Things I am not shocked by, #3890587230587439

Kathy Ireland’s Shocking Weight Gain.”

Kathy Ireland has gained all of 25  pounds since she stopped working as a supermodel. She is also a mother of three, a CEO, and volunteer mentor. She is also 46.

Given the ultra-strict diets that supermodels are reportedly expected to maintain, I would honestly be more shocked if a supermodel DIDN’T gain 25 pounds when not modeling. I’m sure that some models are naturally quite thin, but everything I’ve read indicates that the pressure is always to be thinner no matter where you started from.

In other celebrity news, Scarlett Johansson is reportedly following Gwyneth Paltrow’s life-ruining diet and exercise routine in preparation for a role in Iron Man 2. Long-time Shapelings will no doubt not be shocked by this either, since people have been declaring Johansson fat for ages now.

I am in love for the second time this week

This time with an officially real person, Emily Blunt. That is, Emily Blunt, Doughnut Smuggler

On being monitored to make sure she didn’t gain weight while playing a diet-obsessed fashionista in The Devil Wears Prada, she says:

I understand why I was asked to be like that for that role, my character was surviving on cubes of cheese at one point in the movie. But you need some kind of comfort when you’re on a film set all day, and mine’s usually food. I was being watched like a hawk, but by the end I’d be sneaking in doughnuts just to annoy the producers.

And on Photoshopping:

I did this photo shoot with a big name fashion photographer and he said ‘Just so you know, if you don’t like anything about yourself I can fix it afterwards – like that, for example’ – pointing to my face. I was like, ‘My chin? ‘ ‘Yes, that cleft on your chin, ‘ he said, to which I replied, ‘I wouldn’t mind keeping it, as it’s part of my face, you know’.

I love the phrasing of that: “If you don’t like anything about yourself, I can fix it afterwards.” Really? Can Photoshop help me quit smoking or pay off my credit card debt? If so, maybe I’ve been too hard on it. And of course, the assumption that a woman so conventionally gorgeous she’s being  photographed for a fashion magazine must have a body part she doesn’t like… sigh.

In other news, I’m going out of town for the week, so posting (from me, anyway) might be even lighter than usual. Or I might be bored in a hotel while Al’s at a conference and end up writing up a storm. Don’t know yet, but consider yourselves warned. And if there’s no new content, feel free to use this as an open thread for linking to interesting articles or sharing what’s up your ass this week.

Yes Means Yes! Virtual Tour: Q&A with Kimberly Springer

OK, so nobody who reads this blog can be unaware that Yes Means Yes! is out, and I’m in it, and you should buy it, and I FELL DOWN FOUR TIMES FOR YOU PEOPLE. But we haven’t talked much about the other contributors so far. Because, you know, I really like to talk about myself.

Today, I would like you all to give a warm Shapeling welcome to Kimberly Springer, author of the essay “Queering Black Female Heterosexuality,” who was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about her contribution below. Huge thanks to Kimberly for sharing her time, wisdom, and awesome with us.

Commenters, a few extra notes for today:

  1. Please pay special attention to rules number 10 and 11 in the comments policy.
  2. Although we do get into comparing depictions of fat white women and both fat and thin black women onscreen (and I got rather long-winded on the subject, not suprisingly), I would like to keep such comparisons in the background of this discussion as much as possible. When in doubt, please keep in mind that today’s topic is what Kimberly has to say about black female sexuality, not (for once) what white fat women think about being white fat women.
  3. If you’re commenting for the first time, welcome, but please be aware that all first-time comments automatically go into moderation — and Fillyjonk, Sweet Machine and I might not be able to check the queue and release them right away. Please be patient with us.

One last note before we get to it: Don’t forget to check out the next stop on the tour, Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman guest-blogging at Bitch Ph.D. this coming Monday, Feb. 16!

Kate Harding: I’d like to give the readers a bit of 101 on some of the terms you use — specifically, the “Jezebel,” “Mammy” and “black lady” stereotypes, as well as “queer” as a political stance and a verb.

Kimberly Springer: What’s important to note about stereotypes is that, as some people maintain, there may be a grain of truth in them. But also key is to observe the historical continuity. In other words, the more representations change, the more they stay the same. While the icon of the Mammy may be rooted in slavery and the role of black women as caregivers to white families, that role is replicated in popular culture endlessly with black women caring for or teaching white folks something about themselves. Jennifer Hudson, bless her beautiful, talented soul, was relegated to a Mammy role in the Sex and the City film. Usually the Mammy is asexual, so while Hudson’s character did find love for herself, that’s different than being a well-rounded person who’s romantically and sexually fulfilled. Would I have rather not seen any black faces in that film? Absolutely. Carrie Bradshaw can wipe her own damn nose and get Miranda to straighten out her dayplanner.

The Jezebel would be the other end of the spectrum. Why do I always return to Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball? Because this Academy Award-winning performance was so bloody offensive. Is it Berry’s fault that all the YouTube clips are of her “sex scene” in the film? Not entirely. But this fact is indicative of how the general public views black women’s sexuality. It is Jezebel cinema 101: needy, groveling, desperate for white cock, no self-worth.

Patricia Hill Collins, in Black Sexual Politics, does a much better and more exhaustive outlining of the evolution of these stereotypes. I’d really recommend checking out her book for her take on how these stereotypes are updated and reverberate in characters like the black female TV judge, i.e. the black lady. Black women are allowed to enter the frame as judge, teacher, or Oracle carrying out the dominant culture’s laws and edicts as if those are determined ahistorically.

The stereotypes raise the question, can we ever win? Will there ever be representations of black women that outruns these specters of history? For example, in the new trailer for He’s Just Not That Into You, L.A.-based comedy team Frangela (Frances Collier and Angela Shelton) are featured sitting on a park bench dispensing wisdom, ostensibly, to the film’s white female protagonists. Latoya Peterson (also featured in Yes Means Yes) blogged about the spot for Racialicious and her friend nailed the exasperation with this particular representation of black women perfectly, “They always do that to us, don’t they?” Yes, cripes, they really do! But what struck me were the comments to the post about “fat black women.” What demands do we make on Hollywood to give us depictions we can get with? Let’s examine our uncritical pegging of the “fat black woman”. Can she speak her mind without being the Mammy or, yet another stereotype, the black bitch/Sapphire?

