Jessica Simpson, amateur ethnographer

Could the pop star's new VH1 reality series actually succeed in challenging cultural ideas of beauty?

By Judy Berman

Published June 23, 2009 6:24PM (EDT)

Jessica Simpson has been getting more press lately for her fluctuating weight than for her music (or acting, or whatever it is she does these days). But instead of apologizing for her existence in a cover story for People, Simpson is flipping the script: She's turning America's obsession with her waistline into a potentially promising VH1 reality series.

On "The Price of Beauty," which is slated to air next year, Simpson will travel the world "to meet women, study local fashions, dietary fads and beauty regimes" in hopes of uncovering what "true beauty" means to a variety of cultures. Now, I know what you're thinking -- and I'm thinking it, too. Jessica Simpson -- the woman who, on her last reality show, couldn't figure out whether Chicken of the Sea was fish or fowl -- "studying" global beauty standards? Isn't that kind of work best left to people whose names end in "Ph.D."?

Perhaps. Simpson's press-release quote about the show is certainly trite: "I have always believed that beauty comes from within and confidence will always make a woman beautiful, but I know how much pressure some women put on themselves to look perfect." And even if she does intend to give serious thought to why what is considered beautiful in Zimbabwe differs so much from her own "All-American" good looks, won't VH1's evil-genius producers foil her at every turn, manipulating the "unscripted" show for as many "blonde moments" as they can pack into a half hour?

Probably. But I can't help retaining a shred of optimism. Americans are more fascinated now than they've ever been with fashion, beauty and standards of propriety across cultures. Debates rage about topics from plastic surgery to Islamic dress. How great would it be if Simpson gets girls in Nebraska talking about France's burqa debate? Or if her explorations in Africa convince another teen that dieting down to a size two isn't necessary? Amid VH1's "Celebreality" wasteland of fake boobs and addictsploitation, "The Price of Beauty" could -- maybe, possibly -- turn out to be a rare oasis of sanity.

Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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