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Sunday, August 21, 2005

Being "Marilyn Monroe"-esque

Body image. One of the most prevalent issues in a young girl's life, and one that is so often misunderstood by people of both genders. Although more attention has been brought to the health risks of obesity, as of late, this hasn't done much to cultivate the mindset that being overweight is a condition that requires sympathy, not belittlement and mockery. Instead, this has only heightened existing perspectives within the American mainstream that blames the fat person for their own weight and appearance, and devalues curvy women. I am curvaceous, and I buy into the hype too -- this is nothing new. I've blogged before about my own body image issues, about my innate dislike of the "skinny white girl" ideal of beauty, and even though I've had more than half a decade to mature my self-image since high school, body image is still an extremely important issue to me. Today, however, I want to vent about a different aspect of all this -- how people who have never battled society's fat-phobia so often oversimplify the issue. Despite what skinny girls might imagine, the narrative of larger women has less to do with being beautiful as they might imagine. When I was in high school, I went to my very first formal dance in my fourth year. Being voluptous, endomorphic, or all those other words I love to hate, I was naturally apprehensive of this occasion. Raised on Disney and fairy tales, I wanted to be beautiful, but the kind of beautiful that had been conditioned in me since I was a child and to which I could never hope to achieve. In a vintage clothing store on Queens St. in Toronto, two or three of my closer friends in high school took me shopping for the dance, and we ended up finding what was later dubbed to be my "Marilyn Monroe" dress -- a simple, wine-coloured, silk, low-cut V-neck gown that I wore with pearls and long white gloves. Despite my doubts, the other girls insisted the dress looked great. They insisted that they were jealous. That they could never fill the dress out like I could. And don't get me wrong, the night of my formal dance was one of the few memories from high school that I, overall, cherish. I know I was attractive -- but, it strikes me now as insipid to imagine that trying to buoy my self-image by trying to call me beautiful would somehow have "fixed" my body image issues. An entire society that places so much importance and worth on appearance cannot be balanced out by simply willing it so. Larger girls are not damaged by "thin is in" standards of beauty simply by being led to believe they are not beautiful -- for larger girls, we don't simply believe we are not pretty, we are led to believe we are incapable of "normal" beauty. We are convinced by society that we are different, abnormal, freaks, even creatures of the id, incapable of controlling our own gastronomic impulses. Realize this: while blondes are jokingly categorized as ditzes, when have overweight women ever been portrayed as intellectual? In fact, when have larger women been thrown any kind of bone that allows us to define ourselves as in any way positive? We are neither attractive, nor healthy, nor smart -- being a curvaceous woman in modern America has about as much to do with needing to be told we're beautiful as a gay man needing more Will & Grace on primetime TV. Not that beauty has nothing to do with the situation. After all, for many women, we could find the confidence to accept ourselves if only we could believe that we can be attractive, but the attractiveness attributed to the overweight American woman is so disgusting as to be unwanted, in my opinion. Women who fit a thin body shape are capable of dressing up or dressing down, wearing revealing clothing or wearing conserved clothing that show little skin; somehow, for some reason, any and all of these cuts of clothes can make a thin woman look attractive. She need not have large breasts or large hips, so long as a woman is petite, all forms of fashion are marketed to her as attractive. On the other hand, any voluptuous woman who tries to be attractive is marketed only one cut of clothing: low-cut. My "Marilyn Monroe" dress made me look good precisely because it was cut so low, and I filled it so well, that all attention was directed at my breasts and my "imperfections" (re: my soft, marshmallow exterior) were de-emphasized. Take a look at other stores selling "attractive" clothes to large women, or even at what larger women like Margaret Cho or Queen Latifah are shown wearing in magazines -- most of the times, their boobs are out so far you think they're ready to leap out into your hands. In this way, I suggest that beauty images catered towards larger women is almost like affirmative action for fat girls, though the intentions are good, something seems disingenuous, and in some ways, chauvinistic. We larger women can only be considered attractive when we are hypersexualized, promiscuous, more willing to display our assets for all to see and share. We are not attractive as demure and graceful, we are as beautiful as we are easy, useful only so long as we are willing to make up for our lack of thinness by our looseness. Many feminists have suggested that women, both thin and large, are only further buying into the patriarchal divide that separates us by placing enough importance in the current misogynistic system to even suggest there is a difference between our narratives. We should unite, they argue, behind the common crest of feminism, and that large women who bemoan their oppression are only hoping to create barriers between women. But, it is my belief that larger women have been largely ignored by thin women who benefit by their innate conformity to cultural beauty standards and who therefore cannot even begin to understand how deeply being larger can affect a woman in today's America. Like listening to Caucasians complain about racial inequalities they think they face, any attempts at imagining how tough it must be for the thin crowd only leads me to a fundamental impatience for having to cater to someone benefitting from "looks-ism" privilege. A thin woman who may have problems fitting a bra still benefits from basic privileges that a larger woman can only imagine. Sure, we women must learn to understand all the individual narratives within our community if we hope to come together for the feminist cause, but we will only do so by appreciating and understanding the larger women, the women of colour, and the homosexual women amongst us who have largely been forced into silence. Until we hear from all of them, I suggest the privileged women need to learn to sit back and listen rather than think our problems can be fixed with a pat on the head and a blank stare.