Queering, as a verb, is meant to encourage us to take risks in how we identify and interact with our sexuality as black women. My basic point is that we have nothing to lose and everything to gain in looking at how queer theory questions gender categories and applying that to questioning racial and gender categories as they intersect. I’m also thinking about black women and our sexuality as always “queer,” already “queer” whether we want that or not. Back to my Frangela example, I’ve got some personal connection to them and so know that, for instance, they made a pilot of a too-smart-for-television sitcom. I also know that they, like everyone else, have to pay the bills. But, yet, I always question black folks who take roles that make me cringe. So, are there ways to queer these representations? To make them something other than capitulations to mass culture? Is it self-delusion to try and see subversiveness when there may not be any? What kind of queering can we do, if allowed the space and resources, of stale stereotypes? Professor Rebecca Wanzo (Ohio State) put a concept to the questions I’ve been contemplating with her notion of “complex personhood.”

KH: Queen Latifah is an icon in the fat acceptance community (or was, before she started shilling for Jenny Craig), and it never really occurred to me before  reading your essay that most of her roles are so asexual. I was just so happy for the crumb of seeing a fat leading lady whose body is not (always) an object of derision — seeing a fat woman’s sexuality played for something other than laughs almost seems like too much to hope for. But as you discuss in the essay, taking those representational crumbs is not enough — we need to recognize that even superficially positive stereotypes, e.g., the “black lady,” are still dangerously reductive. Can you expand on this here?

KS: At this stage, in 2009, I remain uncharacteristically optimistic that we could hope for something more than crumbs from the big house table in terms of how black women are represented. And that word is key: re-presented. I don’t want yet another presentation of a black female stereotype that we’ve already seen a million times before.

So, while I’m all for calling Hollywood on their lack of creativity, I would agree with you that we should highlight positive stereotypes…and then demand complexity in that so-called positive view. I mean, dang, the very idea that Queen Latifah isn’t getting play left and right is absurd. And the default to depicting her sexually in a film would have to be played for laughs or related to assumed insecurities she has about her body. Can you imagine the number of scripts she turns down that do just that?

But, then, maybe we need to do a 360 critique. You say that Latifah is/was an icon in the fat acceptance community, but does her mere presence make her deserving of icon status? It’s probably best to make this more general than about Queen Latifah in particular, but I would question our impulse to uncritically embrace those who, really, only see us a potential audience. Most celebs lose me when they go out of their way to deny feminism as a factor in their art or who they’ve achieved success.

KH: One thing that really resonated with me as a fat, white woman was the false dichotomy of hypersexuality/asexuality. Though fat women who aren’t black don’t have the Jezebel/Mammy history driving that, I think all fat women are subjected to a version of the same stereotypes. We’re portrayed as either insatiably horny (which of course goes along with the stereotype of fat women as insatiable, period), or as the best friends/secretaries/teachers/etc. with no apparent romantic lives of our own. Horny fat women are portrayed as clowns, not temptresses — a fat woman’s sexual desire is seen as intrinsically humorous, and 99 times out of 100, she’ll be shown pursuing a guy who’s disgusted by her, with absolutely no clue that he feels that way. And asexual fat white women are usually portrayed as pathetic and lonely because of the fat, even if they’re simply in a supporting role with no romantic storyline — gratuitous shots of these women eating junk food at their desks or looking forlornly/jealously at a happy couple invite assumptions about the characters’ romantic lives. Whereas (at least this is my impression — please tell me if I’m missing something) the asexual black woman on screen isn’t meant to be seen as lonely or having any desire at all — she’s just a 2-dimensional human being who doesn’t “need” that aspect to her character, because her primary function is to further the white people’s story.

Writing it out like that makes me realize that, as profoundly offensive as I find that portrayal (implicit or explicit) of fat white women as lonely and unlovable, it’s still humanizing — in a really crude way — as compared to black women’s on-screen asexuality. The fat woman might actually have desires, we’re just meant to understand that she can never meet them as long as she’s fat. The black woman doesn’t even have enough humanity to feel loneliness. And please note that I’m deliberately separating the categories of “fat woman” and “black woman” here not because I’ve forgotten fat, black women exist, but because I think blackness trumps* fatness in this case: a fat black woman in that asexual role is still primarily defined by her relationship/usefulness to the white characters, rather than by her own body.

Going back to the other stereotype, though, I guess I’d say fatness more often trumps blackness, turning the Jezebel/”ho” from a desirable-in-a-dirty-way figure into a clown. (Especially when that fat, black “woman” is played by a man, which adds a whole other level.)

*”Trumps” is obviously a simplistic way to put it, and I certainly don’t mean the person’s fatness or blackness is obscured in either case. But it seems to me there are two different but related hypersexual/asexual dichotomies here, and whether fat black women are defined first by fat stereotypes or black stereotypes onscreen depends on which half of the dichotomy we’re talking about.

So, uh, got anything to say about all that? :)

KS: Yes, I get you! And, if I can use a UK-based example here: on Eastenders, the long-running English soap opera about the working class, they’ve featured for a while now a fat white women named “Heather.” It’s been on my mind to start a campaign about her depiction which is, as you note, insatiably horny, always eating, a failure in love, and just generally pathetic. She does have an abiding love for George Michael, but we might question the motives of having Heather lust after George who is out and proud about his gayness.

I bring Heather up because, again, heavens forfend, she should be a multi-facted character, someone not just in scenes for comic relief. Yet, it’s that question of desire that you raise so cogently in the distinctions you draw between a hypersexual, fat white femininity and an asexual black femininity. I think we can make the further distinction that at the root of the white woman’s sexuality is that she’s insatiable because she’s never had sex before and, unless she loses weight, will forever be horny. There is a solution to her “problem,” according to the dominant neo-liberal narrative and it is one rooted in self-help and willpower.

