It seems impossible that anyone could experience the year 2015 as Amy Schumer did and ever lack confidence again. Recall that 2015 was the year Schumer a.) won a Peabody Award for the second season of her sketch show, Inside Amy Schumer, b.) went viral nearly every week with that show’s critically worshipped third season, c.) made her movie debut with the huge hit Trainwreck, which she also happened to write, d.) won an Emmy, e.) hosted SNL for the first time, and f.) deftly maneuvered a $13M book deal for her eventual bestseller, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo. If it’s exhausting just to list these milestones, surely living through them would buffer one’s confidence with some sort of Ironman-like supersuit forever. Right?
Schumer’s new film, I Feel Pretty, is about confidence partly because, like most other mortals, the comedian has been up and down with insecurity her entire life.
In I Feel Pretty, Schumer plays Renee Bennett, a woman with a crappy job in a Manhattan basement and no self-esteem. She’s terminally intimidated by the bodies of the other women tapping it back at Soul Cycle–that is, until she suffers a head injury in class one day and undergoes a transformation. Although she looks no different and her professional and social circumstances have not improved in any way, Renee suddenly has the confidence of, well, post-2015 Amy Schumer, perhaps. The confidence boost leads to our protagonist getting a better job, working for Michelle Williams’ cosmetics CEO, falling for an amiable dude played by Rory Scovel, and confusing her best friends (Busy Philipps and Aidy Bryant). It’s a comedy with a timely message about self-worth for a generation raised on literal “Likes.”
Ahead of the film’s April 20 release date, Fast Company spoke with Amy Schumer about her own fluctuating confidence, the backlash to the film’s trailer, and the transformative power of not giving a fuck.
Toward the end of I Feel Pretty, your character Renee says that “when we’re little girls, we have all the confidence in the world.” That struck me as a line that might be personal to you.
I wrote that line, so yes.
Do you feel like you personally never lost that confidence?
No, I definitely did. I’ve been up and down my whole life. I think I have a really good baseline now where I am proud of myself, but that takes a lot of work. That took therapy and letting go of the past and just realizing kind of who I am. And what makes somebody who they are.
What are some of the ways the world conspires to make women feel bad about themselves from an early-ish age?
I think bullying is a factor. I was definitely bullied. When you’re a little girl and a boy is especially mean to you or teases you, they say it’s because he likes you. It’s always like “He likes you!” Well, he hit my books out of my hand. “That’s your valentine!” And rather than try and change that, we’re conditioned to be like, “That’s just boys being boys!” Although girls can be twice as brutal bullies—psychological warfare. And I think advertisers prey on your insecurities too, like if you don’t buy our products, you’ll die alone. It’s getting better now but I don’t think it’s because they suddenly got a better moral code. I think they were just selling fewer magazines, with “How to Get a Six-Pack” and “How to Make Him Cum Out His Nose.” All media has been run by white men of a certain taste for so long. That’s why we need more people of color and women at the very heads of studios and everything so we can get away from that old model.
One thing I really like about your movie is the idea that it takes an actual head injury to make Renee not feel so insecure.
Some people took issue with that. I think rewiring yourself to like yourself is a lot of work and anyone who feels like this is unrealistic hasn’t done that yet.
Another thing I like about the movie is how it connects Renee’s confidence about her looks to other areas of her life—like her career. Do you think having low confidence limits the scope of someone’s ambition?
Yeah, that’s really the message and what I want to accomplish with this movie is for everybody–but definitely women–to live up to their full potential, and you can’t do that if you don’t have the confidence to participate. We’ve been raised that you have to be likable, you have to be a good hostess, you have to be positive and pleasant, you can’t ever be angry, and you have to be really pretty and really thin. I think that limits a lot of women and holds them back. And so this movie is to say that what you look like is not who you are and you need to get out of your own way, and fall in love with yourself so that you can reach your full potential and help us change the world.
I recently interviewed the comedy writer Nell Scovell, who also co-wrote the book Lean In, and she said that men are always more likely to apply for a job they’re unqualified for than women. So confidence probably affects gender equality in jobs.
We were raised under the illusion of equality, my generation, and we really don’t have it yet. To not have a woman on the board of anything that represents women and men is just not a good idea. We have unique experiences. We are different, women and men, and we need to be represented by the decision-makers. Especially when it comes to our goddamn bodies. I mean, is this fucking crazy or what?
When it comes to your personal job, you look very confident on stage telling jokes. How long did it take you to get confident about standup?
Five years to have a confident seven minutes. But really: 10 years. I’m 15 years in now, and in a lot of ways, haven’t even started yet, for real.
Have you ever struggled with Impostor Syndrome in your career at any point?
What does that mean, sir?
It’s a term that’s been getting popular in the last few years. It’s when you’re at a new job or a new phase in your career and you worry that you’re in over your head. A self-doubting kind of thing.
A hot new phrase? That’s fun. I will use that. But yeah, sure. Still, sometimes my friends and I will still text each other after we bomb, like “I couldn’t wait to get up there and tell these people like it is—and then nothing!” Absolutely. Sometimes I break it down, like, these people don’t have to sit there and listen to you, why don’t they just get up and leave? Why are they listening to me?
What do you think about the confidence-boosting expression “Fake it ’til you make it?”
I believe that’s a good technique. Also, preparation plus opportunity equals luck, according to Oprah, and I believe that too.
It’s a shame there’s no on-switch where you can suddenly be like, “I’m confident now!”
It’s like the only person in the world with that unflappable confidence is the one we wish didn’t have it. He should not feel that way and we all should.
Have you ever sort of pretended you didn’t give a fuck in situations when you actually did?
Luckily, I’ve gotten so desensitized from so much cruelty for decades that I don’t have to fake it now. It’s not that I’ve been so hurt that I can’t feel it anymore, it’s more than I realized what was behind those comments and just have a great baseline for actually loving myself that can’t be fucked with at this point by anyone I don’t know. My family can still level me, but a stranger, a critic, someone in the industry—with them, I feel untouchable.
I related so much to Renee’s rant about getting the right picture for her dating profile. I’ve seen pictures of myself that have straight-up ruined my day. Have you ever obsessed about how you come across in photos?
No, to a fault, actually. I will not realize that I’ve gained a lot of weight. And nobody gives me a heads-up and then I’ll see a picture and be like, ‘Oh shit!’ But it doesn’t set me back. I’m healthy and my limbs work and my organs work. Other than that, I’m an athlete—I can get it together. But if I’m not working, it’s like, ‘Yes, I will drink wine every night.’ I’m taking more time off for myself.
Has becoming super famous over the last few years given you any insight into the insecurities of the stars?
Once you understand that’s how actors are going to be, it’s not really interesting anymore. I would say most actors are riddled with insecurity on a level that I can’t even connect to. When there was a backlash to the trailer, like “She has it hard because she looks like that? What about me?” Well, it’s not a movie about this disgusting girl becoming pretty, it’s about a woman with low self-esteem and it’s just one woman. But in the movie, that scene with Emily [Ratajkowski, a model and actor] where she’s like, “I feel insecure and have bad days.” My character is like “Fuck you,” but that really is how it is. The people I know who are categorized as the most beautiful people, they’re no happier than you or me.
Finally, what’s the difference between a healthy amount of self-criticism and hating yourself?
I think as long as you’re not harming anyone else, you’re okay. Love yourself as much as possible as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else—and that includes being a narcissist and focusing too much on yourself because that would hurt the people closest to you.