14 Comments:

Anonymous Kaede said...

Jenn...you need to get outta my head LOL. Seriously. this is something that's bugged me for years since I got out of high school.

As a high school student, I never had weight issues. It was all AFTER high school that the weight just piled on, due to what I found out almost 15 yrs later was a chemical/hormonal imbalance. Despite knowing this, I STILL get the old 'you eat too much' shtick from friends/family and I am heartily sick of it. I barely eat, and have NEVER been a big eater, but nobody seems to believe this (except my hubby and son). I am not a big meat eater, it actually makes me ill. I love salads (understatement actually LOL). It just makes me angry that others insist it's a self-discipline issue, rather than a chemical/hormonal one. They stare at me blankly when I try to explain and at the end go 'yeah but....' *sighs*

I've all but cut off relations with my cousin who was like a sister to me for this reason. She was 'voluptuous' and some religious eating program thing later, tried to convince me that this way was THE way to go, even tho I told her it had nothing to do with it. It got so bad that we both basically said, well...if you're gonna be like that, don't bother. It still makes me sad, cuz we were so close at one time, that this stupid issue has come between us. I even get it from my own parents, who know better. They do, because my mum has the same issues (or most of them) that I do, tho she's being treated for these issues, and I (until recently) have not. It's only been very recently that I have been able to start getting things under control, thanks to my doctor who I should really nominate for a Charter award cuz she has really helped and has been the ONLY doctor to take me seriously, tho it's still been a bit of a struggle.

I have lost over 50lbs and my 'monthlies' that have NEVER been regular have started to become so, not with crummy pills (which she knows I hate and thus doesn't bother with unless there's no other way) or stupid lame-ass diets. (Die with a T as I think Garfield the cat put it and it's so true.) I have become a lot more healthy, tho there's still a ways to go, and I am happy for that. I go to the gym (or did until recent health issues cropped up) and it's great. I love the gym...it's like almost a 3rd home (the net being my second home LOL yeah, how lame is that? *grins*).

Anyway...I'm digressing here. There is still a long way to go even for larger women to stop buying into the idea that 'big is ugly' or that you have to dress like a tramp to get anywhere. I have a hard time finding good clothes because yeah, everything seems to be geared towards people wanting to look either like old grannies or like tramps and I'm neither. They also need to stop buying into the idea that it's all in what you eat, and actually work with their medical providers to find out what the geniune issues are, get them sorted and then things will come.

I have a long way to go yet, but I am getting there, and I have been happy in this skin for over 5 yrs and counting. I don't care if I don't lose another pound, altho fitting into my yukatta (summer kimono) would be nice *chuckles* I don't mind to be big and beautiful (tho that's another issue right there, after a lifetime of being told you're ugly, you start to believe it...and disbelieve anyone who tells you otherwise. Why is it that we believe more negativity than positivity?) and hope that someday everyone else will too.

For the record, Jenn....I think you are beautiful and a lovely person INSIDE, which is more of what counts than outside superficiality. *hugs*

8/22/2005 05:05:00 AM  
Blogger phillyjay said...

I was just talking to a female friend today about weight.She brought up the subject of breasts always being the main focus on a curvaceous woman while ignoring everything else.She also mentioned certain privileges thinner women have over larger women.Looks like you two are on the same page Jenn.

I guess I have mixed feelings about the whole weight image thing.One the one hand I agree with many things you say.On the other hand when I see some overweight women (or even men) I still sometimes think "unhealthy".

My sister has been dealing with weight issues lately.At one time she weighed less then me (I'm about 144 lbs.)Pretty thin.Then she just BLEW up in a year.I admit I get on her a lot about her weight.But I think the situation is different, because my sis has developed a lazy streak in the past few years and won't lay off so many sweets (I know, I'm not being fair)

P.S.

