FAT, FEMINISM, AND DISCARDING THE UNATTAINABLE IDEAL

In an essay in Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes, the American poet and journalist Elise Matthesen discusses anorexia, the disease that almost killed her. Anorexia is the name for a common condition in which people, mostly women, mostly young women, stop eating. Its companion disease, bulimia, is a condition in which the same people (mostly young, mostly women) eat and then purge themselves by vomiting or taking excessive laxatives to keep the calories from entering their system. Matthesen describes her former skeletal thin-ness as "one of the few forms of rebellion against a complex woman-hating culture." She touches a central truth: fat and femaleness are essentially linked.

The first link is physiological. Women, effectively all women, have an extra layer of subcutaneous fat, which protects and sustains us in pregnancy, and during famines, droughts, and deprivation. In addition, our breasts, which many men seem unable to forget even for a moment, consist almost entirely of fatty tissue. When female athletes bring themselves to the peak of physical condition required to win national and international sports competition, they reduce their percentage of body fat below that required to maintain their body's role as an adult woman's body: among other symptoms, they cease to menstruate until such time as they gain back some body fat. In significant part, fat and distribution of fat are literally what makes us women.

The second link is forged by the male-dominated culture. All over the world, though preferred sizes and shapes vary, men conceptualize "the perfect woman," defined not by intelligence, personality, wit, or kindness, but by appearance. Sometimes "perfection" is voluptuous and round; sometimes it is boyish and breast-free. But the effect (if not the purpose) of this narrow conception is to make the vast majority of women, at any time, in any place, failures by comparison to an ideal which we did not create, and which we can neither change nor attain. In the movies, on television, in literature and in life, we are reminded over and over again that a woman's primary quality lies in her appearance: if the appearance does not suit the man in question, he will simply never find out anything about who she is.

(In the last quarter of the twentieth century, with the advent of photographic modification, this phenomenon has become even more pronounced and pernicious. The models on the glossy pages of magazines twenty years ago were, at least, real women. Perhaps the photographs were retouched to eliminate a blemish, but the bodies and faces were more or less literal depictions of the models. Now they are usually computer-modified images -- women who literally could not exist in the flesh, and could neither breathe nor walk if they did.)

This widespread use of computer-assisted imagery has created a generation of men who are conditioned to look fo r-- and expect -- a level of feminine perfection not accessible by any living, breathing human being. The concomitant fact that the culturally ideal appearance for a woman in most of the developed world right now is an extraordinarily thin and boyish look has created an entire generation of anorexic and bulimic girls around the world. The 1990s ideal woman is so thin that Marilyn Monroe, the sex symbol of an entire generation, "looks fat" to a contemporary teenager or 24-year-old.

What factors contribute to such an especially thin contemporary ideal? Two factors immediately come to mind. First, the craft of the people who do computer modifications lends itself to removing flesh rather than adding it: a technician can plausibly carve away breasts, belly, hips, leaving a vaguely woman-shaped image behind; only a fine craftsperson can equally plausibly add curvaceousness to a picture of a too-thin model. So this look is easier to create for the advertisements, as well as having the attraction of never having been seen before.

Second, it is documented throughout the last several centuries of Western history that whenever feminism or women's rights becomes an active, visible, reported issue, the fashion size for women gets smaller. The periods of history when voluptuous women are the ideal are almost always the periods when the vast majority of women are agreeably deferential, servile, and accepting of a secondary role. When women's liberation is on women's lips, however, the male-dominated fashion industry does its best to make us as small -- and thus as invisible -- as possible.

Greek mythology tells us of the legendary bed of Procrustes, a host who welcomed any traveler. But the traveler too short for Procrustes' bed was stretched painfully until she fit "perfectly", while the traveler too tall had her feet cut off. Faced with a three-dimensional 24-hour-a-day version of the dilemma of Procrustes' bed, many (perhaps most) women accept that we must be elongated or truncated, and spend our lives in a frequently futile struggle to fit. We not only starve ourselves and constrain our bodies in miserably uncomfortable garments that "hide" the fat, we wear shoes that damage our feet, and make-up that damages our skin. Caucasian women also subject themselves to the physical dangers of tanning salons, to create a skin of a perfect shade.

