Over 50 years since her passing, Marilyn Monroe is still a cultural icon. Famous for her red lips, seductive hips and bubbly personality, the girl born Norma-Jeane Mortensen on June 1st 1926 would grow up to become one of history’s most iconic sex symbols.
Along with fellow pop culture icons John Lennon and Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn is a common target for adoration due to her glamorous image and seemingly endless supply of quotable life wisdom. Sayings attributed to the starlet tend to be a regular feature on social media, alongside Ghandi’s “Be the change you want to see in the world” or Albert Einstein’s “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
It is through these “inspirational” quotes that in recent years Marilyn has turned into a symbol for body positivity, a historical icon for curvy girls. We’re often told how she possessed a voluptuous size 12-16 figure – a stark contrast to the skinny models the media tells young girls they should strive to emulate today. Yet Marilyn was adored by men and supposedly had enough confidence for ten women, a success despite her eschewal of beauty standards. That is why many of Marilyn’s fans would be surprised to learn that almost all of the inspirational lines credited to her didn’t actually come from her famous pout, including the well-known “I would rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I am not.”
In fact, behind the scenes Marilyn was about as far from her confident on-screen persona as you could possibly imagine. She spent her whole life haunted by low self-esteem and a range of mental health issues, which is primarily attributed to her incredibly tough childhood. Born into a family where mental health problems appeared to be hereditary, Marilyn’s mother Gladys was a severe paranoid schizophrenic who spent most of her life institutionalized. As a result, Norma-Jeane was often a lonely child, who spent her young life in and out of orphanages and foster homes. In fact, one of her major concerns was that her mother’s ‘madness’ would be passed down to her, and her bumpy upbringing left emotional scars that never truly healed.
Technically, Marilyn was loved for who she wasn’t, because the woman portrayed to the world and on the big screen never really existed. When Norma-Jeane decided a life of fame and fortune was for her, she began her transformation from mousy brunette to bombshell blonde, turning herself into the epitome of Hollywood glamour. But this reinvention was about more than just hair colour. Norma-Jeane was so desperate to succeed she underwent cosmetic surgery, getting a nose job as well as multiple other procedures including overbite correction, a chin implant and electrolysis on her hairline. The body positive statements that have become synonymous with the star do not reflect how she really felt about her appearance, and rather than preaching self-love she changed everything about herself for fame.
A common ‘Marilyn quote’ that seems to pop up a lot on social media is “Don’t worry if you’re not a size 0. It’s society who’s ugly.” But size 0 wasn’t a thing in Marilyn’s time, and if it was, it would have been pretty close to her actual measurements of 35-22-35. Even by 1950s standards, Marilyn was small, and her famous waist was 12 inches smaller than the average American woman’s today. No one is quite sure where the myth of her having a size 12-16 figure came from, but Marilyn actually stuck to a rather extreme diet regimen to maintain her tiny frame, with her weight fluctuating quite frequently. During the filming of the Prince and the Show Girl her weight went up and down so much that costume designer Beatrice Dawson had to make multiple versions of the same dress in different sizes. “I have two ulcers from this film,” she said, “and they’re both monogrammed MM.”
But her weight wasn’t the only constant battle in Marilyn’s life. As well as bouts of depression and her persistently low self-esteem, she also stuffed from stage fright, which disrupted her career several times. On the set of many of her later films, such as Some Like It Hot (1958) and Let’s Make Love (1960), she became known for her mood swings and frequent absences from set. By 1962 her issues had caused her to develop a severe addiction to barbiturates, and she spent time on a mental ward. In her last interview before her death, she is quoted as saying: “I’m one of the world’s most self-conscious people. I really have to struggle… Everybody’s always tugging at you. They’d like sort of a chunk of you.”
Eventually, Marilyn began to hate the image she had created for herself. She was tired of being stereotyped as a dumb blonde, and fed-up of people not seeing the “real her.” The only issue – she had no idea who the real her was. One thing for certain, in reality Norma-Jeane was no dumb blonde. She had a genius IQ of 169 and spent hours in acting, singing and dancing classes, but was sadly unable to recognize her own talents and strengths.
Despite the fact Marilyn’s tragic life history is now common knowledge – thanks to documentaries such as Lifetime’s The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe and the 2011 British drama My Week with Marilyn – these body confident memes and falsified lines are still prevalent. But instead of learning from her rotten past, the world has glorified her sadness, turning her simultaneously into an icon of glamour and misery. She’s somehow become a shallow sex-pot combined with a confidence-boosting vigor, just as one-dimensional as the roles she tried to distance herself from.
When we repost memes of Marilyn spouting lines like “Being normal is boring” or “If you can’t handle me at my worst you don’t deserve me at my best,” you’re perpetuating that myth. You’re reinforcing the idea that it is better to be damaged than dull, and that beauty and tragedy make excellent bedfellows. You’re helping to reduce her to the stereotypes she hated while she was alive, the kind that eventually led to her death.
Yes, Marilyn Monroe was one-of-a-kind, and her talent and beauty deserve to be admired. But underneath it all Marilyn was a person, not a Pinterest quote. If anything, we should learn from her struggles rather than glossing over them, if one of the most beautiful and talented women to ever have existed battled self-esteem issues, then maybe it’s a sign we should start being kinder to ourselves also.
-Sophie Lloyd for The Untitled Magazine