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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Fat is (still) a Feminist Issue

I didn't start this to be a rant, but the more I've been thinking and writing, the more of a rant this has become.

That's not so much an apology as it is a warning of sorts.

Maybe it has to do with the fact that I see so many half naked bodies on the beach every day. And, most of them - mine included - look nothing like anyone you can find on the pages of magazines or newspapers, or on television.

No movie stars or super models at Rehoboth Beach.

You know. Just like real life.

Admittedly, I never read Glamour Magazine, even when copies lie around the coffee table of my doctor or dentist's offices, but I'm having a hard time getting my head wrapped around all the fuss over Lizzie Miller's picture in the September issue.

Miller is a 20 year old plus size model standing 5'11", weighing in at 180 pounds, and wearing a size 12-14. Miller is (evidently) on page 194 of the latest issue of Glamour magazine and her semi-nude photos have caused a stir recently with the exhibition of her belly and stretch-marked hips.

The photo to the left has caused even more of a stir because it features Miller in profile with a full view of her belly.

Perhaps we're so shocked because this woman's body is closer to what we know to be. . . wait for it . . . "normal".

So is every woman who is the size she is - no matter what size.

Newsflash: Most women do not look like the supermodels who are on the 'cat walk' during Fashion Week every year in Bryant Park in New York City.

Although lots of women - myself included - love our 'Victoria Secrets', nobody I know looks like a Victoria Secret model.

The average American woman wears a size 12-14, not a size 6. Some of the most beautiful women I know wear larger sizes than that.

Just last week I bought a dress on sale at a well known chain with a store at one of the discount malls here in Rehoboth Beach. It was lovely summer dress made out of a light, gauzy material - sleeveless with a V-neck - perfect for the hot days of July and August.

It was a size large.

LARGE! I wear a size 10-12. When did that become LARGE? What kind of message does that send to women? That a size 10-12 is LARGE?

Some women dress for men. Other women dress for other women. Most of us dress to impress someone or something. We know not to wear certain articles of clothing in certain places. We understand 'dress codes' - in fact, some of us create and maintain them. We know especially the expectation of dress at work.

I choose to wear my collar every day at work, not because I like it, particularly, but because I am keenly aware that, in my very Roman Catholic town, it sends a message every time I walk down the street or into a hospital.

As my old friend, the Large and Lovely Beula Lamont - drag queen extraordinaire - used to say, "Honey, we're all born naked. Everything after that is just drag."

Of course, there are women who are obese. Some are morbidly obese. That is a health issue. So is bulimia. And, anorexia.

And all of them - obesity, bulimia, anorexia, along with the destructive cycle of binge eating and purging - are feminist issues.

They are feminist issues because they speak directly to issues of low self esteem which arise from not having direct control and self determination over their own bodies.

They are feminist issues because ever since the fig leaf, men have defined beauty for women, and as long as men control that definition along with the power and authority to enforce the definition, women will not be in control of their own lives and bodies.

Scientific research and medical anecdotal compilation has shown, time and time again, that the reason women starve themselves or overeat themselves into morbid obesity, the underlying issue is a sense of lack of control, leading to various manifestations of depression.

Food - lack or abundance thereof - becomes a way to self-medicate.

As the old, trite saying goes, "It's not what you're eating, it's what's eating you."

In the 70s, Susie Orbach wrote a book "Fat is a Feminist Issue" in which she exposed the eating disorders of young women in England.

A 1977 US study revealed that one generation earlier, the average female model weighed 8% less than the average US woman. By 1977, she weighed 23% less.

An entire 'weight loss industry' has emerged, making HUGE profits by playing into anxieties provoked by the fashion industry in magazines that promote images of 'perfect' women who wear a 'perfect' size six. Or, four. Or zero.

Young girls and women are deeply affected by this - literally making themselves sick in order to fit into someone else's image of perfection.

Although the problem is world-wide, in the US alone,

* Approximately 7 million girls and women struggle with eating disorders;
* Approximately 1 million boys and men struggle with eating disorders.
* Up to 19% of college aged women in America are bulimic.

It starts early. Of those reported cases of anorexia and bulimia,
* 10% report onset at 10 years or younger;
* 33% report onset between ages of 11-15;
* 43% report onset between ages of 16-20;
* 86% report onset of illness by the age of 20.

With treatment about 60% of people with eating disorders recover completely, maintaining a healthy weight.

Without treatment, up to twenty percent (20%) of people with serious eating disorders die.

Here's the thing: We are women, not objects.

We have thighs and legs, not 'gams'.

We have bellies, not "six packs".

We are soft and round, not hard and stick-like.

We are human beings, not objects to be analyzed and dissected into "perfect" body parts.

We are most amazing creatures. Our bodies can contain and nourish life - before and after birth. We can bleed for days once a month and not die.

Most of us just want to feel healthy and look good in our clothes.

And, most of us do.

It's time to celebrate what we look like beneath our clothes.

God Bless Lizzie Millier and "plus size" super model Emme, and women like Mary J Blige, Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez, and Queen Latifah - women with hips and thighs, bellies and stretch marks.

God Bless the folks at Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, which shows real women in their advertisements for beautiful women - even if their primary goal is to sell their products.

And, God bless Meryl Streep (60), Stockard Channing (64), Glenn Close (62), and Helen Mirren (64) who are also not afraid to age gracefully - gray hair, wrinkles, crows feet and all.

We need more of these images of the real beauty of real women.

No matter their age.

Or size.

If you have a chance in these last days of summer, rent the HBO movie based on Josefina Lopez's play, "Real Women Have Curves" with America Ferrera and Lupe Ontiveros. It is a very powerful portrayal of the damaging effects of sexism, misogyny and internalized oppression.