Think, for a moment, of the women who are naturally and without effort almost thin enough to suit today's standards. In twenty years, the "ideal woman's" shape and proportions will change, as it has always changed in the past. At that time, it will be the naturally thin women who struggle to disguise their bodies to suit the cultural ideal, while another group of women will suddenly find that it is less work to come close to the intended goal. Also, in those twenty years, the near-perfect women of today will age, and aging will by definition remove them from the category of "almost beautiful enough." So even if their looks were to stay in fashion, they would automatically be supplanted by the next generation. The war to remain beautiful enough can rarely be won in the short term, but it can never be won in the long term.

One unfortunate effect of this process is that no woman who continues to care about the ideal of beauty can possibly like her body. We are hampered here not only by the power of the culture to encourage women to look perfect, but also by the insatiable maw of the advertising industry (and all the industries it supports), which faces no greater threat than the results of people simply accepting ourselves as we are. If we can find self-acceptance, we will not buy 75% of the products the advertisers are constantly shoving down our throats. If we believe that our bodies smell fresh enough when washed in soap and water, imagine the list of products we won't buy. If we decide to let our age show on our skin and in our hair, the list gets far longer very fast indeed.

And if we don't keep buying to improve ourselves, to make ourselves more perfect, money is lost around the world. So a great deal of money is spent every day to ensure that we stay on the treadmill. In 1990, the diet industry in America alone was estimated at $30 million annually. It has surely grown in the intervening seven years; today, sales of a single diet product, a skin patch costing $80, are projected at $23,000,000 if one-half of one percent of American dieters use the product one time only. These are big stakes, and the advertisers will fight hard to keep the money flowing in.

Nonetheless, rebellion is possible.

To rebel, we must first distance ourselves from the goals of the greater culture. As long as a woman believes that attracting and catching a man, being admired and noticed, is the most important goal of her life, she will continue to torture her body into her best approximation of the expected mold. (It is an unfortunate fact that for many women in many circumstances, this is the most productive role a woman can take to safety, comfort, a good future for her children, or many other goals. As long as cultures limit the options available to women, many sensible and thoughtful women will choose this path as the most appropriate one available to them.)

Concomitantly, as long as men judge each other, and accept each other's judgment, that one measure of their value is the conventional beauty of "their" women, they will continue to contribute to the cycle of self-hatred and despair. Of course, neither all men nor all women are heterosexual, but the harsh judgment of looks can control the judgment of same-sex couples as well as male-female couples.

As Elise Matthesen points out, bulimia and anorexia represent a strong rebellious response, but the dominant culture is setting the terms on which this rebellion can take place. Almost without exception, anorexics and bulimics describe themselves as hating their bodies, often continuing to describe themselves as "too fat" when they look more like famine victims than like healthy young girls from affluent families. In well over half the cases, they also refuse or resist any kind of therapeutic help, believing that anyone who convinces them to eat or digest will be doing them harm.

These girls are saying, "You may be stronger than I, but I will use my very weakness to defy you." As Matthesen states, this may be the only solution available or visible, to some; nonetheless it is hard to describe it in any other way than as rampantly obvious self-loathing, all-too-frequently literally suicidal. If a girl accepts that she will never fit into the cultural Procrustean bed, that she is forever constrained to an ideal that she simply cannot meet, what other choices does she have? With the passion of young adulthood and the deep conviction that things will never change, she carries her goals to an ultimate and untenable conclusion. In the United States, perhaps as many as 150,000 young women a year die of bulimia and anorexia.

But there is another way to rebel, and that is what this essay, and the photographs of fat women taken by Laurie Toby Edison, are about.

