Colette’s Weight and Erica Jong’s Issues

Laurie and Debbie say:

Surprise! At 180 pounds, the sensuous Colette was attractive to men.

Next surprise! Contemporary women feminists, like Colette’s noted biographer Judith Thurman and world-famous Erica Jong, have trouble understanding this.

The conversation below is from an interview Jong did with Thurman, printed in the back of the book:

Jong: Another thing that struck me about Colette was her weight. You talk about this in your book, but none of the other biographers do. At the end of her life she weighed one hundred eighty pounds. She was obese. She had this famous delight in being a gourmet, but she obviously was gluttonous. Which is analogous to her sexuality. She seems to have never passed up a great fuck…My own feeling is that the sexual magic of a woman is not diminished by a a few extra pounds. But a hundred and eighty,I don’t know. Do you want to comment on that?

Thurman: Yes. Like everybody else I’ve been obsessed with weight my entire life. If I’m not thin, I’m suicidal. But Colette took a stand against thinness just as it was becoming chic… She took a sort of “fat is beautiful” stance, again way before anybody did.

picture of Colette and friends at a picnic

See how Thurman and Jong have to twist themselves into knots? They both know that Colette wasn’t the least bit fat in her cultural context–Thurman even mentions it in her comment that thinness was “just becoming chic.” They both should know that sexiness is very, very different from physical appearance, and always has been. That, in fact, is a lot of why the current cultural insistence on skinny–only is so heavily advertised and so constantly repeated: it isn’t true, and a lot of effort has to go into making people believe it.

Just for comparison, here’s another 1920s glamour photograph:

two glamorous nudes from the 1920s

We’ve learned from years of touring with Women En Large that the world is full of men (and women) who find fat women sexy, beautiful, and irresistible. Unfortunately, making that preference public leads to harassment and criticism, so lots of people keep it quiet.

This whole exchange infuriates both of us. How dare they claim that Colette wasn’t gorgeous? And how dare they even imply, let alone state, that you have to be extraordinarily sexy to overcome being fat? What’s with these two contemporary women trying to put one of the sexiest women of her time on a diet?

Thanks to vito_excalibur for writing about this and for the beach picture.

body image
Erica Jong
Judith Thurman
Body Impolitic

15 thoughts on “Colette’s Weight and Erica Jong’s Issues

  1. It is to laugh! I am sure that Colette would be vastly amused at the neurosis being displayed. I would be saddened by Erica Jong’s prejudice if I were not SO over my early admiration of her early work. A friend whose writing I admire always referred to Jong as not a poet, but a poetess, if you know what I mean.

    I can’t recall whether I’ve read Judith Thurman. I read lots of Colette and several bios of her in 70s and 80s, Thurman’s probably more recent–she does sound as if she’s looking at Colette through anorexic glasses.

    But my god or goddess, by using ugly words like obese and gluttonous to describe a master/mistress of metaphor, story and image like Colette, Jong demonstrates (if we didn’t know already) that she wouldn’t know the language of sexual magic if it bit her on the ass.

  2. Oh, yes, I just love the belief that women who weigh 180 pounds cannot be beautiful or sexy. I am even more enthralled by the idea that we are all gluttonous. I am sorry, but what a pair of fatphobic, clueless BITCHES these women are! I weigh over 180 pounds & am certainly found sexy & desirable & most people further tell me (meaning it as a compliment in this fatphobic world) that I don’t seem fat to them. These idiots would certainly freak out to know how many women who are 300, 400 or more pounds are also found to be sexy, beautiful, & very desirable by many people. Oh, & btw, while I also enjoy food & eat what I want, I am not & never have been a glutton…nor are the majority of the fat people I know. There is just so much prejudice & ignorance in this exchange that it boggles the mind!

  3. I also forgot to mention that my grandmother, who was more closely related to Colette’s time period, weighed over 180 virtually her entire adult life, lived to be 90, & was never without a man. She outlived three husbands, the last of whom was 13 years her junior, & several boyfriends, the last of whom was 11 years her junior. She enjoyed life to the fullest, including food & sex & I guess that no one ever thought to tell her that a woman who weighs over 120 pounds cannot get any kind of romantic or sexual attention.

  4. I’m appalled at the language used. Collette hardly seems “obese” or unattractive. She doesn’t even look to be heavy in the photos. She looks very normal, and beautiful.

  5. They should be ashamed of themselves. These are women who have no interest in lifting other women up no matter how much they pretend. And the ridiculous statements that are made, and the disdain with which they are made, are quite shocking. Who do they think they are? Don’t lay your own insecurities on me ladies – or Collette for that matter. Weight does not equal sensuality or desirability. Can you say Mae West? Marilyn Monroe anyone?

  6. Lillian Russell, Lillie Langtry, Cleopatra, from some reports I have read, women too numerous & varied to count, but who have all been lush & round & “fat” by the anorexic standards of today’s culture, women who were beautiful, desirable, sexy.

    I am not especially knowledgeable about Colette, but after reading here, I did a quick Google search. She had a very full & interesting life & accomplished a lot. Also, at a time when the average life expectancy wasn’t a lot over 60 for most people, she enjoyed her life, sex, & food until she was 81 years old. These women would be fortunate to do as well.

  7. Lillian Russell was over two hundred pounds, and could and did often keep pace with uber-glutton Diamond Jim Brady; and she was considered a paragon of female beauty.

  8. Little in the middle but she had much bustle.

    yeh, I guess if there’s one thing to say for the flapper look that followed (and the craze for thinness that’s been increasing on and off ever since): no more corsets. so in that sense, yeah, I get why straight-up-and-down would appeal.

    on the other hand–bound tits, also not comfy.

    on the other other hand–even the flappers were positively chunky compared to today’s “beauties.”

    see: Clara Bow, Louise Brooks…

  9. Since I’ve written and lectured extensively about my own teenage anorexia and my current appreciation of plump, fleshy bodies, I’m bewildered by these comments. Women and men come in all sizes–which I celebrate in my novels, poems and essays. I was commenting on the fact that Colette was sexy WITHOUT confoming.
    I see her as a role model–not a freak. She was always atteractive to both women and men and she seemed to love sex.

    But it interests me that Judith Thurman alone, of all her biographers, actually describes her body.

  10. Great to see you here!

    Of course, if we misquoted you in the entry, we’re very sorry. And it’s terrific to know that you see Colette as a role model; needless to say, so do we.

  11. The ideal body of the nineteenth century was definitely plumper than that of our time, but it wasn’t obese. And it was an hourglass shape, with a tiny waist, not an apple shape.

    Colette at 180 pounds probably still found partners because she was infamous for being the author of sexy books. If she’s been an average housewife, people would have seen her differently.

  12. Those 19th century hourglasses were created by remarkable levels of corseting. Lilly Langtry, a classic 19th century beauty weighed 170 pounds. Even your average housewife wore those corsets.

  13. It’s interesting how restrictive clothing in women is related to social class. Nowadays pursuit of a certain figure type also has a great deal to do with aiming at a higher social status. Historically, for example speaking of corsets, research on regency clothing led me to a page on the sort of corsets Jane Austen and her heroines wore in the late 1700s early 1800s:

    The women’s clothing of the time did not have a recognizable “waist” like the Victorian clothing. But the undergarments produced artificially narrow lines by lacing and artificially straight posture by means of a wooden “busk” a narrow piece of wood inserted in the front of the corset to make bending over impossible. So if a lady dropped her handkerchief someone else was going to have to pick it up for her. I’m assuming that women of the lower social classes who had to do actual work were less severely restricted.

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