Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Weight and the Trap

Lynne Murray says:

I remember the first time I heard someone discuss weight as an external burden on a woman’s body. I was 16 and talking to two acquaintances my own age, one was tall and thin. The other was shorter, quite round and very miserable about a crush she had on a most undeserving guy whom we all knew. I was horrified to discover that this man was taunting the fat girl with his pursuit of others. At one point when she left the room, and her friend said, “she loves him but he’ll never take her seriously until she loses her weight.”

The odd phrase and the idea that her weight was separate from her was weird enough that it stuck with me over the years. Unfortunately the concept of “The Weight” has morphed into a giant horror-movie monster in recent years. Dragged out from wherever monsters go between assignments, “The Weight” has been targeted as responsible for nearly every ill in American society including global warming (fat people producing too much carbon dioxide), economic instability (lazy fat people and the supposed higher insurance costs) and threats to national security (fat people unfit for military duty).

Recently Fiona McGier in a comment to a blog post on The Full-Bodied (Book) Blog, talked about “the weight” that we are constantly encouraged lose:

I’ve always been amused that ads tell you to “lose the weight”, and people talk about trying to lose “the weight”, as if it belongs to someone else. It’s a part of YOUR body, folks! Calling it “the weight” does nothing to separate it from you. I take ownership of my weight, knowing that it didn’t just appear overnight. Age, childbirth, and face it, being a damn good cook/baker, contributed to MY weight. Not THE weight.

Fiona’s comment reminded me of the damage inflicted when we buy into this concept of any weight over the prevailing artificial standard as an external, detachable burden that functions to cancel out everything else we might try to do. No wonder we are so vulnerable to marketing predators who promise to lift this burden from us.

This idea of divorcing ourselves from the unacceptable fat in our bodies isn’t even “useful” in producing long-term weight loss. No matter what mental pretzels a dieter twists into, the 95 percent documented regain rate within five years still stands for any and every weight loss method.

It’s easier to distrust and often hate our bodies if we think of the fat as “not us.”

Moroccan sociologist, Fatema Mernissi, who was born in a harem, keenly observes how body-hating obsessions operate to keep women out of power. Unlike the harem system, where women are directly barred from participating in public life, the Western system manipulates women into pursuing an impossible body size, and isolating ourselves for being “too big” or “too old.”

Mernissi indirectly points out how the demand for a smaller body size fits in with class prejudice, and the adventure she describes below of trying to buy a skirt must have taken place in a high-end store where one cannot find even average clothing sizes — the average American woman wears a size 14:

[D]uring my unsuccessful attempt to buy a cotton skirt in an American department store … I was told my hips were too large to fit into a size six. That day I stumbled onto one of the keys to the enigma of passive beauty in Western harem fantasies.

“In this entire store, there is no skirt for me?” I said. “You are joking.” … “You are too big!” [The saleslady] said.

“I am too big compared to what?” I asked, looking at her intently, because I realised that I was facing a critical cultural gap here.

“Compared to a size six,” came the saleslady’s reply.

Her voice had a clear-cut edge to it that is typical of those who enforce religious laws.

“Size four and six are the norm,” she went on, encouraged by my bewildered look. “Deviant sizes, such as the one you need, can be bought in special stores.”

In fact, I have to confess that I lost my usual self-confidence. In that peaceful store that I had entered so triumphantly, as sovereign consumer ready to spend money, I felt savagely attacked. My hips, until then the sign of a relaxed and uninhibited maturity, were suddenly being condemned as a deformity.

“And who says that everyone must be a size six?” I joked to the saleslady, deliberately neglecting to mention size four, which is the size of my skinny twelve-year-old niece.

At that point, the saleslady suddenly gave me an anxious look. “The norm is everywhere, my dear,” she said. “It’s all over, in the magazines, on television, in the ads . You can’t escape it. … Big department stores go by the norm.” She paused and then concluded, “If they sold size 14 or 16, which is probably what you need, they would go bankrupt.”

