“In my early 20s I used to worry a lot. I was worried about being a good mom. I was worried about being a good actress. I worried about whether or not people respected me, or if I was kind enough. But in the end it all works out. Really!”

By Reese Witherspoon, as told to Laura Brown
Aug 06, 2019 @ 8:00 am
Reese Witherspoon in a Levi’s shirt and skirt and her own rings. Photo by Helena Christensen/One Management

I was on my first InStyle cover in 2002, when I was 26. I had always been a fan of the magazine, so it was a big deal. Looking at that cover now, I can’t help but feel tender toward baby Reese and anyone else who’s going through that phase of life when they’re discovering who they are, especially in the public eye. I know what she’s about to go through and endure and triumph over, but she has no idea what’s to come, despite the fact that she does look all coy and knowing. I’m an actor: I might look like I know things sometimes, but I don’t.

Since then I’ve been on the cover of InStyle five more times. I guess you could say I’ve been swimming in the soup. It’s been a huge privilege and an honor. Sometimes I do cringe when I look back [at images of myself], but it’s only because I can’t believe I cut my hair or plucked my eyebrows a certain way. More than that, I usually just think about what a lovely way it is to remember milestones in my life, like finishing a project I was really proud of or having kids. It’s crazy how time flies, but I’ve learned so much about myself over the years. There’s a pretty good quote in my 2002 cover story where I said, “Listening to other people’s ideas about who you are can eat you up. Do they like me? Do they hate me? You could think about it all day long.” That’s something people say in their 20s. Once you’re in your 40s you don’t care what people think.

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I came up in a time when Hollywood was about one body type, one beauty standard [blond hair and blue eyes]. Still, I was confident that the substance of what I had to say was more important than any external validation. I was always just being myself: a young mom, a comedian, a goofball. I’ve always been a goofball. I feel more comfortable making funny faces than serious faces, and even at 26, I wasn’t appearing on the covers of men’s magazines. That kind of hypersexualization made me feel awkward, and if I felt that way, I didn’t want to make other women feel that way.

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I’ve always valued female friendship and closeness with women over the idea of men desiring whatever persona I was putting out in the world. I think I was lucky that I always felt like I was best friends with my audience. They were my best friends. And if I lived in Ohio, I would probably be their best friend. So, for me, it was important to remember who was looking at the pictures instead of who was taking the pictures.

That’s another thing we don’t even really realize: It was always men taking our pictures — white men, specifically. Over the course of my career I’ve seen that shift to where women and people of color are taking the pictures. It creates different images, and that’s powerful. It’s not just that the models are changing; it’s those creating the art. And that changes the way we see beauty in the world.

It’s comforting to know that our culture has adjusted and that my daughter and my grandchildren won’t have to grow up with some oppressive idea of what is beautiful or try to fit into some sort of mold that’s actually the anomaly, not the norm. Honestly, I feel like it’s such a great time for young women. A lot of people think the Internet is destroying things, but I’ve never seen such female solidarity. I’ve never seen so many women understand that they are consumers and their voices matter. I’ve never seen more women’s stories told. I’ve never seen more people of color have ascendency in our business or LGBTQA+ communities being acknowledged. I would rather be in a time when I just have a seat at a table that’s more representative of the real world than in a time that was really showing only white women — and very few, at that — as the heroes of stories.

Now there are conversations being had about pay equality and representation on film. These are conversations that we were having in an echo chamber by ourselves 10 years ago. I would talk to a studio head and be told, “Well, I’m only making one movie with a woman this year.” They had no compunction saying those things to you. None! Now they would be embarrassed — and probably fired.

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I’m just one of many women who were fed up with being siloed from each other, and I’m enormously encouraged by what’s happening now. Yes, there’s still a lot of bad in the world. But I’m a really optimistic person, and I find it so fulfilling to have great female partnerships. Right now I’m producing and starring in a show called Little Fires Everywhere with Kerry Washington, and it’s going great. Whether I’m working with Kerry or Nicole [Kidman] or Jennifer Aniston, it’s so fun to collaborate with these women. I’m just enjoying this time in my career. It’s a thrill to go to work.

In my early 20s I used to worry a lot. I was worried about being a good mom. I was worried about being a good actress. I was worried about whether or not people respected me, or if I was kind enough or doing enough. But in the end it all works out. Really! So if there’s one thing I could tell young Reese, I would tell her not to worry. And then I’d give her a big hug.

How I’d describe myself:
In 2002 — Excited, Sassy, Full Of Beans
Today — Been Through Some Things, Centered, Certain About Who I Am

Photographed by Helena Christensen on May 30 in New York City. Styling: Petra Flannery for Two Management. Hair: Lona Vigi for Starworks Artists. Makeup: Molly R. Stern for Starworks Artists. Location: The Whitby Hotel, New York.

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