On the other hand, the fat black woman doesn’t need sex. Taking care of others fulfills her needs and desires. That said, the fat black woman as portrayed by black men in drag is, basically, an insatiable freak that plays into heterosexist male fantasies of a hypersexual jezebel who is “two tons of fun” and is definitely insatiable because she has had lots of sex and can’t get enough. This man in drag portrays fat black women as unending appetite and just like they might eat up everything in the kitchen, they will eat up a man—mama dentata.

In both cases, for black and white fat women, we might want to look a bit deeper into the representation of insatiability and key into the roots of their desire. We’re going wayyy beyond the script here, but if we consider that most actors create a life for their characters other than what we see on screen, we can track the nuances and better critique both motivation and consequences.

All that said, I’d ask readers to comment on Sherri Shepherd’s character Angie in “30 Rock.” Is this another stereotype that gives a larger black woman some sexual agency since a running gag on the show is how she and Tracy Jordan like to roleplay? Is there some dimensionality to Angie—though we pretty much only see her in relationship to sex and Tracy’s fears of not meeting her demands for sex and money?

KH: Can you talk more about how that dichotomy is “a huge obstacle in getting to yes” — how when women are painted as either insatiable or asexual, either way, there’s no aspect of choice or (specific)desire in their romantic lives. In both cases, you’re left taking “what you can get,” whether that’s every willing man you find or no men at all.

KS: It’s a bit like cable TV: tons of channels, but nothing on worth watching. What would a real choice look like? Like the recognition that people, in general, and black women, in particular, are not all one way or the other all the time. No one’s easily pegged as Samantha or Charlotte. That’s why I came to enjoy the show “Girlfriends.” All of the characters had their quirks or were annoying in their own way (read: Joan), but I thought they did have some dimensionality over the run of the show, which was unusual for a sitcom where the genre demands that its characters never learn their lessons. If we try to live our lives according to the scripts of pop culture, we, too, will never learn and simply feel like we’re stuck between Mammy and Jezebel or whatever current incarnations of those stereotypes are.

I know it sounds really corny, and Margaret Cho actually says it quite nicely in the Yes Means Yes intro, but I’ve gotta be able to say yes to me. And that’s not a one-time deal, but an on-going process.

KH: What are some of the steps you think black women can take toward queering their sexuality, in both the short and long term?

KS: What I’m suggesting, initially doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, which is a request to over-think sex. Yes, sex should be something that has spontaneity and is enjoyable—by all mean, engage in the freak-a-deak! Yet, in flirting, masturbating, moving through the streets, writing a dating profile on line, who are you as a black woman? What are you putting out there?

This isn’t a 19th century call for respectability, but just the idea that one might think while in the process of being a sexual black woman, “what stereotypes am I playing into? Why? Does this feel like me? Am I enjoying this?” I think that we, as black women, spend a lot of time running away from representations that, frankly, suck and that we don’t want to be associated with. The result is a lot of silence and reading trash novels like Zane’s where we live vicariously sexual lives through fiction and self-help books that tells us that our end goal in monogamy.

Yet, there may be times that you want to play with ideas about black women as exotic and be that sexy jezebel with tricks your partner’s never seen. Just be aware of when it’s play, when it’s not, and how that play reverberates in your daily life. If we all live in the panopticon and surveil ourselves, I would vote for doing that in ways that raise awareness of our inner sexual lives, improve our enjoyment, and create pleasure for our outer lives.

KH: You write about the need for both individual and community attitude shifts. Will you talk more about getting the message out both in terms of personal empowerment and broader reaching awareness-raising?

KS: The individual and societal/community transformation go hand in hand. I think it’s great if individual black women can find their sexual pleasure and security in who they are on their own terms, but let’s not forget our tradition of racial uplift. Does this mean changing what we think of as “good for the race”? Absolutely. To my knowledge, black women in the 19th century who were advocating for anti-lynching campaigns and suffrage weren’t necessarily also advocating sexual freedom (though there were definitely feminists of the era doing so), but they paved the way for us to continue to push forward a progressive agenda for individual freedoms, as well as nation building.

Ultimately, seeking and embracing black women’s sexuality in ways that are beneficial to black women is uncharted territory and will have to take place at all levels simultaneously. For those black women who are involved in the church, challenging dispersions cast on other women’s sexuality are moments of intervention, as are discussing popular religious, male-centered sermons that continue to place the all the responsibility for sexuality onto women.

Sexism in hip hop and how we’re portrayed isn’t a one-time battle and we have to be consistent in calling people out on their shit. But, at the same time, we seriously need to give more credit to people and artists that are advocating for a new way of envisioning and enacting black sexuality in popular culture and in the bedroom.

And the last step I’d recommend is: don’t have sex with anyone who says, “I’ve never had sex with a black girl before.” There’s a reason why they haven’t: ‘cause they’re an idiot who says shit like, “I’ve never had sex with a [insert race] girl before.” [Sorry, pet peeve. Had to get that out there!]

KH: Will you talk about some of the obstacles you see standing in the way of black women having open and honest conversations about sexuality?

KS: Our mommas. Yeah, I said it: our mommas are a big obstacle in talking openly about sexuality. And before anyone wants to go off about blaming mothers and scapegoating the matriarch, tell me this, “when was the last time you talked to your mother about sex, black girlchild?” Yesterday? Good for you. You are in the minority. Of course, the inability to talk about sexuality across generations outside of sex ed classes is endemic to all races, but while we’re telling one another what not to do, we need to recognize the times and talk about what to.

Just as always pointing out the stereotypes can be no fun and tiring, isn’t it just as exhausting elaborating a list of don’ts without ever getting to the do’s? Albeit, standards of acceptability around sexual practices change over time (i.e. I will never discuss anal sex with my mum), but I hear a lot of women claiming a close relationship with their daughters, but it’s close on the mother’s terms and not the daughter’s.