I personally feel that terms like curvaceous or BBW have been abused by a lot of women, at least where I live.Abused to the point where some women confuse curvaceous with fat/obese.

8/22/2005 02:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Kaede said...

I agree with you, Phillyjay. When you know someone's just being lazy and over-eating on something that's not healthy, then that's fine. I have no beef with that, and don't think anyone else should. It's when people AREN'T that way that problems start....

I also agree with the abuse of the terminology that has been happening. So some women/girls have a little more curves or meat to 'em. That doesn't mean that they're fat or horridly overweight. I think tho, that sometimes they buy into the health club craze thing that if you have more than x% body fat, you're automatically obese or whatever. These things don't take into account body types, environmental/social/other factors and I object to this kind of generalisation....

8/23/2005 05:11:00 AM  
Blogger phillyjay said...

"I agree with you, Phillyjay. When you know someone's just being lazy and over-eating on something that's not healthy, then that's fine. I have no beef with that, and don't think anyone else should. It's when people AREN'T that way that problems start...."

Agreed.

"I also agree with the abuse of the terminology that has been happening."
Whoo man, you just don't know lol.But it can be funny seeing a 395 pound woman wearing tight jens and t-shirt claiming to be "curvaceous" or my favorite: "thick".

8/23/2005 11:14:00 AM  
Anonymous Kaede said...

*laughs head off* Here, 'thick' has a whole different meaning, one that sounds appropriate in this case *dies laughing* I mean, damn....

8/23/2005 01:37:00 PM  
Anonymous different anonymous said...

"Despite my doubts, the other girls insisted the dress looked great. They insisted that they were jealous. That they could never fill the dress out like I could. And don't get me wrong, the night of my formal dance was one of the few memories from high school that I, overall, cherish. I know I was attractive -- but, it strikes me now as insipid to imagine that trying to buoy my self-image by trying to call me beautiful would somehow have "fixed" my body image issues."

Do you think that your friends were being disingenuous, and lying to you about envying you?

Do you think that they were saying what they said in order to "fix" your body image issues?

If they were just saying those things without meaning them, in order to cheer you up, then although I'm sure their hearts were in the right place, it definitely sounds like a laughable effort.

You seem pretty sure that they weren't sincere in their compliments (by the fact that they "insisted" everything). Why is that?

8/23/2005 01:53:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

To DA:

Do you think that your friends were being disingenuous, and lying to you about envying you?

Yes, because, thin girls don't want to be fat. When they say they envy your bust, they're never talking about wanting to be your shape, they're talking about wanting to take the massive boobs that exists as a consequence of your shape and smacking it onto their thin, size 0 chest.

I would only find such "I envy you" comments as legitimate if a girl were also simultaneously attempting to eat thousands of calories a day in order to attain my shape.

Do you think that they were saying what they said in order to "fix" your body image issues?

No, I think they were trying to say it in order to fix their own feelings of inadequacy regarding powerlessness to fix my body image. i.e., to feel good about themselves. If there was an honest effort to fix my body image issues, there would have been more discussion about my body image problems. It was a well-meaning effort (I don't deny this) designed to buoy my self-confidence for the dance that nonetheless was fueled by privileged, almost deliberate ignorance of what overweightness really means for a person.

You seem pretty sure that they weren't sincere in their compliments (by the fact that they "insisted" everything). Why is that?

Without being too crass, though I don't know you DA, this and other comments posted on this and other blogs suggests to me that you're really big on criticizing people for not having overly-idealized images of themselves. I find this puzzling, because you seem to be simultaneously suggesting that a person is better than what they think of themselves to be while also criticizing them as morons and whining, self-pitying fools for not being so arrogant as so say so at every occasion. It seems like you are unwilling to accept that healthy self-image can include healthy self-criticism.

I know it is "insisting" because it was -- this one incident pales in comparison to the overwhelming number of other incidents in which the same well-meaning friends made offhand, seemingly insignificant remarks that still stick in my mind because they caused so many feelings of inadequacy in me. Again, I say, such remarks of supposed jealousy mean nothing if the person making the statement would never want to be in your shoes. And, more importantly, I don't believe myself to be ugly, and I don't shut myself into an attic in order to hide what society would call unattractiveness, but at the same time, it is possible for healthy self-esteem and realistic self-image to co-exist.

