Hello, everyone! A few days ago, I was driving home from work and listening to the podcast Poog, which details two women’s hilarious obsession with wellness products, when one of the hosts said something that stuck with me. “There’s a refusal to acknowledge that [wellness] is bullshit. It’s an end to itself.”
As the two women discuss the various products they’ve bought and classes they’ve taken to “get well,” it becomes clear that “wellness” is more about the journey than the destination. And that journey is often fueled by the unending need to purchase something, consume something, or change something about ourselves in order to finally feel good. While the never-ending search for “wellness” can feel very 2020, especially with the success of wellness industry titans like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop (yes, Poog backwards), the need to be constantly working towards a better version of oneself is not a novel concept.
An iconic example of this ideology is Helen Fielding’s 1996 novel Bridget Jones’s Diary. Based off of Fielding’s humorous newspaper columns about the daily life of an anonymous woman, the novel follows Bridget through one year of her life as she tries to lose weight, stop smoking, find career success, and find a boyfriend. On the surface, it’s a classic piece of silly chick-lit, and the type of book that hardly leaves an impression. Deeper down, however, the novel is a critique of the vapid commercialistic society of the 1990s, a society that only finds value in women who are thin, pretty, and paired off to a man.
Lots of books with female protagonists contain one-off lines about how the main character wishes they were prettier, or thinner, or had a boyfriend, but Bridget Jones’s Diary is notable because it chronicles the obsessive and masochistic process of being a woman in a society that seems to despise womanhood itself. On every entry, Bridget meticulously records her weight, the amount of cigarettes she’s consumed, the number of calories she’s eaten, the amount of alcohol she’s imbibed, and on some days the number of obsessive or negative thoughts that she might have. While her personal life goes through momentous changes, she experiences career highs and lows, and her family drama invades her personal life in constant intervals, she never stops recording those numbers. It’s as if they, more than anything, are the things that define her. The novel, as a whole, is evidence of that thesis.
Almost every character comments on Bridget’s weight, her looks, or her relationship status. Couples that she is friendly with, referred to as the “Smug Marrieds” make it a point to bring up her lack of a boyfriend at every opportunity, often in the most humiliating way possible. Her mother harasses her and attempts to fix her up, and even her colleagues butt into her personal life. When Bridget sees other women in romantic relationships, she believes that their success lies in their thinness. In one particularly cutting scene, a woman, upon first meeting Bridget, remarks “I thought you said she was thin!” Never mind the fact that Bridget, according to her own measurements, fluctuates between 119 and 130 lbs throughout the whole book. By any means, she embodies the ideal of thinness, yet the unending negative remarks from her family, friends, and colleagues traps her in a cycle of negativity where the only way out is drastic self-improvement.
Reading Bridget’s self-flagellating thoughts can be painful. As a woman, I’m no stranger to Bridget’s brand of identity-based negativity, and like her, am constantly in the process of “changing” something about my body, whether that be weight, skin, hair, etc. One Goodreads reviewer gave the book one star because “the book made [her] feel like garbage” because “friends, family and other characters call [Bridget] fat throughout the novel and [the reviewer]… weighs over 15 kilos more than Bridget.” This aspect of the book disturbed me not because of how vicious it was, but because of how realistic and relevant it remains to this day. So many books about women merely skim the surface of the problematic expectations that women face on a daily basis, but Bridget Jones’s Diary showcases them off plainly. This is a book that says that being an “acceptable” woman in modern society is exactly as impossible as it seems, and that hiding that fact only makes subverting those expectations even harder.
Besides critiquing the superficiality of modern society, the book also attacks the institution of traditional marriage. While Bridget and her self-described “singleton” friends often lament not having a romantic partner, almost all of the romantic relationships in this novel are shown to be failures. Bridget’s parents’ marriage has failed after her mother, tired of being undervalued, leaves to find a career and has a fling with a man named Julio. Bridget’s friends Magda and Jeremy pretend to have a loving marriage, but Jeremy is secretly cheating with a young colleague. Even Bridget’s seemingly perfect relationship with her boss Daniel Cleaver ends in heartbreak and cheating. The only functioning relationship we see doesn’t appear until the very end of the novel. Of course, it’s with the love interest, Mark Darcy, who is revealed to be not only rich, but kind and handsome as well. He’s the ideal love interest, as perfect as he is unrealistic. Although Fielding ends her novel with a cliché, the other 400 pages she spends devoted to criticizing traditional marriages undercuts her happy ending.
By the end of the novel, little has changed for Bridget in terms of the numbers that define her life. She weighs roughly the same, still smokes, and still drinks. Big life changes have come her way in the form of a career change and a new boyfriend, but Bridget’s most fundamental transformation is her decision to stop focusing on these numbers and start prioritizing her personal happiness. That decision, not her relationship, is her biggest triumph. Yet we readers know that this triumph will be short lived. I haven’t read the sequel yet, but I’m sure on the first page, I’ll see Bridget once again chronicling her weight. It’s an impossible idea for women to shake, and I don’t know a single woman who doesn’t think about their weight or appearance on a regular or semi-regular basis. This realism is what makes Bridget such a compelling character, and the novel such an important book. It’s silly and funny and fluffy on the outside, but critical and incisive at the core. If aliens ever visit Earth and ask for an explanatory guide to modern society, I can think of few better tomes than Bridget Jones’s Diary.
And while the movie is hilarious, I don’t think it captures Fielding’s critique quite as well. The movie aged Bridget up, made her heavier, and made the characters nicer, which defeated the scathing point of the original novel, which was that young, thin, pretty Bridget was still not good enough for society. The movie sticks more to conventional chick-lit tropes, and while the ending is cute and empowering, it makes it seem like all Bridget needed to find happiness was a handsome boyfriend, and not her own self-acceptance. Hey, that’s Hollywood for you!