If you can, take the next minute and 19 seconds to watch this video which is part of the Dove Campaign to address the media impact of the definition of beauty on young girls.

This is not a commercial for Dove Products and I'm not asking anyone to take part in this Ad Campaign.

I am hoping that we will have more conversations about taking back the definition of beauty for women - with our spouses, mothers and grandmothers, our daughters, sisters and nieces, our cousins, godchildren and neighbors, as well as our husbands, fathers and grandfathers, our sons and and brothers, our cousins, nephews, godsons and neighbors.

Because the billion dollar fashion and weight loss industry have already given them an ear full - along with belly full of lies about what really makes a real woman really beautiful.


Martha said...

Wow - just wow. Thanks for shedding light on this important issue, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You bet, Martha. Now, I'm off to the beach to enjoy the ocean and the sun and my latest book as well as more beautiful "normal" bodies.

alicia said...


susankay said...


Matthew said...

A great documentary to watch is: America the Beautiful: Is America Obsessed with Beauty.

Anonymous said...

Amen! Thank you for this post. I'd rather see women like Ms. Miller in my magazine than the unhealthy looking women from the fashion runways.

Give me curvaceous and bodacious women like Velvet D'Amour, Lesley Boone, Fluvia Lacerda, Lydia Fixel or any of the numerous Indian beauties from South India's flim world.

barb said...

This is so timely! I just went back to school shopping with my 17 year old daughter. Many tears were shed in the dressing room of Penney's because she wears size 3 jeans, but is shapely enough to need a size 7 for her homecoming dress.
She is a 3-sport athlete in high school, eats like a horse, burns off all the calories, wears size 3 jeans, for crying out loud, and thinks a size 7 means she's fat!!
Our culture is sick. Parents don't stand a chance against all the media messages.

Padre Mickey said...

I didn't see any overweight women, just healthy women!
Another great post, Revda.

John said...

Well said, Elizabeth. I wish that I could say that most people see through Mad Ave's obsession but sadly we know that is not the case. Someday, perhaps.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

barb - it infuriates me that your daughter wept b/c she needed a size 7 dress. I admit that I did have a brief wave of "sticker shock" when I saw the "Large" on the dress I bought. I mean, really! Since when is a 10-12 a "Plus Size"? And, why do we have "Plus Sizes" anyway? I like Chico's sizing: 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5, 3., 3.5. Done.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Yeah, well a size 8 underpant is "Extra Large." You've seen my photos on FB. Do I look "extra large" to you?

Try, "Very athletic with a tad more booty than most very athletic people."

In some parts of my body (arms/chest/torso" I am "sinewy and lithe."

Oh yeah, and then there is the gray. The one thing I absolutely refuse to change about myself. I earned every damn one of these gray hairs, how DARE someone ever suggest I cover them!

Thanks for bringing up one of my pet peeves about the gap between "male beauty" and "female beauty."

Brad Evans said...

Thank you for waiting while I bandage my eyes....
But they're certainly not the fattest ones out there. The sad thing is that at least these are "women of a certain age"; the kids (boys and girls)are getting fatter and fatter, younger and younger.
No six year old needs to believe she's going to be a supermodel, but no 11 year old boy should have bigger boobs than his 14 year old sister, either.
Find a balance.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks for stopping by, Alicia, susankay.

Matthew, it looks like a great documentary. Thanks.

Amen, Lalya-aaron.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

John, I agree with you re: Mad Ave. Someday, perhaps.

Padre, great to have you visit. I always love your "perspective".

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kirke - I would describe you as "tiny" but "athletic". Size 8 Extra Large? Someone on Mad Ave should be shot with purple paint bombs.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Brad, While I understand your point about balance, I would remind you that Lizzie Miller is 20 years old. Just because a woman is "of a certain age" does not mean that she is sexy and sexually active. I know that probably gives you the creeps, but there it is. As long as people are healthy, it is not ours to judge the shape of their bodies, no matter how young or old they are.

Fran said...

I am late to this but wanted to say THANK YOU for posting it.

This is such a societal ill - goals of perfection and beauty on the outside that are not realistic and that demean the inside.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Not late, IT. I just posted it this morning. I hope this essay has a longer shelf life than a day.

Yes, it is about perfection, but it's also about sexism and internalized oppression.

As patriarchy continues to be dismantled and becomes more and more impotent, one of the great benefits will be that both men and women will become healthier.

Brad Evans said...

I couldn't care less about what women, of any age, do in the privacy of their own homes with consenting adults.
Class, sure. 99% of us think that only the poor/working class are fat-and statistically of us are pretty accurate.
Barb should relax.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Again, I don't think "you couldn't care less." You betray yourself by your own words, Brad.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Umm . . . and who said anything about class? Are you okay?

Brad Evans said...

Nobody's said anything about it.
I'm fine, thank you.
Enjoying a good book:" God is Not Great."

MadPriest said...

I wonder if this is not only a feminist issue but almost totally a female issue. The sexual components and body shape idealism of these adverts are aimed exclusively at women. I have never understood how this works because men, who are not sexually attracted to other men, generally find homoerotic advertising off-putting and so it is rarely used in advertising aimed at straight men.

Also, although those advertising to women in this way are telling women that men will fancy them if they look flat-chested and thin, it is a complete fallacy. The vast majority of straight men like curves and cute. It strikes me that it is only male celebrities wanting a female appendage to make them look good, who date scrawny models.