Returning to the black church, I would say this is a huge obstacle in discussing sexuality openly. If sex is discussed at all, it’s in terms of negative consequences. It would be amazing to see black church congregations decide that it’s time to approach new millennium problems with new millennium solutions and attitudes. Otherwise, we’re destined to repeat the same mistakes from generation to generation.

KH: What would you like to elaborate on that didn’t make it into the essay?

KS: Less than what didn’t make it into the essay, I’d like to raise how this essay made it into a Seal Press book. Before the Yes Means Yes call went out, I’d pitched a book idea to Seal about black women’s sexuality. Having taught Seal books for years in women’s studies courses, I thought they would be the right publisher for a book that wanted to point out the ways that black women could both challenge racialized sexism and highlight the work of people like Sarah Jones, Renee Cox, and even Janet Jackson in bringing to the fore new expressions of black female sexuality.

Seal’s response was that the topic, black women’s sexuality, was too narrowly defined. Huh. Interesting coming from a publisher that purports to publish books about the wide spectrum of women’s experiences. Presumably, books about weight loss, one’s cleaning habits, infertility, etc. are concerns of Everywoman?

Far from sour grapes, and glad that the chapter I wrote is included in Yes Means Yes, I question when the tokenizing of women of color experience ends? The assumption that women of different races, particularly those adhering to feminist principles, wouldn’t be interested or learn anything from the experiences of women unlike themselves undercuts the forward advancement of a feminist agenda. How is the assumption that books about women, that are actually about white women’s experiences and attempt to make whiteness as race invisible, any different than not making films about diverse audiences and claiming that white people (the only moviegoers?) would never go to see films that feature black characters? Unfortunately, it seems that the only perspectives allowed are ones that blame sexist and racist portrayals of black women on hip hop, painting the entire genre with the same brush, and only seeing black women as oppressed and lacking agency. The result is a limit on opportunities to talk about efforts to expand depictions of black women’s sexuality.

KH: Are there any other essays in YMY that struck a chord with you? Recommendations, criticism, thoughts?

KS: (I thought our essays worked well together, situated as they are one after another. I’m really into manifestos. We need more of them. I DEMAND MORE MANIFESTOS. That was my meta-manifesto.)

There are a couple of things about the volume that make it a deeply moving experience. First, I love the thematic set-up. Maybe I’m a mere tool of The Man, but I actually needed permission to jump around with the order of reading, to choose my own Yes Mean Yes adventure. Being ensconced in academia, despite teaching about new media and new ways of thinking, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to approach the book from a non-linear perspective. As such, it’s made me see how many ways we can concretely transform rape culture.

One of those ways that transformation can happen, and perhaps this has been happening in the U.S. for a while, is through the idea of enthusiastic consent. Some of the essays use this concept as a given, but I think it’s worth picking out and defining more forcefully. My rudimentary Googling reveals raging debates about it, which is a good thing. So, I’m trying to figure out how enthusiastic consent to sexual contact might translate to issues of consent around representation. This is another iteration of not only critiquing the stereotypes, but also recognizing what works practice.

Quick hits: The physical cost of beauty

Two more reminders of the cost of the ideal of the perfectly toned, perfectly thin body:

1. A Daily Mail reporter (I know, I know — they’re a thin-loving nightmare, but that also means that they publish a lot of articles that unintentionally reveal the cultural pressures behind that) works with Madonna’s and Gwyneth Paltrow’s trainer for five weeks and her life becomes a living hell. She nearly passes out, almost vomits on the treadmill, loses the ability to walk up stairs, and — most crucially — loses all desire for any semblance of a social life, because she is so damn tired.

Unexpectedly, this is turning into a booze-free few weeks as well. Working out at this intensity means I cannot drink at all; I simply wouldn’t be able to train properly.

As for dating, it’s completely hopeless. I’ve definitely seen the last of Finance Guy, the man I’d been seeing on and off for a few weeks. Our relationship was already stretched, and my refusal to drink seemed to push him over the edge. Could this be what drove Guy Ritchie away?

At the weekend, I take a much-needed mini-break to Dublin. I am looking forward to three days away, out of town and away from the gym.

I am lazing around in my suite at one of Dublin’s poshest hotels, when I get a text from Jonathan reminding me to do my cardio workout.

I bet Madonna and Gwyneth get text messages like this, too.

Two hours a day, six days a week, with your personal trainer sending you intrusive text messages while you’re on vacation: just the cost of being thin and female, right? As Margaret at Jezebel puts it,

Though you might expect that Pearson would realize after going through this “nightmare” that such a gym routine wasn’t worth it or condemn the society that demands our celebrities obsess about their weight, all Pearson takes from this experience is that we should have more respect for Gwyneth and Madonna. “Their tightly honed bodies were not achieved by swallowing a pill, from cigarettes, or cocaine. These ladies didn’t take the easy way. They are in the gym every day sweating their guts out,” writes Pearson. Apparently having a lower quality of life is worth it, as long as you’re 10 pounds skinnier.

Remember, y’all, things are only worth doing if they improve your life. You don’t have to do this.

(SW warning on comments at both the Daily Mail and Jezebel.)

2. Remember that Campari ad that photoshopped away Jessica Alba’s already astonishing figure? Apparently she got that post-baby figure by torturous workouts and the help of a girdle. (I can’t access the original Elle article on this, so I’m relying on a summary here.) Not really surprising, but it makes it all the more ridiculous that the ads are so incredibly photoshopped.

I know you know this, but it’s always worth a reminder: these images are lying to you. Ads are lying to you. Magazines are lying to you. Posters are lying to you. They will never stop. Nobody looks like Jessica Alba — not even Jessica Alba.

You’re not fat, redux redux

Since Kate’s terrific essay was published on Salon and in Feed Me!, I’ve been thinking again about the protest “But you’re not fat!” and how it can be so much at odds with lived experience. Many of us, of many different sizes, have been flat-out told we’re fat (and therefore unacceptable, unloveable, unfeminine, and so on) by everyone from complete strangers to our own families. I’ve spent most of my twenties as an inbetweenie or thinner, and I still find it hard to reconcile my past as a fat girl with my present as a not-fat woman — especially given that the characteristics that my fat body had (wide hips, jiggly thighs, heavy breasts) are all still around on my thinner body.