She stopped for a minute and then stared at me, intrigued. “Where on earth do you come from? I am sorry I can’t help you…..” Only then did I notice that she was probably my age, in her late 50s. But unlike me, she had the thin body of an adolescent girl. Her knee length, navy blue, Channel dress had a white silk collar reminiscent of the subdued elegance of aristocratic French Catholic schoolgirls at the turn of the century. A pearl-studded belt emphasised the slimness of her waist. With her meticulously styled short hair and sophisticated makeup; at first glance she looked half my age.

“I come from a country where there is no size for women’s clothes,” I told her. “I buy my own material and the neighbourhood seamstress makes me the silk or leather skirt I want. Neither the seamstress nor I know exactly what size my new skirt is. No one cares about my size in Morocco as long as I pay taxes on time. Actually, I don’t know what my size is, to tell you the truth.”

The saleswomen laughed merrily and said that I should advertise my country as a paradise for stressed working women. “You mean you don’t watch your weight?” she inquired, with more than a tinge of disbelief in her voice. Then, after a brief moment of silence, she added in a lower register, as if talking to herself: “Many women working in highly paid fashion-related jobs could lose their positions if they didn’t keep a strict diet.”

Her words sounded so simple, but the threat they implied was so cruel. I realised for the first time that maybe “size six” was a more violent restriction imposed on women than the Muslim veil. …

Yes, I thought as I wandered off, I have finally found the answer to my harem enigma. Unlike the Muslim man, who uses space to establish male domination by excluding women from the public arena, the Western man manipulates time and light. … In fact, the modern Western man enforces one of Immanuel Kant’s 19th-century theories: To be beautiful, women have to appear childish and brainless. When a women looks mature and self-assertive, or allows her hips to expand, she is condemned as ugly. Thus, the walls of the European harem separate youthful beauty from ugly maturity.

By putting the spotlight on the prepubescent female, the Western man veils the older, more mature woman, wrapping her in shrouds of ugliness. This idea gives me the chills because it tattoos the invisible harem directly onto a woman’s skin. Chinese foot-binding worked the same way. Men declared beautiful only those women who had small, childlike feet. In feudal China, a beautiful woman was the one who voluntarily sacrificed her right to unhindered physical movement by mutilating her own feet, and thereby proving that her main goal in life was to please men. Similarly, in the Western world, I was expected to shrink my hips into a size six if I wanted to find a decent skirt tailored for a beautiful woman.

Size six: The Western women’s harem” by Fatema Mernissi, August 2003

In her novel, Syd Arthur, Ellen Frankel, a therapist who has written about eating disorders and the challenges of being stereotyped due to short stature, describes how her heroine, Syd (like the historical Indian prince, Siddhartha, aka Gautama Buddha) turned away from pursuing the perfect polished exterior to look deeper. Syd imagines her friend speaking at her funeral:

I have been a seeker all my life, I realize, but a seeker of external perfection: searching for the perfect outfit, praying for the perfect diet, making my house a shrine to contemporary living. But when I die, what will people say about my life? I can just picture Jodie’s eulogy at my funeral:

“Syd was taken from us suddenly, going into cardiac arrest wearing a darling size four Burberry tweed suit and carrying a fabulous Birkan bag. Syd would have been happy to know that she died on one of her “thin” days, and thus will remain svelte into perpetuity. She maintained a spotless house and, thanks to her wonderful housekeeper Marina, barely had to lift a perfectly polished finger to do so. Syd was my best friend, and she can never be replaced. Though we will need to find a new fourth for our Mah Jongg group. We play on Thursday nights and if anyone here is interested, please see me after the burial.”

Putting aside The Weight Monster movie plot, I would like to propose something a little closer to The Matrix film plot. Instead of monsters demonized as destroyers of society, let’s break out of the body-hating trance where fat people meekly follow the herd like sheep to economic shearing.

