I woke up today thinking about weight. Human weight, that is, and our collective and individual attitudes toward it, especially, of course, when it comes to women. Since this post is about weight and (mostly) women, let’s get this out of the way. Over the last three years, I’ve lost a great deal of weight — my health had gone south for many reasons and whether too much weight on my 5 foot 5 inch frame was a result or a cause or just went along with it, I could no longer pretend to be above the fray. I’m stating this at the beginning of this post because I want to be clear that I do have an oar in the water on this topic, but my comments to come are not so much about me as about attitudes toward this physical phenomenon that have, to my way of thinking, become increasingly toxic.
A while ago, I saw an article on the web about Gabourey Sidibe‘s response to snarky comments from social media about her appearance at the Golden Globes where, apparently, she committed the crime of “being in public while fat.” Her response made me want to cheer (this is a paraphrase): “When I think of the hateful comments at GG, I mos def cry all the way to my private jet and to the dream job I’m flying to.” And why did I want to cheer? Two reasons: her refusal to accept others’ opinions of her weight and her value; and the fact that for her, her talent and her work come first and she has no time for those for whom her body and personal appearance should be more important.
Just a few days ago, Tara Erraught, a mezzo-soprano rising star in Grand Opera, was critiqued more for her weight than for her voice in a performance as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier, which set of nasty comments, as they should have, set off a firestorm of criticism directed against the reviewers. They, as a group, did mention in passing that she sang well, but how dare she have the nerve to appear on a public stage while fat! (By the way, she isn’t fat, which didn’t used to be an ugly word, except by the very strange and unpleasant standards of today. She’s what used to be called in a kinder age zaftig, rounded and very pretty as you can see from the photo just below.)
Earlier this year I read a most thought-provoking article about how Jennifer Lawrence, America’s sweetheart, is actually buying into the zeitgeist in her comments about her own weight. The point the author made (and I’m very sorry, but I can’t find the reference on the web to the name of the author of this article) is that BECAUSE Jennifer Lawrence is within the parameters of weight we allow for women in our culture, she can talk about how she never diets, loves fries and hamburgers, can’t understand the fuss about weight, and so forth. The writer compared Lawrence’s statements to quotes by Melissa McCarthy in which she says she eats healthily, does not eat sweets and finds weight difficult to lose. The writer points out that the message is clear. A thin or thinner woman isn’t shamed in public or in private for eating, while a fatter woman is. The writer went on to give an example of a woman (let’s call her Suzy) going up to another woman (let’s call her Beth) in a pizza parlor. Suzy considered Beth to be overweight. Beth was about to eat a slice of pizza. Suzy “intervened”, suggesting to Beth (and everybody else in the place) that Beth should not be eating something so unhealthy. (So tell me, what was Suzy doing in the pizza parlor then if pizza is so unhealthy?)
And, on a trivial level but it still counts, I’ve always wanted to know why a woman (much more than a man) of larger than stylish size cannot get any calories from cheese puffs without somebody giving her the stink eye, while somebody female who is thin can eat all the cheese puffs she wants. That kind of puts paid to the notion that it is “health” that people are concerned about. Believe me, cheese puffs are unhealthy for ANYBODY, and if you are thin and eating them, then you’re obviously not eating as much of food with, you know, actual vitamins and nutrients that might make up for the empty calories, salt, sugar, trans fats and whatnot that are the only ingredients in cheese puffs. Okay, there’s some cheese in there somewhere.
Oh, and while we’re on the trivial end of this subject, could somebody tell me why a male whose beer gut is assuming barrel-sized proportions will have the gall to tell his (slimmer) woman companion (and what is SHE thinking, besides contemplating her despair at watching his belly blossom) “Are you sure you really want that dinner roll?” Apart from wishing that the woman’s immediate reaction would be to stuff the dinner roll down his jerky throat, the answer to my question here is easy. We still live in a world in which a male is judged by his deeds, while a woman is judged by her appearance. Just take a look at pictures of distinguished, craggy, older men (and there’s a lot of them) and then the pictures (you’ll see three — Dame Judi Dench, Dame Helen Mirren, and Dame Maggie Smith) of compelling and vital older women. Okay, four, if you include Hillary Clinton, but if her picture is part of the article, the comments will be of the “while she is a fine or hard-working or terrible (whatever point the writer is trying to make) politician, what is that thing she’s doing with her hair and why is she always in a pantsuit?” variety. (Further trivial note. Why is it when women wear them, they’re “pantsuits”, while when men wear them, they’re just “suits”?)