So, what is the psychology of all this? Why do most women believe in a myth and why, with much of the fashion and cosmetic media staffed by women at all levels of the operation, does the advertising industry still stick so rigidly to this unnatural view of both women and the men/women who love them?

Could gay males in the fashion and cosmetic industries be partly responsible?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Ah, yes. I read that book a couple of years ago. That explains a lot. Thanks, Brad.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Jonathan, Thanks for stopping by and for your observations and comments.

I maintain that this is a feminist issue for the reasons I have stated in my essay. This is about images of women's beauty that are being carefully controlled by men. You are quite right in that the advertisements are being directed toward women - that's exactly the point. The message is clear: This is the image of what it means to be a 'beautiful woman'. Be it. Do it. And, most importantly: Buy it.

The issue of the participation of gay men in the fashion industry is a complicated one. Not all men - gay or straight - are sexist or misogynist, but you and I both know that some of the most sexist and misogynist men in the church are (seemingly) the most devout Evangelical and HIGH Anglo-Catholic, deeply closeted gay men.

So, are we surprised, then, that the images of beauty for women should look more like men dressed up as women than "real" women? I'm not, are you?

But, it is not all men - gay or straight. The fashion industry is driven by a "mark a yen a buck or a pound". Money has always been the "bottom line" of any industry.

The participation of women in this industry is also guided by the profit margin, but it is also a very sad example of internalized oppression.

The real point of my essay is directed toward women - and the men, gay or straight - who love us, to resist the images that define beauty for women and take back the definition for ourselves.

Thanks for your contribution in helping us do that.

Anonymous said...

Re: single digit sizes in women's clothes ... my standard reply is, for example, I have not worn a size 6 since I was that age. If the label says L or XL my only concern is that it is a proper fit and that I'm healthy. Size, like age, is just a number.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well said, Whitecat. That's exactly the kind of healthy attitude about "beauty" we all need.

IT said...

That was Fran, not me.

I agree that a lot of this comes from the outside. If the marketeers and media promote impossible leggy models, then the message (no longer implicit but explicit) is that if you don't live up to it, you are a failure. Part of it is controlling women by criticism. So I don't see it as gay designer misogyny.

I spent the first 30 years of my life being ashamed of my body. I still have a hard time finding clothes. I'm big-hipped and big-breasted, by nature. Even when I was running half-marathons, my rather generous shape didn't change (But I did have great definition on my leg muscles!) The very female-ness of my body is a surprise; people act as though a woman in a man's field should have a slim boyish figure.

Jonathan is also mistaken. Apparently men are becoming very insecure too--especially about their calf muscles! Men are having "expansions" done!

MadPriest said...

It can't be the fault of straight men if it is about making money, unless the vast majority of women are stupid. And even if they were it wouldn't explain why women buy stuff after looking at pictures of scrawny, naked women. Also, the rise of female influence in the fashion and cosmetic industries has not resulted in any lessening of this style of advertising, although it has, ironically, got rid of the sexist advertisements using women with boobs and hips that dominated the walls of all the garages I delivered to when I was a driver.

In order to achieve its aims advertising preys on our lusts (and not just sexual). This advertising would not continue to be profitable if women's lusts were not being exploited.

I have no idea what the psychology of all this is but I still insist that women themselves must be responsible for the prevalence of this style of advertising. Although, of course, money grabbing straight men, gay men and plenty of money grabbing women have taken advantage of female self-delusion.

I hope none of this comes across as antagonistic because it is not meant to be. I really would like to get to the bottom of this one (as long as it's a nice big bottom you can grab hold of).

MadPriest said...

Not in England, luv. And definitely not in Scotland and Ireland. I wouldn't put it passed the Welsh though.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I think you're making my point, Jonathan. I am asking women and enlightened men such as yourself to resist the predatory practices of Madison Avenue - fashion, cosmetic, weight-loss and marketing - on the anxieties of women and men.

I am asking women and men to take responsibility for our own definition of what constitutes "beauty".

IT points to the surgical intervention of men in sports, but the rise of men having cosmetic surgery is well documented.

We are all behaving stupidly with regard to accepting - indeed, embracing - someone else's ideal of beauty.

One last note: One of the most beautiful men I have ever had the honor and pleasure of meeting was Desmond Tutu. Now, if you look at him against the measure of what Madison Avenue defines as beauty, he would fail miserably. He's short, pleasantly plump, and has an amazing ability to look almost comic when he is making a very serious point about justice which, for some, makes the very hard things he has to say a bit easier to hear.

His beauty comes from within - he radiates the confidence that comes from knowing that he is loved. He knows who he is and whose he is and what it is he's supposed to be doing with his one life.

It just doesn't get more beautiful than that.

So, if I were to come to a simplistic answer to this very complicated issue about what is "at the bottom" of this concern, I would have to offer the word: anxiety.

We're all anxious, Jonathan - some to greater or lesser degrees. We all know about the "survival of the fittest" and, especially in the Western culture, that often means that the "Beautiful Ones" - the ones who 'fit' into the dominant socio-cultural definition of "beauty" win.

You're absolutely correct that we have to take responsibility for our own lives - especially those of us who are 'misfits' in the dominant paradigm. That takes pushing past our neurotic anxieties and being whole, healthy persons.

Unfortunately for some, it is all together too easy to try to fit in - even if what we do to try to achieve that is killing us.

MadPriest said...

What I am saying is it must be a false female perception of beauty, not a false male one. The males are merely taking advantage of this false perception.

Why do women buy stuff when a boy-like, naked woman is placed beside the product? Do you think it has something to do with wanting to go back to being prepubescent? (That's an out the top of my head thing - but I could probably get a doctorate out of it if I wasn't such a lazy sod).

