Beauty isn't only subjective, but also much deeper than outer appearances. It's too bad that society often forgets that...
Though we can all agree that sunrises and starry skies are gorgeous, beauty standards for people are continually shifting across time periods and cultures around the world.
Truth is, beauty is complex. Nobody has a "perfect" body. We're all just vessels for our souls, and true beauty is found in the smiles of loved ones, the kindnesses of strangers, the warmth of selflessness.
But enough of the soppy philosophies! We're here to talk about films. These movies all revolve around superficial, looks-based ideas of beauty, from pageants to diets to physical disabilities.
14. I Feel Pretty (2018)
Directed by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein
Starring Amy Schumer, Michelle Williams, Emily Ratajkowski
Comedy, Romance (1h 50m)
Renee Bennett (played by Amy Schumer) is your stereotypical mid-thirties city girl who struggles with low self-esteem and a desire to get thinner, prettier, and sexier.
Most women have probably wished for a genie to grant them their dream body overnight, something which partially happens in I Feel Pretty... but with a fun twist!
Rather than actually looking any different, Renee hits her head and wakes up to find she feels different. She sees the same curves as before, but now she perceives herself as beautiful—and acts accordingly.
The takeaway of this easy-to-watch comedy is that confidence really is key, that knowing your own worth will make others see it, too. That said, some viewers found the film's initial suggestion that "bigger women are less" to be controversial.
13. Shallow Hal (2001)
Directed by Bobby Farrelly and Peter Farrelly
Starring Jack Black, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jason Alexander
Comedy, Drama, Fantasy (1h 54m)
When dealing with hot issues like body image and beauty, there's bound to be some backlash.
Shallow Hal got criticism for the eating disorder that Gwyneth Paltrow's plus-size body double, Ivy Snitzer, suffered after production. Of course, that wasn't the intention of Peter and Bobby Farrelly.
In fact, the whole point of Shallow Hal is to show how beauty comes from within, from one's soul, from one's personality, even if obesity is the punchline to the movie's 114-minute long joke. (Jack Black's character Hal Larson doesn't know he's been hypnotized into seeing people's hearts manifested as physical beauty.)
Gwyneth Paltrow, already a controversial actress for her dangerous Goop detox diets, admitted her eyes were opened to the reality of fat shaming when she wore a fat suit for the movie.
The fact that Shallow Hal began such a heated conversation says a lot about the nature of beauty in modern-day culture, but the film itself has some genuinely funny and heartwarming moments.
12. Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999)
Directed by Michael Patrick Jann
Starring Kirsten Dunst, Denise Richards, Ellen Barkin
Comedy, Romance, Thriller (1h 37m)
We know from Toddlers & Tiaras how competitive mothers can get when entering their children in beauty pageants. These pageants are demonized for their damaging effects on identity and mental health, which Michael Patrick Jann mocks in Drop Dead Gorgeous.
The mockumentary satire takes place in a small Minnesota town, where a film crew are documenting the Sarah Rose Cosmetics American Teen Princess Pageant.
Kirsten Dunst and Denise Richards star as the film's focal contestants, urged on by their domineering mothers. The title is more than just a catchphrase, and it takes a turn in a bizarre sequence of events.
Drop Dead Gorgeous now has a cult following despite flopping at the box office, with modern viewers praising its unabashed trashiness and on-the-nose parodies.
11. Miss Congeniality (2000)
Directed by Donald Petrie
Starring Sandra Bullock, Michael Caine, Benjamin Bratt
Action, Comedy, Crime (1h 49m)
Gracie Hart (played by Sandra Bullock) is the epitome of the "not like other girls" archetype in Donald Petrie's action comedy, but she's not doing it to impress anyone. She's genuinely just clumsy, awkward, and likes to drink beer.
Making up for her messiness is Gracie's hard-as-nails career in the FBI. When a bomb scare threatens the Miss United States pageant, she undergoes a transformation to infiltrate a spot as a top contestant.
Miss Congeniality is predictable, formulaic, and lighthearted, but sometimes that's just what you need. If you can get past the toxic food mindsets and bulimia jokes of the early-2000s, you might even enjoy the sequel in Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous.
10. Mean Girls (2004)
Directed by Mark Waters
Starring Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Jonathan Bennett
Comedy (1h 37m)
Regina George (played by Rachel McAdams) screaming at the top of her lungs—having just found out her diet bars are actually weight gain bars—is the Mean Girls equivalent of Michael Cera saying "Bread makes you fat?" in Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World.
But you probably already knew that because who hasn't seen Mean Girls? It's a classic choice for a girls movie night, iconic for its depiction of high school and girlhood during the 2000s.
