The concept of a single ideal of attractiveness has been ubiquitous in Western culture for decades.
The beauty ideal has changed over time, but the idea that there is only one way to have a beautiful body has not. And our current ideal body is a digital one.
Devoid not only of fat rolls, acne, scars, and cellulite, but also of pores and any of the “imperfections” that make us human. For every Photo Shop of Horrors picture where we groan that a model’s head is wider than her hips, there are thousands of dramatically retouched images that we view without question – online, on billboards, in magazines, even in television and film.
It’s been a long time since the media has shown us pictures that are actually representative of the women in them.
Women are pressured to wear make-up, unimaginably uncomfortable shoes, magical underwear, get manicures, pedicures, shave, bleach, pluck and wax hair, even be surgically altered to try to approximate a standard that not even the people in the pictures could achieve. But before we do any of that, we’d better by god be thin.
Oh yes, if there’s anything that Maria Kang’s “What’s Your Excuse” debacle reinforced for me, it’s the idea that women are supposed to consider the manipulation of our body size to be of primary importance as an “accomplishment” – that until we’ve accomplished thinness, we are works in progress, and that there is no excuse for not participating in this.
Last year, Gorgeously Green published an article (that they have since taken down) called “Don’t Hate Me” in which the author waxes on about a – gasp – fat women who dares to go to the same nail salon and – wait for it – gets a manicure.
She wonders why someone who is so far outside the beauty ideal would bother having her nails done.
She says (trigger warning for general and specific fat-hating jackassery and conflation of weight and health):
Hasn’t something gone wrong when pretty pink nails make someone feel better about their high blood pressure? When a serum helps someone ignore the cell mutations taking place in their body? When a good foundation helps someone smile through their insulin shot? I adore beauty products and they are truly there for all of us, no matter what our short comings. But priorities! Please.
And here we have the crux of the issue.
First is the idea that body size and health are the same thing.
Next we have the insistence that other’s people’s “health,” as judged by their body size, is our business.
Finally, there’s the idea that if someone isn’t thin or healthy based on our perception, they should confine themselves to going to the gym, eating salads without dressing, and running gravel through their hair.
It’s not about policing how we look, they tell us – it’s for our health, for our own good! We should set our dreams aside and say thank you. Priorities! Please.
I don’t think the research supports the idea that we can tell anything from anybody’s body except what size they are and what our preconceived notions about their body size are. While of course neither health nor “healthy habits” by any definition are an obligation, barometer or worthiness, completely within our control, or guaranteed, studies that control for factors like behaviors consistently show that they are a better predictor of health than body size is.
But even if it was true that body size is indicative of health, the way that women are treated based on our body size suggests that this whole “it’s about your health” thing is nothing more than one of those excuses we’ve heard so much about to justify poor behavior.
Our body size isn’t just seen as a police-able “work in progress.” It’s also the golden ticket that allows us to follow our dreams.
It’s the way that society chooses so many of our actors, singers, and dancers based on their ability to approximate the stereotype of beauty first, and their talent second.
It’s the way that every week, I see videos on Facebook that say “You won’t believe what happens after she walks on stage,” and then is nothing more than a fat person who can sing or dance.
Talented fat people are not actually shocking, but in a society where thin is the price of admission to being on stage, people have actually forgotten that it’s not just thin people who are talented.
A fat body is also seen as a reason to ignore other accomplishments.
It’s Gabourey Sidebe giving a beautiful speech on confidence and then being inundated in comments concern-trolling her about her health despite the fact that it has nothing to do with her speech and that she didn’t ask for anybody’s opinion or advice.
It’s publications from Salon to the Huffington Post to feministlawprofessors.com publishing pieces with “Is Dr. Regina Benjamin Too Fat to be Surgeon General” in the title, guessing about everything from her dress size to her family’s health history, as if those things negate her actual credentials as a health professional for a job as a health professional.
It’s Jennifer Hudson in a commercial saying “Before [losing weight with] Weight Watchers, my world was can’t” when before Weight Watchers shewas an American Idol finalist, won a Grammy for her first album and an Oscar for her first film role. But Weight Watchers wants us to believe that she just couldn’t get anything done until she was thin.
It’s an opera critic writing a 250-word review of Terra Erraught’s performance that body shamed her in several ways, but failed to mention her singing.
It’s the way that fat people who are successful at things other than weight loss are kept hidden under the ridiculous notion that our existence will “promote” – or, worse, “glorify” – obesity.
The irony of suggesting that we should do whatever we can to avoid linking body size with achievement apparently escaping everyone.
For Women of Color, this can become even more difficult as racism and respectability politics enter into the conversation.
The stereotype of beauty is firmly rooted in whiteness, putting Women of Color at an almost insurmountable disadvantage in terms of the privilege that beauty confers.
The idea that Women of Color are obligated to present the “best possible image” (as judged by white people) for purposes of respectability can heap on to the oppression experienced by Women of Color, and those who are also Women of Size.
Women like Gabhourey Sidibe, Mary Lambert, Melissa McCarthy, Amber Riley, and Rebel Wilson are breaking through and lighting the way. They are examples of women who refuse to put their lives on hold unless and until they successfully manipulate their body size. More and more women are doing the same thing.
As feminists, we have lots of options to deal with this.
First, we each get to make choices for our own bodies. We each get to choose how highly we prioritize our health and the path that we take to get there. We can choose to try to manipulate the size of our bodies, and we can believe that will improve our health. None of our decisions or beliefs justify make anyone else’s body or health our business.
Feminism means not treating a fat female body as a sign that a woman can’t make decisions for herself. We do not empower women by suggesting that if they can’t or won’t become thin, believe that becoming thin is the only path to health, or prioritize and pursue health the way that we want them to, we should help them out by keeping them from achieving anything.
So at the very least, let’s not be part of the problem. When a fat woman talks about her oppression and how we can lessen it, or what it’s like to exist in the world (including online) in a fat body while talking about something else, let’s resist the urge to make or type some hand-wringing paternalistic comment about her health.
If we want to take it a step further, we can start educating ourselves.
What’s the root of the obesity epi-panic? Is the fact that diet companies make over 60 billion dollars a year (up from 40 billion just a few years ago) driving the conversation? What does the research say about weight, weight loss, and health?
And, as always, we can choose activism.
We can interrupt conversations that suggest that women’s bodies should be treated like achievements if they are thin enough, and works in progress if they’re not.
We can respect other women’s bodies and choices as feminists of any size.
Fat acceptance is a feminist issue, and we can choose to take the lead so that no fat feminist is left behind.
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Ragen Chastain is a trained researcher, three-time National Champion dancer, and marathoner who writes and speaks full-time about self-esteem, body image, and health. Ragen is the author of the blog DancesWithFat and the book Fat: The Owner’s Manual, and her writing has been published in forums including the Huffington Post, Calgary Herald, Jezebel.com, and The Frisky.com. She has been a guest on programs including Fox News, Alberta Primetime, HuffPost Live, NPR, BBC, and NBC News, and has been featured as an expert in media including The Associated Press, Bloomberg Businessweek, FITNESS, and the Chicago Tribune. She is the editor of the multi-volume anthology The Politics of Size – Perspectives from the Fat Acceptance Movement, due out for Praeger in 2015.