I know my virtues and I know my flaws. I am not super obese, but I am overweight, and while I consider myself, for the most part, attractive, I would be lying to myself if I thought this were universally true or that my weight doesn't carry with it some health risks (and fashion inconveniences). I would, of course, do quite a bit to have a body more in line with the thin girls, even giving up the sizeable chest that was supposed to be the envy of the town. (Except eat rabbit food -- I like to eat, and it's why I'm larger, and while I'm not a ravenous eater by any standard, I prefer taste and texture in my meals. I couldn't subsist of diet bars and salads -- I'd like to improve my body shape but I'm not willing to give up living an enjoyable life for it. Instead, I exercise.)

It's like a beautiful girl with an ugly nose -- she could have a great self-image because of the parts of her body she loves, but I would argue that her self-image would be, overall, healthier if she doesn't need to lie to herself about whether or not she finds her nose attractive in order to keep her self-image positive.

And of course, the other side of the coin is how this is a "looks-ist" culture that places so much emphasis on appearance and attractiveness, that maybe part of the reason I know that myself and everyone around me would never categorize me as Angelina Jolie beautiful is because of how we've been conditioned not to. I'm as much a product of that conditioning as anyone else.

All that being said, enough of this psycho-analyzing. Do you have anything you'd like to discuss regarding all the points I brought up about body image and larger girls, in general, since that was the actual point of this piece?

8/23/2005 03:00:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

to kaede and phillyjay:
"I agree with you, Phillyjay. When you know someone's just being lazy and over-eating on something that's not healthy, then that's fine. I have no beef with that, and don't think anyone else should. It's when people AREN'T that way that problems start...."


So, just out of curiousity, (and without indicating where I stand on this issue) do you feel that obese girls should feel responsible for losing weight? (i.e., there is still some merit to thin-only standards of normalcy and beauty?) Or do you feel society should accept larger women as equally as attractive as thin women?

8/23/2005 03:08:00 PM  
Blogger phillyjay said...

"So, just out of curiousity, (and without indicating where I stand on this issue) do you feel that obese girls should feel responsible for losing weight? (i.e., there is still some merit to thin-only standards of normalcy and beauty?)"
Or do you feel society should accept larger women as equally as attractive as thin women?"

Well what kind of large women are we talking about here?Are we talking about a little extra weight or obviously obese?

8/23/2005 06:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Kaede said...

I believe that anyone, regardless of weight, is responsible to get their bodies into the healthiest they know how to be. If it means a person stays big, then by all means, that's fine. As long as they're healthy, fit for their body type etc, then that is fine. This goes for EVERY body type, even the skinny minnies. You can be skinny and still be horridly out of shape, which isn't healthy either.

I don't for a minute believe that thin women have a monopoly on beauty - some of the most beautiful people have 'curves' just look at Catherine Zeta Jones. She's not thin by any means, nor is she fat, but she does have curves and makes no bones about it. Apparently that was one of the things that attracted Micheal Douglas to her. (if reports are to be believed...)

I don't really know how to answer the other part of your question outright, in that should a person feel responsible for losing weight, as I think that's more individual than general. I don't really feel responsible for losing weight - I just happen to be losing weight cuz of changes in lifestyle, general health improvements and that sort of thing (tho you can't really tell that at the moment with me having a bad cold LOL). It's merely a side perk as it were.

8/23/2005 09:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Saying you have a big nose is pretty different from saying you're not attractive even to your significant other. The former might be realistic and healthy. The latter is not.

As for compliments, I'm puzzled. How do you know what your friends were really thinking when they complimented you? What were they supposed to do? And isn't this an awfully high standard to which to hold a bunch of teenage girls who probably had no more power to change their basic body shapes than to change yours? And is imitation *necessary* to prove the sincerity of flattery? Is it not possible to admire something without wanting it for oneself?

Perhaps you're right in advising thin women to shut up, since you seem determined to discount everything we say, or at any rate to interpret it in the worst possible light.

8/23/2005 11:43:00 PM  
Blogger James said...

Anonymous, thank you. Thank you for devolving a pretty cool discussion to Revenge of the Skinny Woman: When Anorexia Attacks. Look, it's quite simple: people who benefit from a system that dehumanizes others are not morally free and clear. Skinny women are treated as closer to the America beauty ideal than their larger counterparts, who are not seen as capable of beauty by the American mainstream.