A big part of being a teenage girl is how you look, especially if you're in the popular "Plastics" clique. Rules include eating fewer than 30 percent calories from fat and only wearing pink on Wednesdays.
But even after perfecting their outer appearances to doll-like levels, the Plastics still find flaws in the mirror—"my hairline is so weird"—while mercilessly judging everyone around them.
9. Wonder (2017)
Directed by Stephen Chbosky
Starring Julia Roberts, Jacob Tremblay, Owen Wilson
Drama, Family (1h 53m)
So far, this list has been dominated by pageant-competing teens and women looking for their glow-ups, but Wonder has a very different message to add in the discourse of modern beauty standards.
The clichéd Facebook mom quote "You can't blend in when you were born to stand out" is given a much deeper meaning in Stephen Chbosky's coming-of-age drama.
Jacob Tremblay is one of those rare child actors who astounded us from a young age, starring in Room at just eight years old. Two years later, he played the fifth-grader Auggie in Wonder.
Auggie has undergone 27 surgeries for his mandibulofacial dysostosis, a facial deformity that makes him a target for bullies. Depicting a deformity requires caution and sensitivity, but it's safe in the hands of Chbosky, who previously brought us The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Kids can be cruel, but Wonder reminds us not to assume that all kids are cruel. In fact, their innocent minds that haven't yet been tainted by years of social conditioning can make them more able to sense the inner beauty of others.
8. Bridget Jones's Diary (2001)
Directed by Sharon Maguire
Starring Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth, Hugh Grant
Comedy, Drama, Romance (1h 37m)
Bridget Jones (played by Renée Zellweger) is a frazzled thirty-something English woman who drunk-cries to "All By Myself" while waiting for her dream man, her dream job, and her dream dress size.
Back in 2001, most viewers accepted Bridget's obsession with weight loss as normal. Zellweger even gained 30 pounds for the role! In retrospect, though, Bridget is actually a slim, healthy woman who inadvertently fed into a generation of female insecurity.
This all sounds pretty heavy for a rom-com about a woman bumbling about London, Bridget Jones's Diary remains a classic slice of sarcastic British cinema, co-starring Hugh Grant and Colin Firth.
Adapted from Helen Fielding's hilarious 1996 novel, Bridget Jones's Diary has all the crude wit and charm of a Richard Curtis movie with a surprisingly realistic central performance from an American actress.
7. Marie Antoinette (2006)
Directed by Sofia Coppola
Starring Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Rip Torn
Biography, Drama, History (2h 3m)
Marie Antoinette's famous remark "Let them eat cake" accurately sums up her ignorance of the poor living conditions of her people. It was an ignorance that ultimately led her head into a guillotine.
Sofia Coppola—known for her dreamy, feminine, pastel visuals—capitalized on this infamous reputation of hers when she directed the Queen of France's embellished biopic.
Marie Antoinette is supposed to be watched with a pinch of salt, exaggerating Antoinette's famed lavish lifestyle in the run up to the French Revolution in 1789.
This exaggeration is chiefly relayed through Antoinette's aesthetic, who surrounds herself with colorful frosted cakes and flower bouquets while lounging around in extravagant dresses.
Kirsten Dunst played the young royal with a general focus on Antoinette as a trend-setter and beauty icon of the 18th century.
6. Pretty in Pink (1986)
Directed by Howard Deutch
Starring Molly Ringwald, Jon Cryer, Harry Dean Stanton
Comedy, Drama, Romance (1h 37m)
Pretty in Pink is a cornerstone of the "Brat Pack" era made up of 80s teen classics. Molly Ringwald features in many of them, sometimes as the "Princess"—or, in this case, the unpopular outcast.
Pretty in Pink depicts a more simplistic divide within the high school hierarchy than seen in, say, Mean Girls. At Andie Walsh's Chicago school, it's simply the "richies" versus everyone else.
Because Andie lives with her single, working-class father, she has to make all of her own second-hand clothing. Luckily, she's good at it! And even luckier, she loves it. (This alone makes Pretty in Pink a staple movie for any fashion enthusiast.)
But director Howard Deutch goes beyond that to examine how class, income, upbringing, family, and school dynamics all play a part in whether or not you're perceived as "pretty."
5. Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Directed by Tim Burton
Starring Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder, Dianne Wiest
Drama, Fantasy, Romance (1h 45m)
Edward Scissorhands is another film that reveals the inner beauty of a conventionally "unattractive" protagonist, and this one focuses on how lonely and alienating it can be for such people.