Obesity (which is a really ugly word, isn’t it?) does indeed have health consequences, although in spite of all the hype, every day it seems we get news items (tucked away, because obesity, by fiat and obviously, HAS to be unhealthy) showing that, for example, high cholesterol is not as dangerous as everybody thinks and that as you get older, you need to have more weight on you in order to be healthier and last longer. But because it is visible, obesity has turned into the red flag indicator for a person who does not take proper care of his or her health and is, therefore, not just in danger of keeling over at any time, but deserves to.
Because of this, it seems we all are allowed, even mandated, to shame anybody over a certain weight or size because it is, after all, for their good. (Like being really rude about and to smokers.) We can all pretend that we are not expressing our own attitudes and revulsion and fears, but that we are rather simply and winningly being concerned about another human being’s health. But as far as I can see, our attitudes toward obesity use the EXCUSE that we are concerned about health when in actuality we are shaming the person for what we consider to be a failure of character as well as of public aesthetics.
As you know, I get all historical about these things. While sloth and gluttony are and always were considered to be sins, the definition has changed over time. For most of history, food was scarce and only wealthy people had enough to eat; therefore a certain embonpoint would be considered healthy and admirable. Why? Because wealth meant industry and work and the favor of God. Therefore, God’s favor and wealth allowed you to eat as much as you liked because you could afford it. All those paintings we laugh about now featuring young women we consider to be fat as the objects of desire and how could that possibly be so — well, they WERE the objects of desire because they were well-off, obviously fertile, and could sustain a pregnancy to full healthy term. (There’s a meme going around Facebook recently on which such glorious women as Aphrodite and the Three Graces (Botticelli) and various subjects of Titian and Rubens are Photoshopped into what we consider healthy and attractive today. Here’s the URL: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/22/art-history-photoshopped_n_5367171.html?ncid=fcbklnkushpmg00000063
Now, of course, food in the western first world is cheap, especially the kinds of food that scientists (and anybody with common sense) say are the most likely to create excess weight — refined carbohydrates, sugar and trans fats. If you are poor, if your food budget is tiny, if the only store you have within walking distance (and you don’t have a car) is a 7-11, it is not easy or sometimes even possible to find and purchase the “healthy” foods (fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fresh fish, and so forth) that we now consider necessary for health (and thinness). So the paradigm has definitely shifted: now those who are thin are assumed to be thin because of their sterling character and self-discipline, not because they don’t have enough to eat, and the same traits that were considered admirable in William Howard Taft (probity, industry, wealth as an indicator of virtue) are still considered admirable, but as far as Taft’s size is concerned (and, by the way, the story that he got stuck in the White House bathtub is a base canard), in the other direction. Then, he was the picture of health, wealth and solid virtue. Now he’s a fat man with a weird mustache. (Okay, I’ll give you the mustache.) In other words, we have taken the same values and assigned them to the other end of the human size spectrum.
Only thin people can have such traits we admire, obviously, because people who do not fit into our definitions of thin must be slothful gluttons with no self-control in any areas of their lives. So if you can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods, if all you can find to eat is chips and Velveeta at your local grocery store, you are not just unlucky or poor or faced with impossible choices, or no choices, you are a BAD PERSON, you are LAZY, and you have no SELF-CONTROL.
It is a kind of shorthand humans have always used. We are hard-wired to make instantaneous judgments about the surrounding environment because that moving object in the still, windless bush is probably a snake or a leopard so you run before your brain catches up and shows you that it’s a meerkat instead. Only now we make these instantaneous judgments of at least other humans based on skin color, on clothing, on menacing postures, and act accordingly. And somehow, starting in the 20th century and on into now, weight has become an instant indicator of a person’s value in all areas. There are stories out there about people who in all other respects have the skills required for a particular profession but are fired or not hired based on their weight. I can visualize a body weight within what insurance adjusters call “normal” parameters being a prerequisite for some jobs (trapeze artist springs to mind), but sitting at a computer typing all day?
Anecdotally, I have noticed that celebrities who are thin can charmingly and self-deprecatingly admit to fast food addictions, that they can’t leave chocolate alone or that they always have fries with that, while a fat celebrity (that rarest of breeds) had better only admit to loving broccoli and lettuce with lemon juice the only dressing and charmingly and self-deprecatingly shrug as if their eating habits did not at all reflect their size.
This may be true in both instances. Tastes differ and I happen to love broccoli with lemon myself. (Okay, truth? Broccoli with lemon and butter tastes a lot better than just broccoli with lemon.) And as tastes differ, so do metabolisms. There are people who simply don’t understand the problem because they do eat whatever they like and never put on a pound. (This, by the way, usually stops being true for anybody after the age of about 35.) And there are people (sadly, I’m one of them) whose metabolism, while completely normal, is slow, a “saving” metabolism. While this would have stood me in good stead in the scarcity of the last ice age (I would have lived longer than anybody else during the famine, probably, as if that’s something to wish for), right now it’s pretty inconvenient.