Which is why two recent blog posts really stuck in my mind: they illustrate the way that even when you’re relatively free of fat harassment in your daily life, you can never be free of it culturally. Even when the real people in your life tell you “But you’re not fat,” a host of forces are out there to tell you “Yeah, you are.”

The first is from Sociological Images: a vintage Sears ad (from what, the 70s?) that is just rife with gender and racial subtexts as well.

If little Tracy Harper is chubby, then so am I. What struck me most about this ad is that it is pre-OBESITY ARMAGEDDON!!!!11 hysteria; there’s no suggestion that this girl is part of the downfall of society (although she doesn’t care about being “fashionable,” presumably in her figure as well as her clothes), just that she should look better to make her mother look better. What do you think this ad would look like if it ran today? And would the word “chubby” appear in it?

And then, of course, there’s the “Jessica Simpson Weight Controversy,” in which pop star Jessica Simpson appears to have gained maybe 5 pounds and also joined the unfortunate trend of super-high-waisted jeans. Again, if Jessica Simpson is fat, then I must be a fatpocalypse in the making.

This image was helpfully constructed in classic before/after style by the assholes over at the Daily Mail, which also reports that Simpson’s “before” figure was the result of “two-hour workouts six days a week” with a personal trainer and “a South Beach Diet-style low-carb, high-protein menu” — all in the service of a movie role. In other words, having that figure was her job, and having the figure on the right is what happens when she goes back to her normal job (i.e., singing). What a hideous role model she is! Why, if young girls look up to her, they’ll all end up as fat as little Tracy Harper!

As Liss says at Shakesville:

Got that? Even eating a strict diet, Simpson had to work out two hours a day, six days a week to attain the physique she’s now being crucified for no longer having—and it’s evidently a perfectly reasonable expectation that she do it for the rest of her life.

Simpson didn’t need that rigorous regime because she needed to lose lots of weight: She just had to get to Daisy Duke from where she is now—which used to be considered enormously hot, until she made an extraordinary effort to make her body do something it doesn’t naturally do. Now she’s lambasted for refusing to maintain it by dedicating at least twelve hours a week of her life just to working out, a schedule she called “emotionally destructive.”

These are just some of the messages that bombard us every day; this is the miasma of fat hatred and misogyny that threatens our every breath. This is why people who say “You’re not fat!” or “Why should thin people care about fat acceptance?” are missing the point. We need to disarm the word “fat” as an insult for so many reasons; one of them is that it is nearly always possible to wield. Tracy Harper and Jessica Simpson show that there is no place where you are safe from the charge that you are fat — a line can always be drawn between “acceptable” and “too fat,” no matter what it looks like on either side. As long as we buy into the idea that fat means bad, lazy, unhealthy, unsexy, then we are always vulnerable to the images above. “Fat,” like “bitch,” is an insult designed to put you in your place; as an insult, it has little to do with you and your actual body, and a whole lot to do with marking some bodies and some modes of living as inferior.

That’s why it’s so hilarious when people react to FA blogs by saying that we’re trying to encourage our readers to be fat.  Ask Jessica Simpson: no matter how thin you are, you might be fat already.

Quote of the Day

And not in a good way…

Gravity and wrinkles that come with aging are fine with me, it means nothing compared to the new wisdom inside my head and heart. It’s the best time of my life. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier. If my breasts fall down to the floor and everything starts to sag and becomes hideous and gross, I won’t worry. I’ll just stop appearing in front of the camera. — Drew Barrymore, via Jezebel

Oh, Drew. You were doing so well up until that last sentence and a half.

The thinking man’s circle jerk

The year is ending, which means that every website on earth is coming up with a Top 10 or Best of 2008 feature of some kind. I am reluctantly drawn to these lists — I feel utterly obligated to read them, even though they usually could be summarized as “Hey, look at my [intellect/hipster taste/class status] I ASSURE YOU IT’S ALMOST AS LARGE AS MY GIANT COCK.” So when Samhita at Feministing linked to this list of Touré’s “Thinking Man Sex Symbols,” despite the warning that it was a train wreck (Samhita: “Every line is like a work of art”), I had to look.

Samhita already highlighted this gem from the intro:

A man has two minds. The lower mind is a brainless whore excited by any woman with breasts, curves, and a thong. The upper mind, which works with actual grey matter, is more persnickety. The upper mind, when employed, is moved by intelligence, success, power, self-confidence, a smart sense of humor, and, of course, not having a castrating nature.

Unthinking heteronormativity? Check. Dismissal of men as hormone-driven walking penises? Check. Reference to castration? Check! Clearly, what we have ourselves here is a Thinking Man.

I’m not against talking about (or even listing) sexxxy people, and I don’t think any of the women featured here are anything less than gorgeous. (I mean, M.I.A.? She kicks 20 kinds of ass.) But this list embodies a certain kind of self-congratulatory false feminism that we’ve seen a lot of in this Palin-tastic year. Men falling all over themselves to proclaim how hot they think Tina Fey’s glasses are do not constitute the revolution in beauty standards that some seem to think. I’m reminded of the line in The Devil Wears Prada when Meryl Streep’s character says (of Anne Hathaway’s character), “I decided to take a chance on the smart fat girl.”

by marttj
photo by marttj

The faults of this list are probably too dumb and too obvious to spend this many words on, but it just smells so strongly of eau de douchebag that it’s hard to resist. Congratulations, Thinking Men! You’ve taken a list of highly accomplished women and rebranded it as a list of hotties, and then you’ve given yourself a cookie for it. When the most complex thing you have to say about Samantha Power, author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide and team Obama member, is “Sam’s a ride-or-die chick, willing to slay anyone [i.e., Hillary Clinton] for her man,” you fail at geopolitics, feminism, sexiness, thinking, and metaphor all at once. No wonder hot chicks never go for nice thinking guys!