We can rebel by simply refusing to lie down in their cruel and mutilating bed: by listening to our own bodies when deciding how to eat and how to exercise; by accepting and appreciating our bodies as we are. Any size, any shape can be beautiful, as long as no one shape and size are held up as "perfect." To extend the idea of beauty across a range of sizes, races, levels of health, and ages need not take beauty away from the thin, the young, the healthy. Just as beauty is there to be found in a hundred different mountain resting places, a thousand different sunrises, a million different flowers, so can the potential for beauty be found in the astonishing variety of faces and bodies that are the human race. And once that beauty is extended to all, suddenly, room opens up to judge each woman (and man) on merit: are they kind, wise, witty, intelligent, interesting, thoughtful, amusing, artistic, and so on?

This affects not only women, but everyone. Just because the effort to make people look perfect is primarily aimed at women, that does not mean it does not affect men. Although men in most industrialized countries judge themselves more by measures like wealth and professional status, they can also get trapped in the race to look right, and women are not immune to judging potential partners by looks either.

Another factor for men or women, no matter how conventionally attractive they may be, is that most people love someone whose looks are not in the acceptable range. Many men and women who are themselves only a few steps away from the perfect ideal find themselves with a sexual attraction for a fat person. Many more love a fat (or old or disabled) mother, sister, cousin, or just a good friend. Frequently, because of the constant cultural messages that only one kind of beauty is acceptable, they find themselves ashamed of these feelings, not wanting to show them in public, or to admit them to friends (or sometimes even to themselves). One of the great joys of learning to divorce ourselves from the beauty limitations of the culture at large is that we find out what truly attracts us, and what we like or dislike in our sexual lives and in the people we want for friends and lovers. We learn to appreciate the beauty of all the people around us and, simply put, that makes the world a more joyful place to live.

No one can make this decision, to open themselves up to a wide range of beauty, simply by turning on or off a mental switch, like lighting up a room. It will take a conscious effort to look at images other than those of contemporary advertising and media, even other than those of most fine art and commercial art throughout the ages (which offer us all-too-frequently idealized perfect women for their time and place). Against this omnipresent culture of oversimplified and impossible perfection, the only way to fight is by creating and supporting and displaying as many images as possible of as many different kinds of bodies as possible. The work of photographer Edison in this book is only one example. The painters Botero, Frida Kahlo, and Lucien Freud gives us another, as does photographer Laura Aguilar. This art does what must be done: validating and celebrating bodies which the dominant culture tells us should always be hiddenætaking something that was defined as ugly out of the shameful dark, to showcase it under the bright lights where its beauty can be seen, appreciated, and respected.

Even with the contribution of the artists doing this work, you will have to put in your own work and effort. You will have to look at everyone you see in your work, during your commute, in your local store. You will have to think about what you are seeing, and what you like, and sometimes it takes not thinking at all, but just take images in through your eyes and let your heart interpret them. And you will have to look at yourself in a mirror, many times, until you can learn to truly see yourself as yourself, and not in comparison to what you think you should be.

If you do this work, learn to see with your own eyes, learn to appreciate the beauty in yourself and around yourself, you will find many unexpected rewards. First, of course, simply seeing more beauty makes life more joyful. Secondly, you will be freed to listen to your body, eat what you want when you want it, wear what is comfortable and makes you look good, move and exercise and stretch. Third, you will find that you want to share your newfound pleasures with the people you love and the people you knowæand some of them will listen and join you on your journey.

So remember, rebellion is possible. Your own eyes are stronger and wiser and smarter than the eyes of the advertising experts who decide what you should like. When you open your eyes to a range of beauty, you will find beauty that you never imagined. The most important place you will find it may be the hardest place to see itæin yourselfæbut that will be the most important place of all.




Laurie Toby Edison
P.O. Box 77370
San Francisco, CA 94107
Email: Laurie Toby Edison







Last Update
July 26, 2002


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