Sure enough, if we saw Edward (played by Johnny Depp) in real life with his paper-white skin, deranged hair, and blades for fingers, we'd run a mile in the other direction! But this is cinema and you have to remember that Tim Burton is behind this film.
Edward Scissorhands is one of the Gothic director's rare films to use bright, poppy colors. Well, except for Edward, of course. Against the candy-colored houses and peach-fuzz wardrobes, Edward's black-buckle suit and haunted mansion stand out like an eye sore.
Despite his scary appearance, Edward is a shy little boy: innocent, quiet, and unfamiliar with the judgmental, rigid world of adults.
Once Edward's Florida town learns of his impressive hairdressing skills, they accept him—but only to use him. If only someone could see beneath the surface of this scarred, knife-wielding humanoid, they might just find his heart...
4. Barbie (2023)
Directed by Greta Gerwig
Starring Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera
Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy (1h 54m)
Barbie is a showcase of perfection. Greta Gerwig's feminist blockbuster opens to Margot Robbie in Barbieland, where nothing ever goes wrong and there's no such thing as a bad hair day.
The catch? None of it's real.
In a moment of existential realization, Barbie becomes self-aware of her surface-level lifestyle. After noticing—in horror—that she now has flat feet and cellulite, Barbie must choose between the high heel or the sandal, the red pill or the blue pill.
It was already obvious from the trailer that Barbie would be a tale about unrealistic beauty standards and the patriarchy (a system that Ryan Gosling's Ken brings back to Barbieland from the real world).
However, Gerwig goes even further and creates a multi-layered metanarrative on the intricacies, pitfalls, and wonders of the modern world through the lens of a touching mother-daughter subplot.
Ultimately, Barbie learns to reclaim her female power—cellulite and all—while reinforcing the idea that it's okay to ugly-cry, it's okay to feel ugly, and it's also okay to feel pretty.
3. Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto
Biography, Drama (1h 57m)
"God, when I meet you, I'm gonna be pretty if it's the last thing I do. I'll be a beautiful angel." Those are the heartbreaking words spoken by Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club, which helped secure for Jared Leto an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
On reflection, Dallas Buyers Club should have cast a transgender actor to play Rayon, but Leto's career-defining performance can't be denied. He almost steals the show from Matthew McConaughey's version of the real-life smuggler Ron Woodroof! Almost.
Leto leaned into his role of a transwoman diagnosed with HIV, honoring a character who refuses to give into her illness. Rayon yearns for nothing more than a life of feminine beauty, a simple dream in the face of a ravaging illness (coupled with a heroin addiction).
The innocence of this yearning—especially in a society that holds appearances so highly—makes Rayon's time in front of the mirror feel sadly poetic rather than vain.
2. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Starring Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Greg Kinnear
Comedy, Drama (1h 41m)
We're circling back to beauty pageants again in Little Miss Sunshine, but this one's slightly different than the rest. Instead of a hungry, lip-gloss-wearing teen, Olive (played by Abigail Breslin) is a seven-year-old girl who loves ice cream and wears kneepads.
Oblivious to the realities of child beauty pageants and body image issues, Olive is choreographed by her grandfather to perform the song "Super Freak."
Olive is the last remnant of childlike innocence (symbolized by the color yellow) among her loving but dysfunctional family, who agree to drive her to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant in California. So innocent, she'll break your heart when asking, "Grandpa, am I pretty?"
Upon arriving at the hypersexualized pre-teen pageant, Olive refuses to give into beauty norms and shines in her own way. Even her moody, Nietzsche-reading older brother Dwayne cheers her on!
1. The Elephant Man (1980)
Directed by David Lynch
Starring Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft
Biography, Drama (2h 4m)
The aforementioned Wonder is basically the Gen Z version of The Elephant Man, which is a tragically true story about a Victorian circus freak who was taken in by a kind doctor.
The Elephant Man is about the only David Lynch film that doesn't feature his trademark surrealism and dream logic. But even when he's working in an atypical genre, Lynch still proves a master.
John Hurt gave his greatest performance as John Merrick, who toiled with a severe form of (what experts believe was) Proteus syndrome. Enslaved under the stage name "The Elephant Man," Merrick was so deformed he couldn't even lie down to sleep in case of asphyxiation.
Despite being such a pure soul, Merrick was abused and exploited because of his looks. The image of him walking Victorian streets with a ghost-like sheet over his head to shroud his shame is made even more haunting by the fact it's a true story.
Thankfully, Frederick Treves (played by Anthony Hopkins) showed Merrick the kindness he deserved, which overwhelmed Merrick and brought him—and us—to tears.