It's quite simple: the teenage girls that Jenn speaks of all had free will. Backhanded compliments like "That looks amazing on you! I'd never wear it, but that looks great!" are not helpful for anyone. Jenn had what I thought was a striking point when she said that the comments supposedly envying her body's shape are illegitimate unless the speaker was trying to gain the size needed to emulate it.

It reminds me of the old Chris Rock joke where he speaks of a one-legged white busboy who wouldn't become Black to trade places with him, even though Mr. Rock is rich. No one wants to be what they know to be an oppressed state. Every young White guy who listens to Tupac for an adrenaline rush would balk at the idea of living in America as a poor Black man to better understand Tupac's perspective. Similarly, skinny women can mutter disingenuous comments of false support to their larger friends about how attractive they are in what amounts to Fat Person Wear, and fail to hide their relief that they never have to worry about looking like them.

Damn, it's good to resemble a Maxim cover, isn't it?

8/24/2005 12:25:00 AM  
Blogger Jenn said...

To Anonymous:
Perhaps you're right in advising thin women to shut up, since you seem determined to discount everything we say, or at any rate to interpret it in the worst possible light."

I wouldn't be able to do so if skinny women, such as yourself (I assume) feel it necessary to not only flaunt "looks-ist" points of view such as the idea that considering oneself attractive is the only way to display healthy self-image. And yet, you stubbornly refuse to consider that a larger woman's outlook is a little bit more complicated than how nice we look in vintage dresses with necklines plunged down to out navels -- even now, you can't seem to understand my larger point that being large isn't just about teenage girls saying one thing or another, but a symptom of a larger problem that skinny women and society in general refuses to (by choice or by nature) understand or respect.

I'm not saying that all skinny women are, by virtue of their body shape, part of this problem. I do think that skinny women are part of a privileged group that, as part of their privilege, tend to be able to avoid dealing with body image on a level of complexity that larger women have to. Skinny women who try to consider a larger outlook on body image in which they aren't condescending, patronizing or insulting to larger women are wonderful, but they are, in my experience, few and far between since people, by our own nature, prefer blissful comfort to challenging our own paradigms of understanding.

And again, detractors such as yourself seem incapable of reading this post for that larger point. Meaningless keyboard psychoanalyzing is easy, but why don't you try arguing against the actual point of this post which was how larger women are considered attractive (re: slutty) and whether or not we have a narrative that merits distinction from the larger feminist voice (i.e., how our issues are based on more than just feeling ugly and being unable to shop for clothes).

If you're incapable of having a discussion on that level that doesn't involve veiled, banal, pseudo-self-important insults, than why are you here?

(god, even having to put up with such arrogantly self-righteous attitudes like this reminds me of high school all over again...)

to phillyjay:

"Well what kind of large women are we talking about here?Are we talking about a little extra weight or obviously obese? "

I'm not sure... does it matter to you in this hypothetical? Where is that line drawn for you?

I've been struggling with this issue all afternoon -- does the answer lie in making larger women sexy or could we point to a larger problem in the over-emphasization of sexiness and appearance in general? And, if appearance is genetic rather than self-controlled, why should larger women with presumably slower metabolisms be considered to be born ugly? Isn't that unfair to women who cannot help the shape that God (or whomever) gave them?

8/24/2005 02:25:00 AM  
Anonymous theory_slut said...

So are there only two genders then, because I really thought there were more....
Ok, first off, your image of "the feminist movement" (which certainly was not a single entity even then) is clearly stuck in the 70s. Things have changed since then. Theory and politics have progressed. Anti-oppression work these days is all about ideas of intersecting oppressions and marginalities, with the idea of the bounded unifying capital letters CATEGORY having been largely discredited and abandoned.
So 1st: read more.
2nd: I'm relatively thin, and I can't find a bra that fits me outside of a specialized bra store either (and I do need one, otherwise stairs hurt). Smaller women can still fall outside of social constructions of the "normal" body, and have a really hard time finding clothing that fits. Similarly, while expanding ideas of beauty is obviously a positive thing, doing it by reversing the current beauty ideals is not. These days it's considered perfectly acceptible to shout at skinny women on the street about how unhealthy they are, how they should eat something. This is a good way to make MORE women feel totally neurotic about their bodies, not fewer.
Finally, how does queerness actually fit into your argument? I mean, you do your part to silence many queer women anyway by suggesting right at the outset of your post that there are only two genders. And if I'm a skinny gender-deviant homo, does that mean I'm "bad" because I'm thin, or "good" because I'm queer?

9/29/2005 06:51:00 PM  

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