On Twilight, romance, and antifeminist ideas

The other day, Sweet Machine alerted me to a new study about the influence of media on relationship ideals. According to BBC News, the study found that people who watch a lot of romantic comedies have unrealistic and harmful ideas about relationships — they were more likely to believe in destiny when it comes to love, and less likely to communicate effectively with their partners (or, the researchers hazard, to think communication is important). To be sure, I’ve ranted about rom-coms for the same reason, and also from a general feminist perspective — the way they devalue both partners in a relationship, reinforce absurd gender roles, associate femininity with pablum — though to be honest I’m most likely to complain about them simply because they’re awful. But like so many of the studies we examine here, I think these researchers are confused about causation. In this case, I think they have it backwards.

I’ve always hated romantic comedies (with a very few exceptions) and never really suffered from the misconceptions being examined. So to elaborate on this thought, let me move away from rom-com to generic rom, or actually rom-vamp. Dan’s young cousin, who is now my cousin too, is a big fan of the Twilight series. She told me all about it at a time when I didn’t know anything about the books except that they involved vampires and were very popular. (Remember those innocent times before you learned that vampires sparkle and play baseball?) I listened politely as she explained the mystique of Bella and Edward’s relationship: that, as she described it, he loves her because he wants to kill her and can’t read her mind. It didn’t sound like a particularly feminist tome, but neither were the vampire books I read when I was her age, and I just didn’t know enough about the series to say “wow, that shit ain’t right.” (Also I try not to swear in front of those cousins, believe it or not!)

Of course, the more I found out about Twilight, the more horrified I was at its retrogressive approach to romance. For those of you who live under a mercifully insulating rock, a recap: To the best of my understanding, and I haven’t read the books, Bella has no stated interests outside of her devotion to Edward. The two are forcibly abstinent, because his passions would rupture her (or because vampire bun + human oven = death, I’m not totally clear on this point). Edward is obsessively in love with Bella, because she smells like tasty food, except his mood swings make Ian Curtis look like Stuart Smalley so sometimes he acts like he hates her. (The rest of the time he jealously imprisons her, abandons her, or stalks her “for her own good.”) Bella is obsessively in love with Edward and completely subsumes her personality and choices to him. Bella’s mind is opaque to Edward, who is usually psychic, which I gather from my cousin makes her seem mysterious and fascinating to him even though she’s impossibly bland (particularly after committing herself entirely to pleasing Edward). As the books go on, shit only gets worse — Edward’s controlling habits become more active (sabotaging Bella’s car, for instance, rather than just watching her sleep), Bella starts grasping for Edward’s attention by endangering herself, Bella is tormented by Edward’s refusal to make her a vampire (either so they can fucking have some sex already or so they can be together forever etc. — I’d be thinking the former but it’s probably the latter), and finally she nearly dies giving birth to his child, which breaks her back and has to be chewed out of her womb. I guess vampire law doesn’t have a “health of the mother” exemption.

Bear with me for a second, because I’m about to get a little more autobiographical than usual. (I’ll try to keep it short, but I think personal perspective may be more useful than speaking theoretically.) There are basically four relationships that have defined my romantic history and, to a disheartening extent, my personality. The last one, you all know about — through a combination of good timing and the influence of friends, I lucked into not only one of the healthiest, happiest, sanest relationships I’ve ever been in, but really one of the healthiest and happiest and sanest relationships it’s possible to have. (Reader, I married him — no mystery why.) The other defining relationships: Ages 15-18, obsessive teen thing; his fits of rage and frustration weren’t usually directed at me, but he got progressively more controlling and jealous. Ages 20-21, chronic nogoodnik emotional abuser; I supported him financially while he by turns doted on me and punished me for imagined infractions. Ages 21-25, protracted non-relationship with a profound power dynamic; he was intermittently affectionate, scolding, and indifferent, and had me scrambling to learn his rules and his preferences and what he thought I ought to do to improve and fix myself, which seemed to change based on what he wanted from me at that moment. (Sweet Machine, did I get those basically right?) Salient common denominators: learned helplessness on my part, and on theirs, a conviction that I was fucked up and needed to be fixed, or at least contained. It’s important to note that at no point did I completely stop being, in my non-relationship life, a mouthy, stubborn, prickly punk-ass. But I still rolled right over for these men who thought they knew what was best for me.

The point is, I would have fucking LOVED Twilight if it had come out when I was a young teen. The central relationship that I described up there with so much deserved disdain would have resonated so hard for me, my whole body would have rung with it. I would have fantasized obsessively about being fragile, irresistible Bella and deserving to have an Edward of my own, as I’m told millions of teenage girls and grown-ass women do. Twilight horrifies me, but it mystifies me not at all; I know exactly what the appeal is, not just intellectually but viscerally. When I was the age of Twilight’s target audience, I hadn’t had any of those defining relationships, of course, but clearly I had the capacity to find disdain, paternalism, and misused power attractive.

But I didn’t read it, because it didn’t exist. In point of fact I read pretty much everything that did exist, or at least everything that ended up in my line of sight, up until age 12 or so, because I was socially and psychologically awkward. So I probably read some stuff that was just as objectionable — but I also read the delightfully feminist Song of the Lioness series, for instance, and observed the growing partnership and understanding that preceded the marriage of Meg Murry and Calvin O’Keefe [1], not to mention consuming great swaths of YA-and-otherwise fiction that had fuckall to do with relationships, misogyny, or self-respect. Wherever my fascination with muting my personality to try to please undeserving men came from, it wasn’t from my reading. (And it wasn’t from my TV watching, which was and is mostly cartoons.) But if I’d found a book that catered so perfectly to that fascination, I would have eaten it up.

The rom-com study’s conclusions could suggest a simple plan of action: Keep impressionable minds away from “romance” media. I don’t think it’s remotely so simple. It’s not a mistake that romantic comedies, and romantic horrors like Twilight, play on models of romantic interaction that rely on patriarchal gender roles. Women are flighty and adorable or fragile and damaged, or all four; men are at best protectors, at worst superiors whose attention and emotions are a prize to be gained. These tropes predate modern media, and rooting that out promises to be — has proven to be — a lot more difficult than flipping the channel from Dharma and Greg to Buffy, or (say) giving your cousin a box set of the Rebecca Rabinowitz-approved series Uglies.

