex appeal and having several lovers, Marilyn Monroe’s inability to enjoy sex was something she was open about with her psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenson, who counseled her extensively on what was called her “primary frigidity.” Marilyn worked very hard with him to overcome these issues, with some of their sessions being recorded, in which she made her sad admission. 

This only serves as proof that men had no interest or appreciation in pleasing Marilyn, and that all she knew was a carnival mirror of sexuality that involved existing only to please others, rather than serving herself. 

“Wanting to be someone else is a waste of the person you are.”

Marilyn may have reached this important truth at the end of her life, after losing herself to a fake ideal, but there is great irony in these words coming from her mouth, as so many still long to be her. While admiring her as the knockout that she was - before and after Hollywood - one should never look up to her, or any celebrity or poster girl, as someone they want to be. By all means follow examples, be influenced by the greats and allow yourself whatever mode of inspiration that gets you through the day – but remember to look deeper. No one is perfect, most especially those who are made out to be perfect by the media. Using Marilyn as a poster girl for healthy body image? Ha! You might as well use Hitler as a poster boy for tolerance or why guys with moustaches are awesome (GODWIN'S LAW- Ed.) .

The real reason why we should appreciate and respect Marilyn Monroe is because she is basically the Jesus of women struggling with body issues. She died young, after a short dark life, but her tragic story teaches us that being desired does not lead to happiness, and therefore it is not valuable. So with all this being said - don't stress too much if you don't have the perfect body. Go on - have another biscuit.

- BG