Let’s awaken from our deluded, body-hating trance and live fully, respecting, owning and listening to our entire bodies. Instead of losing The Weight, let’s unplug from the impossible cycle of failure and divided physical selves. We need to Own Our Weight and Throw It Around when the occasion demands.

Paris and the Art of the Body

Debbie says:

I’ve been back a little more than a week from a ten-day trip to Paris, much of which was spent in art museums. Of course, artistic representations of bodies are everywhere: bodies in painting, bodies in statuary, bodies in sketches.

I can’t find any photographs on the web of a piece that particularly struck me. The Cluny “Musee de la Moyen Age” (Museum of the Middle Ages) has a lot of headless statuary, pieces that were vandalized in the 18th and 19th centuries, often used as building materials, and recovered later. One in particular is a female torso (I really wish I know what her head was like) with uncharacteristically large and realistic (sagging) breasts–except that her right hand is cupping her right breast up–and the nipple of that breast is the conduit for a fountain! She was labeled as a “gargoyle,” but I imagine her with a more realistic head. Looking at her felt like receiving a light-hearted message about real bodies from seven or eight hundred years ago.

Also in Cluny are the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, which are notable for another kind of realism–aside from the famous “To My Only Desire” there are five other tapestries (one is missing) and they are named for the unicorn’s experience of the five senses. For example, this is “smelling.”

At the Musee D’Orsay, before I got to the Degas special exhibit, a companion and I went looking for “The Origin of the World,” a painting a friend was excited about but I hadn’t heard of. It turns out to be a Gustav Courbet painting of a naked women’s torso, surprisingly vivid. The only photos I could find on the Web have ugly frames, which is not true of the original:

I suspect that a lot of the art world discussion about representations of headless women comes from this work, which is nonetheless surprisingly powerful in the original.

Several of the Impressionists, of course, are known for their fondness for fat models. Laurie and I have talked before about how the models in these paintings are often more beautiful than they are powerful or real, but the women in this picture feel quite real to me.

I was almost more interested in the statuary than the paintings. Since childhood, I’ve been interested in Rodin’s “The Caryatid Fallen Under her Stone.” (A “caryatid” is the name for a female figure used as a pillar–Rodin may have been the first person to see these women as alive enough to be unable to bear their burdens.)

In the garden at the Rodin museum, as you see her here, she is faced by another caryatid, this one fallen under a heavy round jar. Most of Rodin’s figures are so strong; it’s touching to see ones who can’t carry their load.

Even in the Louvre, where there were so many paintings calling me, I kept coming back to the statuary galleries. Here’s Roland Furieux (better known in Italian and English as Orlando Furioso), gone mad for lost love, not yet knowing he will be rescued by a champion who brings his wits back from the moon, carved by Jean Bernard Duseigneur:

I could really see him straining against his bonds. At this statue, I saw something I was to see again and again in Paris museums–a group of young schoolchildren, not just being shepherded through the art as a duty, but seated around the statue while their teacher talked to them about what they were seeing, asked and answered questions, and brought the art to life. And if American schoolchildren were instructed in details of particular pieces of art, I doubt they’d be seated in front of a statue as anatomically correct as this one.

As if Paris knew I was coming, the Musee d’Orsay had a special exhibit called “Degas et le nu,” (Degas and the nude), with literally hundreds of Degas paintings, drawings, and sculptures of nudes–over 90% women, but some men. The exhibit was chronological, starting with early sketches, ending with his most mature work. One particularly rich section was “the brothel,” a section where the women seemed to have more personality and, to use a 21st century term, “agency,” than in the rest of the exhibit. I particularly appreciated this very active drawing from that section:

Another aspect of the Degas nudes exhibit that struck me was the attention to detail: “woman looking at sole of her left foot,” for example.

A great deal of the amazing art I saw was not about bodies; a lot of the art about bodies was familiar or unremarkable. But still I came away thinking about these pieces, and a few others, and bodies across centuries.