Also, this is interesting - drag queens never want to look like Kate Moss. Why? Because they want to look like women and women and aren't supposed to look like men.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Jonathan - There are things I can't know, fully, about being a man. There are things you can't know, fully, about being a woman.

I suspect your experience with the bishop who has held you back gives you some sensitivity to what it is like to be a woman (or any oppressed minority) - to have to deal with someone who abuses the power and authority of their office to exclude those who don't "fit the image" of what it means to be healthy and whole and competent.

That sensitivity is one of your most endearing qualities, Jonathan. You have clearly turned your oppression into compassion and your compassion into activism, and for that, you continue to have my admiration and affection.

Some women - like some men - "buy into" the images of those in power and authority in order to try and fit it. They "go along to get ahead". It's highly seductive and, in many cases, a necessary evil. God knows, I've "been there, done that" and got the fashionable T-shirt to cover the scars. Perhaps that is the passion that is fueling my words.

Don't get me started on drag queens - and by that I don't mean the folk who are the majority in the transgender community. It's a very complicated issue. For one thing, not all drag queens are gay. As you know, gender identity and expression and sexual orientation are two entirely separate issues.

I do want to add that some of the most fashionable stuff I have in my closet are things I bought while shopping with my gay male friends - many of whom died in the bureaucratic red tape in the early days of the AIDS crisis. I can assure you that these clothes are not designed with the image of a pre-pubescent girl in mind. Rather, they fit my shape, my color, and compliment who I am. I am deeply indebted to them for their advice. I still miss them terribly. I fear I'll get all weepy if I linger on this thought too long.

It's not all "black and white". It's complicated, but as I said, I agree with you that we must begin to take responsibility for our own lives and our own definition of beauty.

MadPriest said...

So, seriously and without sarcasm, are you saying that sometime in the past, some men decided that the ideal female body was flat and then brainwashed the vast majority of females in the western world into buying stuff whenever they saw a naked female body of such a shapeless shape?

And who were these men? You might not like this fact because it doesn't fit in with "fat is a feminist issue" but most men react sexually to curves not straight lines. It is not in the interest of your average, sexist male to encourage women to starve themselves into pseudo-boyhood.

If you want to know what sex-driven men want from women look at the women in the music industry who have become popular with young males. They are not obese, but at the same time they are nearly all womanly.

I don't believe women are conforming to a (universal) male idea of beauty. So what are they conforming to?

I really do believe there is more to this than the "fat is a feminist issue" hypothesis. I think the answer may be be more psychological than political.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

It begins with the premise that "personal and "political" - especially for women - are not binary realities. One of the early slogans of the Women's Movement was, "The personal is political."

This is why the most personal issue for women - Reproductive Rights - is also so hotly political.

If that premise is not accepted, then the whole conversation will fall flat.

There have been whole studies done of the evolution of women's clothing and the impact of men's influence on that. I'm really not saying anything original or new.

A good place to start is "The Dance of the Dissident Daughter" by Sue Monk Kidd. It is the story of her spiritual journey through the dominant male cultural and religious paradigms into her own soul. If you don't have it, I would be more than happy to send you a copy.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Oh, and lest I forget, in the 70s, Susie Orbach wrote a book "Fat is a Feminist Issue" in which she exposed the eating disorders of young women in England. You might find a copy of that in your local library.

MadPriest said...

But that flies in the face of reality. Men prefer curves. Even now, Marilyn Monroe is iconic, not Twiggy.

And it is the male part of the drag queen who fetishises the curvy female form. And it is possibly why so many male to female transgender women are overweight. Plump is female is comforting.

If you draw to two inverted curves on a flip chart, men will get turned on. If a man looks at a grassy mound in the landscape he thinks of sex. We are preprogrammed to react to curves like some birds react to red beaks.

So, who decided to start this thing? And what was the political gain they got from it? Because, men generally do not gain anything politically or socially from women being thin.

You say it is a political issue. So tell me, how exactly does this work? And who does it work for?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Who's reality, Jonathan? Every magazine I turn to shows handsome, successful, wealthy men with women who are referred to as "arm candy". These women are either "buxom" or stick figures. Either way, the message is clear: this is what men want and if you want access to power and wealth, this is what you've got to look like.

As for who started it, I am grateful to one of your own, Susie Orbach wrote a book "Fat is a Feminist Issue".

MadPriest said...

Oh, but she was ugly, poor lady. And I think she was able to hide from her ugliness by blaming her woes on being female and fat. But ugliness is a unisexual issue.

MadPriest said...

Every magazine I turn to shows handsome, successful, wealthy men with women who are referred to as "arm candy"

See my first comment re celebrities. And not all arm candy is stick thin. Take Mrs MadPriest for example.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Ugly? I'm thinking her husband and family and those who know her and love her think she is beautiful.

Hiram said...

There may be an economic dimension to the skinny ideal. Some decades ago, Coca-Cola put out some old advertising trays, etc from the early 1900's. The women portrayed on them were definitely curvy. I have seen some other ads from long ago, and the women in them were also nicely rounded.

But that was at a time when food took a huge chunk of family income. It was fairly easy to be skinny, but it took income to have curves. That was the case for centuries, up until the last half century or so.

But now it is easy to be heavy and hard to be skinny. Slenderness is not a sign of poverty; it may be a sign of wealth (enough money to join a health club and enough time to exercise).

I do not know if women see total slenderness (minimal bust) as an ideal, but if you look at beer ads, you will see what most men are interested in - slender waist, rounded but not huge bottom, and a top requiring a well-designed bra.