Because those of us for whom these unhealthy messages are going to resonate? We seek them out, because they represent existing beliefs and desires. Regardless of your opinions on nature and nurture, by the time we’re consciously consuming non-Teletubby media, young women are not empty vessels in danger of being filled with bad ideas. We already got the bad ideas, from the input we get every day, from years of media we might not even have paid attention to, from offhand comments that seemed innocent at the time. We worry about giving kids good models in what they watch and what they read, and I do think that’s an important concern — sure, the bad models are usually more fun, but I believe in making sure kids have access to positive messages (I wouldn’t have asked Rebecca to guest post if I didn’t!). But we absolutely can’t stop there — and we can’t just start there, either. Bad feminist role models aren’t responsible for bad feminists. Bad role models germinate in a society that devalues women, condones misogyny, and elevates unrealistic and regressive relationship roles.

It’s easy for us to shake fingers at Twilight or roll our eyes at Maid in Manhattan, but even poisonous plants need fertilizer to thrive. It’s a feminist act to protest antifeminist media. It’s feminism’s goal to create a society where nobody wants it in the first place.

[1] Let us ignore, for the time being, the really problematic aspects of their relationship, mainly Meg giving up her education/career for her children. I was having trouble remembering all the stuff I used to read, so I asked Dan “what are some books with good relationships I might have read as a kid?” and he said “people don’t write books about good relationships.” Fair enough, really.

Dear Oprah

Dear Oprah,

Please just stop. Please. And I don’t mean that in a nasty way (though some of my commenters will). I mean please, stop doing this to yourself.

I know saying that is pointless, because I’ve been there, and I know it’s hardly a matter of just telling yourself to get over it and accept that this is what your body always does, what your body always will do if you keep dieting. But gosh, it would be so nice if you stopped. 

A few months ago, I was on your show via Skype — as an average viewer, not a guest or an expert in anything — and we exchanged a little preliminary banter that was eventually cut from what aired. You said, “Kate, I understand you have a blog — tell us a little bit about it.” And I said, “I write about body image and self-acceptance.” That’s my stock answer for anyone who might not be prepared to hear the words “fat” and “acceptance” right next to each other. It’s a bit of a cop-out, frankly, but the fact is, no matter how proud I am of what I do here, I’m not always in a mood to explain or defend it. I don’t feel perfectly strong and righteous and ready for battle every day. That doesn’t mean I back down from my principles, it just means that sometimes — like when I’m freaking out because I’m on national TV, and Oprah just asked me a question, and the topic of the day is not anything fat-related — taking the path of least resistance is the best way to protect my own sanity. So that’s what I said to you. 

Unfortunately, the sound was still buggy on the Skype connection at that point, so I could barely hear what you said back. It took me a moment to process your reply, during which time I was all, “Holy crap, Oprah just said something, and I don’t know what it was, and now I have to attempt to respond without sounding like an idiot.” But then, your words finally arranged themselves properly in my mind. 

What you said was, “I’m still working on that.” 

And what I said — because I was still panicky and felt like you’d been waiting a day and a half for a response from me already — was, “Well… uh… um… good luck!”

I beat myself up for that answer for days, until the show aired and I learned that that part was gone anyway. As soon as you turned away from the screen with my head on it and started the show, I started running through all the better answers I could have given you. “Well, have me back in May 2009, when my book comes out!” was one obvious response, but really, here’s what I would say if I had that moment to do over: “We all are.” 

We are all still working on it. Even me, even people who have been waving the fat acceptance banner for decades longer than I have. We’re all still working on it, because the messages are relentless — the messages that tell us we should hate ourselves, starve ourselves, make dieting at least a part-time job (for our health!), the messages that tell us we will never be loved if we “let ourselves go,” the messages that tell us there is only one acceptable female body type, and you and I are both too fat for it, and you’re too black for it, and millions of women — the majority of us, actually — are too something (even too skinny) for it. Those messages never, ever let up, and rejecting them involves a conscious choice, every dingdang day. And some days, like I said, you don’t feel perfectly strong and righteous and ready for battle.

Some days, you feel like it would be so much easier to take on that old part-time job again — especially when you’ve done it so many times, for so many years, you could do it in your sleep. All you have to do is carve out three or four hours a day to exercise more vigorously, obsess about what you’re going to eat next, and prepare it; stop listening to your body and only pay attention to your food plan and workout schedule; cut out some hobbies and social time to make room for the job; recall all the tips and tricks for not eating at holiday gatherings, at restaurants, at your dear friends’ houses, at your own birthday party; retrain yourself to believe that salad dressing — let alone artisanal bacon, creme brulee, whatever — doesn’t taste good enough to warrant its negative effects on your job performance; talk constantly about what you’re not eating and how great it makes you feel, in hopes that some of your friends will join you at this lonely little workplace; and — most importantly — continue to believe with a religious fervor that your body is an ugly, hateful thing that must be punished and diminished. As long as you really believe that, the rest isn’t so hard to keep up, once you get used to it (again). 

Some days, all that sounds a hell of a lot easier than resisting the messages — especially when you think of all the praise you’ll get once you’ve lost a noticeable amount of weight, or how good it will feel when you get to put on a smaller dress (though that feeling goes away quickly, as it must, or else you might lose your motivation to keep going). How proud and in control you’ll feel — again, for a few minutes at a time, for as long as it’s working. How much better people will treat you, as long as there’s less and less of you. I totally get that. 

But I stopped giving in to it. And boy, I wish you would, too — because you’re way too smart to take that sucker bet yet again. 

It kills me to hear you say things like, “”I can’t believe that after all these years, all the things I know how to do, I’m still talking about my weight. I look at my thinner self and think, `How did I let this happen again?'” Honey, you didn’t “let it” happen again. Your body made it happen again, because your body does not freakin’ want to be thin. And every time you quit the part-time job of dieting — or even just cut back your hours — your body goes, “Thank god!” and starts storing fat hand over fist. It happens to nearly all of us. I know you’re a woman who’s used to defying odds by quite a lot, but there is no shame in having a body that responds to dieting in exactly the same way as pretty much everyone else’s. 