(And, on a related subject, don’t you just love it when somebody interviews a “star” about how she lost the she weight gained during pregnancy and she just says that running around after her little one is enough. Please. Running on a treadmill while the nanny runs around after the baby is probably a bit closer to the mark.)
To get away from trivial reasons and results of the first-world attitudes toward weight and women, and into (oh, the puns just keep on coming) meatier issues, let’s talk about controlling the population. Through the ages, we’ve used everything from force of arms to force of shame, from laws to culture to manners to disdain, to keep various groups of humans in their “places”. There used to be sumptuary laws so that middle-class upstarts could not wear the same kinds of fabrics or furs or gems that the aristocracy wore (whether they wanted to wear diamonds and ermine or not, poor royals). Weight is one of the ways in which the modern world controls our behavior. Often more so for women, but it’s beginning to be so for men too, we are judged and therefore shamed by the way we look, the closer we approach some kind of impossible ideal of attractiveness or the farther away we have gotten.
In an era in which women have made enormous strides into some kind of parity with men in public and private arenas, those who have the power, who think the pie cannot get larger and so if somebody else gets power, those who had it have therefore lost it, will do nearly anything to maintain their position or get their power back. Controlling women has been a huge issue in human culture since the dawn of time. (Women should never have let out the secret that men have something to do with creating a pregnancy.) We are still paying that price in misogyny, in rape, in violence against women. But we also pay that price in our idealization of impossible standards of beauty. Just like the peacock (see his story below), who spends all his time and energy growing and maintaining that beautiful tail, a woman whose worth is measured by her looks will spend an inordinate amount of time and energy maintaining and improving those looks. And will worry about losing them. While she’s doing that, she can be dismissed as vain and only interested in her appearance, that her concerns are only about appearance and so she is trivial and not to be taken seriously, thus she loses in both directions.
One more thing while we’re on the subject of using our attitudes toward human weight as a method of control: a thinner woman is, or at least seems to be, much easier to control in a completely physical way. A woman who weighs 110 pounds, unless she’s super fit and a martial artist, can be physically picked up by a man, can be overwhelmed simply by size. And what woman hasn’t felt intimidated by the sheer size of a male human being?
People do indeed have different metabolisms, all within a range of normal. People do indeed have different body types, and if you are short and thick-boned and wide, you’re probably not going to get a job as a supermodel. Some people can be so thin they look like somebody stretched them on the rack and that’s normal for them and they look good in their clothes (because clothing these days is designed for alien beings from the planet Skeletor) and probably not so good without them. Other people, even if they could get that thin, which can be impossible without falling deeply into anorexia, would look as if they were genuinely starving (which they are). We are not all designed by nature to look the same. There are good reasons having to do with climate and with food supply for the range of human body sizes and shapes. Moreover, if we all looked exactly alike, if we all approached or achieved the “ideal” (whatever that is for the time), what point would there be? Believe me, humans would find something to rank. If we all looked exactly the same, there would be some way we would find to create and enforce a hierarchy of desirable traits or status. In chickens, it’s a pecking order. With humans, it’s the scramble to find our place in the pyramid. All social animals have ranking systems. And all creation has the ability and desire to extend or attenuate desirable traits to the ultimate degree. In animals, this is what happens when natural selection takes place and sometimes, yes, the result is beautiful:
When we look at this exquisite creature, we’re not seeing why this has happened. The females, who do the choosing in virtually all animal societies, particularly in the world of birds, over impossibly long periods of time began to find males who had more beautiful plumage more appealing. So those are the males who got to reproduce. Now, scientists are so careful not to ascribe human emotions or desires to animals, it’s kind of pitiful, so they won’t say that females like a handsome man. What they posit, instead, is that the females, in looking for the best, strongest male to fertilize their eggs, take the sheer effort, the physical cost, of maintaining the plumage, as a sign that this is the strongest, best male possible.
If that’s so, and it seems likely, then humans have gotten it pretty darned wrong. In moving towards the idea that an extremely thin woman is the sexual paradigm, we’re cutting off our noses (so to speak) to spite our faces. Women as thin as are the ideal in today’s world often have lost the ability to menstruate and find sustaining a pregnancy and bearing a healthy child much more difficult. (Nature, in its old-fashioned way, assumes we still live in an atmosphere of scarcity, so women more likely to conceive and have healthy pregnancies usually have a layer of fat as insurance that the foetus would be fed and sustained in a time of famine.) So those artists with their dimpled (that’s what cellulite used to be called, dimples), zaftig artists’ models had the right idea all along.