Since this is a complex topic, I suspect that being part of a wealthy culture may have something else in play: we do not need to work long hours simply to provide the basics of life - there is a lot of time to worry about things that only matter if you have a lot of things and time.

MadPriest said...

And what about the lesbian chic of the 1920s and its adoption into mainstream ladies' fashion?

That's it! I'm blaming the lesbians. They always gave me the most crap back in the day. They deserve some payback:)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Right, Jonathan, but this isn't about you.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Good point, Hiram. Thanks for stopping by.

MadPriest said...

The fact that this is a white thing and not yet a black thing, universally, would add weight (look, I'm a humourist, I can't help it) to your exceedingly good hypothesis, Hiram.

MadPriest said...

Well, I'm a man, Elizabeth. And you are accusing men. So it's about me. Or are you saying that i was right in my first sentence. That this is just a female thing - caused by women and propagated by women?:)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Oh, right - blame the lesbians and agree with the one male who stops by. Forgive me. I'm a bit out of practice. I forgotten how it goes with you. ;~)

Okay, deal. But, I have a hunch you are thinking more deeply about this than you are willing to admit. That's the "houmorist" in you.

MadPriest said...

I am thinking very deeply about this. It fascinates me. I think your standard feminist interpretation is simplistic.

And I had no idea, Hiram was a man. Isn't that Old Testament stuff?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hiram is, indeed, a man. Ordained. And conservative. We've disagreed on more theological issues than we've agreed on. We do, however, respect each other.

And yes, Jonathan, it is a very complicated issue. The feminist perspective is not simplistic, but just one perspective - just as yours is not simplistic, just one perspective.

IT said...

Who decided that the ideal woman would be 6 ft tall and leggy?Did someone sit down one day and decide to make women feel inferior for having hips and tummies and real breasts, which sag?

Does it matter? That's the image that the media and Madison avenue promulgate, regardless of its source. And it's an image we all, male and female, buy into.

Men may like curves (mainly, breasts) but I'll believe that men prefer "real" women and natural curves, over the media ideal, when powerful men walk around with real women on their arm....not surgically enhanced blonds with pneumatic silicon.

So men buy into the "ideal" too.

While it may not be true "on the street", it's true in the media and what's available to us. Go into a department store. How many interesting clothes are available for women who aren't skinny?

Look on a college campus at who the popular girls are. They aren't the generous ones with hips and big curves. They are skinny girls, sometimes with boob jobs. The popular boys date them. The "fat" girls are left aside.

Apparently in parts of Africa, generously built women are preferred. At least in the country, but skinny models are being pursued in the city. HEre's an article called, It's Okay to Not Be a Skinny Model in Africa.The only international modeling agency in Africa, called Exopa, is turning down wanna-be models unless they are super-skinny. The difference in countries, though, is that extra weight is considered a sign of wealth and status in Africa. Most Africans only get the skinny look by misfortune, and not by choice.

Skinnier models have begun sparking many debates lately as to the unhealthy image that they are portraying to men and women all over the world. Some models are even a size zero, which is the equivalent of a size Four in Britain. ....So of course many African models will purposely lose the weight to become what the modeling agency wants.

MadPriest said...

I don't have a position. I'm asking questions and offering wild suggestions. However, I do disagree with the idea that men, generally, want women to conform to a fashion industry shape, when nothing could be further from your bog standard bloke's requirements. If you don't believe me then ask every straight bloke you meet in the next two weeks his opinion and then do the maths.

MadPriest said...

And it's an image we all, male and female, buy into.

No we don't. To say all men prefer skinny girls because a few celebs think it will do their career good to be seen with one on their arm is like saying all Roman Catholics think lesbians are the devil's spawn. Which, as you know full well, IT, is not the case.

Or I could say women destroyed my country because Thatcher was a woman (allegedly).

Please, you're the scientist. How about being a bit more scientific about this.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, IT. I think your point may be helpful to Jonathan. Ideas of beauty in women varies from culture to culture, but the fashion industry is a driving cultural force.

It's not just about what the 'average bloke' sees as beauty. A "bog standard bloke's requirements" are not exactly Madison Avenue standards and requirements. The power structure is very, very different. See also Hiram's comments about issues of class and the messages of 'luxury'.

I'm remembering hanging out with my husband and his friends - a thousand years ago - when he was in the army. With a few beers in them, the guys would admit that all one needed to do was "throw a flag over her face and do it for Old Glory."

I'm not sayin', but I'm just sayin'.

MadPriest said...

You don't look at the mantelpiece when you're poking the fire.

John said...

The majority of people who I see do not buy
in to Mad Ave's picture which isn't to say some folks don't die trying. Is it a cop out to say we look for inner beauty?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I didn't know you were in the army with my ex-husband!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey, John, I don't think most people "buy into" Madison Avenue, but those who are influenced by it - primarily young men and women - do so at the peril of their own health. See the stats on young men and women who are affected by eating disorders - 20% of whom die.

See also the 1 minute 19 sec. clip about the influence of the media on young girls.

No, it's not a 'cop out' to look for inner beauty. That's the point. Now, if we could just get young men and women to do the same . . .

Dennis said...

I can't help but think of Thorstein Veblen's great and forgotten "Theory of the Leisure Class" in all of this. His idea is that social/class control is through the use those images that reflect conspicuous consumption in the context of that society.

In the late middle ages, having enough money to get a bit fat was an advertisement of wealth. It stood out to be fat when so many starved - to have a fat submissive wife that one had control over in the context of so many who were hungry showed that one had high status. In our age having the spare time and money to hire a chef, to buy the special (and importantly non-easily obtainable) foods and to spend hours at the gym shows that one has resources enough to conspicuously consume (not food, but resources, as in expensive trainers, chefs, etc.) It is expensive to look like the ideal image. It becomes a way of showing that one can waste resources in a deliberately inefficient and conspicuous manner.