You say you’ve been eating too much and not exercising enough. Maybe that’s even true. But defining “too much” and “enough” is tricky business, and when you’re trying to do that in the context of shame and self-loathing, chances are, you’re going to come up with values that represent punishment, not healthy moderation. When I see you say things like, “I was so frustrated I started eating whatever I wanted — and that’s never good,” I just… Gah. Oprah, we’ve been over this. Grown women are allowed to eat whatever we want. More to the point, we are allowed to want, period. The fact that so many of us have come to believe “whatever we want” equals “never good” is heartbreaking and infuriating in equal measure. 

You also say, apologetically, “I definitely wasn’t setting an example.” Well, you were, actually — just not the example you wanted to set. You’re not an ideal role model for either dieting or self-acceptance, but in terms of the latter, you are — forgive me if this comes off as harsh — an ideal object lesson. One of the Shapelings (hi, Rebecca!) who sent me a link to the Yahoo article this morning also offered her response to it:

I guess the main thought I had was, “Thank you, Oprah, for showing me that my struggle to give up dieting is the right struggle.”  I have been fighting the diet demons this week, but reading this article was a nice shake-up.  I don’t want to look back at my life at her age and see the same story and body hatred.  It’s nice to see confirmation that I am doing the right thing for myself, despite the cacophany of voices telling me I’m not!

In that respect, to my mind, you’re setting a terrific example — you’re showing the world that no amount of money, or hard work, or discipline (whatever guilt you feel over easing out of that part-time job, come on, don’t even try to tell me that Oprah Winfrey lacks self-discipline and determination!) can make a stubbornly fat body remain thin for long. I just wish, for your sake as well as for the millions of women who look up to you, you could find a way to reframe your struggles with your weight, to practice and promote Health at Every Size, to believe that you are a beautiful woman — you so are! — who does not need to keep apologizing for what she eats or what dress size she wears. I wish you would choose to be the role model you’re perfectly suited to be, instead of trying to be one you’re not — and instead being an object lesson. 

I’ll tell you a secret, Oprah — I also hit what you call “the dreaded 2-0-0” this year. At least, I think I did. The last time I weighed myself was on a dog scale at the vet’s office, and I was about 185 lbs. I’m pretty sure I’ve gained about 15 since then. Why? Well, there are a zillion possible explanations and contributing factors, but the simplest one is this: My last diet ended in 2003, which you’ll note was 5 years ago. When I started that diet, I weighed about 190. The vast majority of people who deliberately lose weight gain it all back within 5 years, and a huge chunk of those gain an extra 10 lbs. or so, to boot.  And I do seem to have plateaued at this weight after gaining steadily for quite a while, so… I could sit here and tell you how I went on Lexapro, and I started eating out more and resumed putting the dressing directly on my salads and slacked somewhat on exercise — in a nutshell, how I gave up dieting as a part-time job and relegated food and exercise back to the category of  “things I think about, just not to the exclusion of having a life” — but the real reason for the weight gain is, I’m just not that special. I do not have magic powers that allow me to transcend my genetic predisposition to fatness, and I was not so much more committed or determined or desirous of thinness than everyone else who diets that I could somehow, through sheer will, overcome the massive odds against keeping it off for more than five years. I’m just not that special.

Neither are you, in that regard. We’re both plenty special in other ways — I mean, love you or hate you, I don’t think there’s anyone who would argue that you’re not an extraordinary woman — but just not that way. In that way, we’re both just normal fat women who dieted and gained it back and dieted and gained it back and dieted and gained it back, as normal fat women do. But here’s the difference between you and me, when it comes to that. You hit 200 and sent out a press release detailing your shame, embarrassment, and anger at yourself. I hit 200 and shrugged. Because it’s not any different than being 199, and not really any different from being 185, and when it comes down to it, not all that much different than being 115. I can’t shop at as many stores, I don’t get hit on quite as often (though I still do, as recently as Sunday night), some people aren’t as friendly to me, and some people are downright hateful in ways they wouldn’t have been when I was thin. But as trite as it may sound, this is the damned truth: I’m still the same person I was when I was thin — and when I was in-between, and the day before I cracked 200, and the day after. Cracking 300 or 400 or any other arbitrary number would not change who I am, either.

The weight regain did not make me bad or lazy or ugly or sick or stupid or broken. It just made me fatter. 

That’s all that happened here. You got fatter. You’re still one of the most accomplished women on the planet. You’ve still got more money than god. You still give away a lot of that money and do real things that help real people. I know there are people around here who can’t stand you precisely because your refusal to stop believing you can and should be a thin person too often manifests as yet more heartbreaking, infuriating, wounding messages about how fat people are bad and thin people are good. But I can’t help admiring you anyway. And I can’t help feeling for you when I read about your shame, embarrassment, and anger at yourself. I know exactly how that goes — hence my last diet. I still get twinges of all those feelings and have to work my butt off to resist them. As I should have told you during that brief moment when we talked, we are all still working on it.

I admit I’m tempted to get angry at you for wasting your phenomenally powerful bullhorn on promoting body shame instead of telling other fat women that they’re not bad, undisciplined people. But I can’t, because I know just how loud and demanding those voices in your head are, the ones that say, “It doesn’t matter that you’re one of the most accomplished women on the planet, because you let yourself get fat again!” I know the pure, unfettered irrationality of that train of thought isn’t obvious when you’re in the grip of hating your body. The voices are too insistent.

So I guess all I have left to say to you is what I already told you in person: Good luck. I so hope that one of these days, you manage to make peace with your body. And man, when that day comes, I sure hope you go on the air and tell your millions of viewers you’ve discovered that not hating yourself is about a bazillion times more rewarding than mortifying yourself, literally and figuratively. That right there is what I know for sure.

All best,