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The Power of Bryce Dallas Howard's Body in Argylle

“I’m retired from talking about my body,” Bryce Dallas Howard tells me as we sit in a fancy Manhattan hotel lobby a few days before the premiere of her new movie Argylle. It turns out, however, that she has plenty to say about it.

To be fair, I was the one who started the conversation. I had gone to a screening a few weeks earlier, and I could not take my eyes off Howard. She looked like so many women I knew. O.K., more beautiful than most women I know, but with a familiar silhouette. The feeling was reminiscent of the first time I saw a female in an action movie who could hold her own. (It was the drinking scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, regrettably, but still!) A bit like terror, and a bit like hope.

It feels taboo to even talk about this, but Howard, who plays a spy novelist with mysterious powers, is what is sometimes referred to in the fashion industry as “not sample size.” (Sample sizes start at 4 and go down from there.) “I straight up said to Matthew, ‘I just want you to know that this is my body. And if you want my body to be smaller, I think you should hire someone else,’” says Howard of her conversation with British director Matthew Vaughn when he asked her to do the role. “And he said, ‘No, I'm hiring you because of you.’”

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Argylle opens the way pretty much all blockbustery secret-agent movies do: handsome jacked man (Henry Cavill does the honors) meets sylph-like woman (Dua Lipa) in a bar. Witty banter ensues. A preposterous dance scene is followed by an even more preposterous chase sequence, which ends with John Cena gently putting down his latte just in time to pull Dua Lipa off a speeding motorcycle by the back of her sexy-yet-athletic gold frock.

It’s all a little much, even from Vaughn, who, with the Kingsman movies, has contributed his fair share of improbable espionage cinema. But the most daring thing he does, to me, isn’t the rainbow tear-gas sequence-slash-dance routine, or the 100% definitely deceased characters he resurrects at a crucial moment, or even the mega-cringe fireworks double entendres. It’s the heroine who is not rail thin. As with her roles in Jurassic Park and Spider-Man, Howard’s part in Argylle involves action. (She was an accomplished martial-arts athlete in her youth.) “I was actually able to be stronger on this movie than any other film I had ever done,” she says. “Because I wasn't hungry for one day.”

A beautiful, smart, non-sample-size woman in a $200 million action movie by a major director should not be that rare in 2024, but it is. And it should also not feel like such a blow for rightsizing our attitude toward women’s bodies, but it does. “It's very strange that that's been something that's been specifically policed, where people hiring actresses say, ‘We want you, but 20 pounds less you,’” says Howard. “What it means is the person who would be what is called straight-sized, or medium, is being forced for a period of time to become fatigued, which is not sustainable.”

Sure, there have been movies featuring non-skinny women, most of them named Melissa McCarthy, but in many the weight is played for laughs. Sometimes the actor seems to be in on the joke, like when Rebel Wilson’s character embraces the name Fat Amy in Pitch Perfect or McCarthy and Octavia Spencer squeeze into a tiny car in Thunder Force. But in Argylle, the fact that Howard is not a stick of spaghetti is neither disguised nor the point of a gag. It’s not even a plot point. She’s just who she is. She wears sexy gowns and clingy jeans and gets the soft-lighting treatment the same as any romantic lead would.

Howard has talked before about the impossible standards women in Hollywood face. At the 2016 Golden Globes Red Carpet, she spoke of the limited options size 6 actresses have for designer gowns. In 2022, she revealed she’d been “asked to not use her natural body” in one of the Jurassic World installments. To her, it feels like asking actors to lose weight is a workplace safety issue. “Being asked to change yourself in ways that are actually not healthy and not appropriate,” she says, “shouldn't even be part of the conversation right now.”

But the attitude extends way beyond movie stars. Despite the activism of advocates for body acceptance, not being thin is considered, to many in the U.S., such a horrific fate that there isn’t even an acceptable, nonjudgmental word for it. Heavy, ample, plump, tubby—these might as well be curse words. It’s not people’s fault for feeling this way; society tells us from the time we’re young that thin is perpetually in.

And while we’re not supposed to comment on body size, the pressure to shrink oneself doesn’t go away just because it’s not verbalized. In the age of Ozempic, many of us are engaged in a quiet – or not-so-quiet – game of “Was that body earned or medicated?” as if skinniness were a reward for good behavior, rather than one of humanity’s many diversities. There is such a prohibition on size, in fact, that people took to Twitter to celebrate the closing of Sports Illustrated in January, because the editors once had the temerity to put more fleshy models on the cover of its swimsuit issue. And yet, in the U.S., the average woman wears a size 16-18.

Howard admits that with a famous director dad, her “proximity to power since childhood has been immense,” and therefore she has more protection from the whims of producers than others. Or as she puts it, she sometimes has “a f-ck-you 15” that producers have to deal with or not. It’s strange that this blow for returning our sense of a woman’s size to normality should come from a director like Vaughn, who is married to Claudia Schiffer, a legit supermodel. But for the sake of women everywhere, and their daughters, we’ll take it.

Contact us at letters@time.com.