When applied to women, though, it serves one step further: the woman (who must be under the control of a man) is an object of conspicuous consumption in this. The well-off male is able to show that he has the cash to burn on arm candy who then throws that money on whatever the economically determined current social tastes are for beauty.

These ideal body images are tied to social and economic class status. And they reflect class differences and class conflict.

And women, Veblen points out, are an important part of the competition - because wealthy men or those who want to appear wealthy enough to waste resources, need women as an appendage who look like they are not productive members of society. They need to look like conspicuous consumers. They need to appear to be expensive pets like a pricey racehorse. Whether this means binding their feet in one culture or holding up body images that take a lot of money to achieve, the result is to force women to look a certain way (the conspicuous part) to be obvious non-productive consumers who show off that certain men are rich enough to waste wealth and thus have a leg up (as it were) in the class struggle.

It isn't because women have some internalized image of prepubescent beauty (sorry Jonathan that doesn't make sense to me) - it is because the class conflict is defined by pre-Industrial standards (Veblen was right about this and Marx was wrong) of being able to demonstrate wasteful use of resources in the context of others needing those resources. To use wasteful consumption of goods for idealized beauty standards as a means of social control there must be hungry people who can't play along and other people who are controlled as objects of this wasteful consumption.

The personal is political because the personal is always economic and the political is always economic. It is about power and dominance hierarchies.

For me it is hard to think about social conflict without some reference to Veblen and his ideas on conspicuous consumption and the 'leisure class.'

Bruno said...

I would posit that it is really a capitalist problem. Fashion is a money maker, how do you make more money? Sell an unobtainable goal. But it is really a bigger issue that we need to address, that is the place of women and girls in our society. We have treated women as "things" to be used, collected, earned, etc. A sign of how ill our culture has become is the great equalization of the genders to the fashion industry. Instead of lifting the place of women from things to equal participants with full humanity, we have begun to sell our sons into the slavery of being things also. While it is true that men have been sacrificed for the "machine" also, it is also true that males have been taught that they can work their way, through labor or cunning to positions of power or respect, even if it costs their life, and there is even value in that loss of life. Young men have held value in the scars of battle, the wounds of surviving and making it. Women however have never been granted the honor of living and striving, they have been taught that their value is in being a thing and a thing never animated (virgin mary anyone).
Thank you Elizabeth for taking this on, I have cried each time one of my nieces hit that point in her life where she became obsessed with men and bought into the idea that she had to look or act a certain way to obtain one. I still pray that one day they will see their true beauty is in the lives they have lived and all they have overcome / accomplished.

JimB said...


I think that there is indeed a false image of female beauty in the minds of a great many women. The do not invent it though, we have to credit mostly, men for that. It is men generally who control the fashion, publishing and entertainment industries. Are some women complicit in this? Sure! It was a woman who said a woman could never be too rich or too thin.

But(!) if we males stopped sending the message that a big chest on a small body is that which (you should pardon the phrase)moves us, the image would change.

It makes me crazy to know that grade school girls worry about their weight when they are NOT over weight. But then consider that if Barbie the quintessential doll for girls has a figure that is almost biologically impossible -- no woman is that thin with those proportions.

I think you hit a home run with the essay Rev. Elizabeth and frankly I think well of Dove because of their ads.


Paul (A.) said...

IT wrote: "Who decided that the ideal woman would be 6 ft tall and leggy? Did someone sit down one day and decide to make women feel inferior for having hips and tummies and real breasts, which sag?"

I suspect that the creation of an "ideal woman" who has an "undeveloped" body is just a form of infantalizing women. A woman with the body of a twelve-year-old is more easily viewed as a twelve-year-old, and anorexia can get you there.

Treating women as adults entails accepting their adult bodies. Not all men are comfortable doing that.

And on a related point, what's with the "model face": Fashion models all seem to have this half-vacant, half-disdainful expression that they seem to be required to wear on the catwalk. Who decided that?!? (Circumstances recently put me into a restaurant with television screens on the walls that showed inter alia clips from fashion shows. Their faces are just weird!)

KJ said...

I was going to suggest that only purty men be used for advertising, but I think that would be all about me.

June Butler said...

Hmmm. Someone was spoiling for an argument.

Hiram, we have one of the old Coca Cola posters from the 1930s, and the woman pictured in a swim suit is definitely curvy.

What makes me so sad is the young girls making themselves sick sometimes unto death because of some ideal of feminine beauty. And the models in their twenties, who should know better, doing the same thing and adding drugs to the mix.

As for me, I've always liked saris. I've never actually worn one, but I believe they're quite attractive.

But not for the beach.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

This discussion is driving my brain back to an article in Natural History magazine, oh, ten or fifteen years ago. It was a study that showed that men, no matter what their age, when shown pictures of women, are drawn to women of reproductive age. Women tended to be drawn to pictures of men who were roughly their age or older.

Now this was just one study, but it certainly clicked a light bulb on in my head that I never forgot. Whether that is "nature" or "nurture" or a little of both, who knows?

JCF said...

I don't like to be told that "Fat is Beautiful" anymore than I like to be told "Skinny is Beautiful".

HEALTHY is beautiful! [And all of the women pictured in this entry look pretty healthy to me].

I admit, sometimes I do wonder about gay male misogyny in the fashion industry. To wit, I understand that punk singer Beth Ditto is now all the rage in the fashion world. In her morbid obesity, she's just as (IMO!) repulsive-looking as the "Heroin Chic" anorexic look was.

I'll say it again: HEALTHY is beautiful! There's range of proportions, to be sure: the extremes ain't it. :-X

Caminante said...

I'd love to be 5'11" and weigh 180. Super-size. Crumbs.

I go nuts with Title 9 clothing because they think that anyone over a size 14 must not be athletic. How the bleep are we biggies supposed to be able to exercise if we can't get decent clothes???

Thank heavens for ExOfficio that makes clothing large enough that I can go off and walk 960 miles on the Camino de Santiago or whack off 26 miles on Vermont's Long Trail as I just have done these past couple of days.

MadPriest said...

I was not spoiling for an argument. I am interested in this subject and have been asking questions and questioning answers. I don't know the answer but I am not convinced by Elizabeth's answer. Why is it that women, when confronted by an independent man with his own opinions, immediately try to belittle him with sarcasm? There will never be equality among the sexes unless women allow the voice of men to be heard.

MadPriest said...

Treating women as adults entails accepting their adult bodies. Not all men are comfortable doing that.

I expect that is true. But the proportion of men who fear the adult female form compared to the proportion who want to go to bed with it will be too small to make any huge social difference. And they won't all work in the fashion industry.

But I think Paul has made a good point (mainly because it is something I suggested earlier) that anorexia may have something to do with the prepubescent female body. Perhaps (I said "perhaps") it is girls who fear the change to the womanly body. Perhaps some women want to return to their childhood. Perhaps this has something to do with wishing to remain "daddy's girl" (men can remain mummy's little boy all their lives so they don't need to alter their bodies). Perhaps it is due to the pressures that the expectations of men of women puts on adolescent young women. Perhaps it is just something women are susceptible to without any outside catalyst being necessary.

I don't know.

Hiram said...

This is a complex issue and I do not think we could boil it down to any one cause. I guess that there are many men in the fashion industry -designers, magazine editors, manufacturers, etc - but over 90% of the people who care about fashion are women.

It was girls in my high school who would sketch clothing designs when they had odd moments of the day - not guys. It was girls who raved over each other's new outfits. It was girls who bought the fashion magazines.

Women may not do sketches, but they continue to ooh and aah over each other's outfits and accessories. I can remember being in the No Va area in the late 70's when huge scarves were all the rage. "You can do so much with them," I often heard. My thought was, "The sooner this is over the better." I do not know what other men thought; we did not talk about such things, and if we did we would probably wonder what the fuss was all about.

I have heard on a number of occasions, "Women dress for other women, and not for men." I think that there is truth to this statement. If I were a wealthy man trying to impress others with my wealth, I might seek to show it off by buying the very latest for my lady - but for most of us middle-class guys, we simply want women who cannot be mistaken for boys and who wear clothes that are decently made, who have a good sense of what color and cut looks good on them, and who do not obsess about fashion.

Or at least those are the thoughts of a 60-something priest who lives in New England.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks so much for all your comments. I hope one of y'all continues this conversation on one of your blogs.

My brother is here - the long expected visit has arrived. I just posted something about it and asking for some prayers, if you would, of your mercy and kindness. And, please understand that my lack of comments here or visits to your blogs is anything more than my being consumed with this visit.

Thanks again for a wonderful conversation about a very complex and complicated subject.

Lapinbizarre said...

Seems you have troll problems, Elizabeth.

Jeannine said...


I'm a 10-12 (sometimes apparently 14!) and I'm 5'9 and 29 yrs old. When I had to get a dress for my masters degree recital a few years back (I'm a violist), my dress wound up be a 21!!!! That shocked the hell out of me! But I knew it was only because of specific cuts and what not. I laughed about it, and I still do.

I hope your daughter has calmed down and come back to realization that the numbers don't matter! :)

Thanks for the great article Elizabeth!

JCF said...

for most of us middle-class guys, we simply want women who cannot be mistaken for boys

Don't you EVER get tired of lugging this (tired!) obsession around, Hiram? That the World-At-Large REALLY DOES NOT CARE whether you're gay or not? Criminey! :-0

Mia said...

Some may argue that these issues are utter bunk. However, have any of you ever checked out dating sites and/or the relationship sections of Craig's List? Do you realize just how many men out there will go so far as to even refuse friendship with a woman who doesn't meet the ornamental ideal he has in mind? And yes, these men dowant women to be objects. They do want them to be all eye appeal, with nothing else (except maybe a fat purse full of money) that's of any substance. We're not supposed to have a say in how we look. We're not allowed to have our own thoughts, feelings, and opinions. This is a form of oppression especially for single women who want a decent, meaningful relationship.

Such things hurt women every day. Do you know what it's like to feel like no one will ever want you just because you don't fit society's sick, twisted, and totally impossible ideal? Can you imagine being reduced to a living "sex doll" because men think you must be "desperate" if you're "too big"?

Brad Evans said...

Fat people die sooner-they have more health problems-than skinny ones.
It's also an indication in an advanced, post-industrial society that you've gone to college/grad school/are professional (not a waitress at a diner/secretary).
So guys like skinny women because we think they're smarter/better educated/will make more money for our two-income families.
Same with guys; if a woman sees a guy around 30 who's got a gut, she's thinking that he's lazy and/or uneducated-not going to be a good father.

Mia said...

I have a female friend that's painfully thin, and she suffers from a disease that can lead to diabetes. We would joke that maybe I should donate some of my adipose tissue to her so that she could have bosoms. And FYI, this particular young woman never completed high school, nor did she get a GED. She worked in the construction trade her whole adult life.

The aforementioned female friend had a boyfriend who was an Oracle consultant and in Mensa. But he was a "big fellow," so to speak. If a "big fellow" can be a mental giant, then so can a "big woman".

I've also known thin women that had to take Metformin due to being insulin intolerant. Fat or thin, if you're going to suffer from a disease, you'll suffer from it.

Being skinny doesn't mean you're smart or successful (in other areas of life). For many women, it just means that person is a slave to male whims. It means she is willing to starve herself and exercise like crazy to achieve that "perfect body" that just doesn't exist.

And many women do so just to get herself a man. Our society still promotes the whole, "You're not a success as a woman if you don't get married and have kids. Do whatever it takes! Starve yourself and exercise! And for crying out loud, dumb down! Men are intimidated by smart women."

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well said, Mia. Thanks.

Christian Paolino said...

While I agree that this has traditionally been an issue only for women, I don't think it's completely true anymore.

Men are now being targeted by advertisers with images of an unrealistic ideal as well (see Abercrombie & Fitch, Dolce & Gabana etc. And here I have to contradict what MadPriest said about guys responding to homoerotic ads... A&F used them with great effectiveness at least among the young) and -- although the standards are different -- the behaviors that some men are taking to move towards that ideal are no less destructive. There is a whole underground industry to give men hormone replacement therapy for purely aesthetic reasons and steroids, or what they are told are steroids, are easily available by knowing the right person in just about any gym.

I'm not trying to diminish anything that you've said here. I just want to point out that the same psychology is being used, to the same detriment, on at least a segment of the male population.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Point well made and well taken, Verge. Thank you.

I should like to point out that when an issue effects men and women, that does not make it any less than a "feminist" issue.

MadPriest said...

Yes. But let's face it, everything, from who gets to be president to taking a crap is a feminist issue with you, Lisbeth.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You say that like it's a bad thing, Jonathan.

MadPriest said...

As I've said many times before, it does play into the hands of the oppressors who tend to be extremely successful when they play the divide and rule card.

Also claiming the word "feminine" just for women is just plain greedy and empirically plain wrong.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Jonathan, Many of my male friends claim to be feminist. From what I read in Holy Writ, I believe Jesus was a feminist. You can accuse Him of "playing into the hands of the oppressors" and, I suppose, in some of the stories reported in scripture, and, with the help of a good Pharisee, you might actually win your case.

I hope you are a feminist, too.

MadPriest said...

You can claim that, if you want. But he never claimed that he had a favourite oppressed minority. He tended to go for one big inclusive umbrella.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Actually, he seemed to have a "preferential option" as the liberation theologians are of't wont to say, for the poor.

He also seemed to stick his neck out for women - especially women of alleged "ill repute" - more times than made (or, make, to this day) some people comfortable.

Oh, and also many children.

MadPriest said...

Which is my point exactly.
Admit it, when it came to the oppressed, Jesus just wasn't into special cases.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Oh, Jonathan, don't you grow weary of this? I mean, what's the point, really? Except you are proving your point of siphoning off precious energy to fight the oppressor with a pointless squabble over someone's ability to stand up for themselves and articulate how it is they feel oppressed - and, have strong allies do the same.

I certainly do it for children, though I am no longer one.

And for the poor, though I am, TBTG, financially comfortable.

And, for those with mental or physical health challenges, though I am not in their number.

And, although I've been called a 'bitch', I will also fight for animal rights, an end to the heinous "sport" of dog fighting, even though I have two legs and not four.

Sorry, luv, but if you want to die on sword of this tiny minutia of a philosophical point, well, be my guest. I hear you, but it is sadly misplaced with me.

I love you dearly and I admire your greatly, and because of that, I'm not going to argue with you any longer about this. I've got other places to put my energy. (See the above for a clue of where that might be.)

John said...

Verge, Hoscum when I go to A F there is a buff young man without his shirt on but no similarly undressed young woman? What's up with that? Why are all the men's shirts this "athletic cut?" Granted, I am not paying US$40 for a tee shirt, but c'mon, folks, give the rest of us a break.

MadPriest said...

don't you grow weary of this?

Which is where we came in.

Christian Paolino said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christian Paolino said...

Reply to John:

They did have female "greeters" at one time (these people have no other job except to look pretty, by the way, they don't have to fold jeans or do anything else useful. Nice work if you can get it!) at certain stores at certain times, but I agree that the overwhelming majority of the time, it was a guy. I don't believe they do this very much at all any more except at the "flagship" stores. They are far past the zenith of their popularity and pretty people are expensive.

If you want to understand the psychology of Abercrombie and Fitch, I suggest you read the Salon article about the current CEO, Michael Jeffries, which was published in 2006 before their downward slide began. You can find it here. He is quite a character, and there's a lot going on behind everything you see in their stores.

As far as your latter question goes, they make clothes for a pretty specific body type (if you read the interview, you may draw some conclusions of your own about why) and if you can't fit in them, they don't care and you can go away. I tried to buy jeans there once but I am too fat (I can fit in a 32x30 but a 34x30 is more comfortable, and they don't make jeans that are any more than two inches wider than they are long).

So to me it really does feel like at least one company is trying to apply the same kind of exclusionary standards on men. I will guiltily admit that I really like the way the muscle-fit tee shirts fit me, but I refuse to buy any that have their name on them in anything but tiny letters, and I don't buy them unless they are on clearance.

As far as Jeffries is concerned, America's unattractive, overweight or otherwise undesirable teens can shop elsewhere. "In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids," he says. "Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don't belong [in our clothes], and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don't alienate anybody, but you don't excite anybody, either."