Tag Archives: self-esteem

Wrong Direction: Shonda Rhimes and Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty


Laurie and Debbie say:

Shonda Rhimes is a powerhouse, and a force for good in the world. Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” is one of the first things we blogged about, more than twelve years ago (yes, really) and we’ve always had mixed feelings about it.

Now, twelve years later, Ashley Nguyen writes at The Lily about how Shonda Rhimes is teaming up with Dove to take the Campaign one step further. Terrific, you say? Well, kind of. They are doing a lot that’s right:

After announcing the project in March, Dove and Rhimes created a call-out for women to submit their stories. They looked at more than 4,500 submissions before deciding on the women featured in their first two films … Real Beauty Productions uses a 100 percent female crew to produce the films because, as Rhimes told The Lily, “If you can, why not?”

On one level, reminding women people that beauty isn’t a narrow box is always useful; in 1994, when we released Women En Large: Images of Fat Women, we certainly put a great deal of time and energy into doing just that.

But …

It’s not 1994, or 2005. It’s 2017. It’s becoming clearer and clearer to activists in all fields–from police terror to mass incarceration to gentrification to body image–that the personal story is simultaneously incredibly important and disastrously insufficient. We need personal stories to humanize people, to interest bystanders, and to galvanize change.

We also need to look at the systemic issues, the things the personal stories don’t address and can’t change. In the case of body image, self-worth, and “real beauty,” here’s a short list:

  • The systemic story that a woman must be beautiful to be important, valuable, interesting, or even to like herself is bullshit.  When Rhimes says:

I think my definition of beauty is me at my most. Feeling my best, as confident as I can be, doing my best work. Being at my happiest. I also think it’s the moments where I’ve decided to just be me, despite what anybody else thinks, despite what anybody else might judge, despite what anyone else has been thinking about. It’s just me being me without even noticing anybody else or their judgment.

Why does that have to have anything to do with beauty? We would never say that a man doing his best work, or at his happiest, is at his most beautiful.

  • By any real definition of beauty, everyone can’t be beautiful. For one thing, beauty is cultural and not all of it travels. For another, some people don’t want to be looked at; others don’t care. Focusing on “real beauty” as something for everyone ignores the option of “I don’t want to be/I don’t care about being” beautiful. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness.
  • If everyone was in fact beautiful, wouldn’t that erase beauty? One thing we use our eyes for is to find things and people that please us: some of them are beautiful, some are attractive, some are interesting, or cleverly decked out, or surprising. And many things and people that we see are not particularly visually memorable. In the case of women, why should that one characteristic define them?
  • We should never forget that when we’re talking about women “beauty” is at least partially code for “sexual availability,” and lots of women, including many who might want to be beautiful in other contexts, have extremely good reasons not to want to be lumped into “sexually available” or even judged on our sexual availability.

Yes, Shonda Rhimes and Dove are doing a kind of good work together. If they make one woman feel better about herself, we can cheer that success. What we’d really like to see, however, is Rhimes (probably without Dove, which would lose its vested interest) take on the bigger question of why being at our most, feeling our best, as confident as we can be, doing our best work, being at our happiest is not enough.

Fat Sex: The Naked Truth

An appreciation by Lynne Murray:

Sexual intimacy is the closest thing to actual magic that most of us ever get. It can be transformative and healing, but like any drive so powerful and so close to the core of existence, it can also be used to limit, devalue and manipulate.

“Using sex to make a sale” is so engrained in our collective culture that it’s hard to trace how that mental virus entered into our system (another day, another rant). Because sex is vital to our survival as a species, “sexual attractiveness equals self-worth” is an easily found, reliable button. It’s been pressed so often and vigorously that we’re now conditioned to measure our self-worth against an impossible sexual stereotype created to grab the attention of a mass audience for commercial purposes. And what “grabs that attention” has also been created by the same button-pressing and conditioning.

Fat people have been particularly vulnerable to being victimized by this brainwashing.

Fat Sex: The Naked Truth (love the cover!), by Rebecca Jane Weinstein, Esq., MSW, founder of People of Size,  (an online community and social networking site which provides information, support, and interaction for “people of size”) was inspired by Weinstein’s own experience:

“No man will ever love you,” proclaimed my grandmother in her self-assessed infinite wisdom. I was nine or ten—old enough to know exactly what she was talking about, and young enough that I believed her. Thirty-five years later, in the kind of therapy they do for veterans of war, I understood that she wasn’t entirely right. But, she wasn’t entirely wrong. Of course, as any therapy veteran would know, right or wrong, it was not about a man’s love for me, but “my love for myself.” I’ll get right on that.

It took me years—years—to say the word fat. It took what felt like an entire brain overhaul to say the words fat sex.

Weinstein’s victory over that early damage shows clearly in her poised Today Show interview describing her journey to write Fat Sex.

This book is not a how-to or resource oriented guide like Hanne Blank‘s Big Big Love: A Sex and Relationships Guide for People of Size (and Those Who Love Them). Instead, Weinstein has collected display a wide range of stories describing how people have suffered damage from hostility toward their fat bodies or because of their attraction to fat partners. Some have been irretrievably wounded, while others have creatively found ways to flourish sexually–no matter what anyone thinks.

Fat Sex was “crowdfunded,” published through a Kickstarter campaign with money raised from people who care enough about to the subject material to contribute to the process.  I was among those who contributed, and in return I received a PDF copy. Weinstein also used social media to collect fat people’s stories about their own sexual experiences. (This evokes Laurie and Debbie’s story of collecting stories, writing, and models for Women En Large before the World Wide Web was a household word.)

Inevitably the story of a fat person’s sex life plays out in the midst of our currently poisonous social climate. Margaret Cho‘s impassioned introduction reminds us that being infected with self-hatred in the form of “you’re too fat to ____ [fill in the blank]” can be a death sentence. Cho herself developed bulimia that nearly killed her after being told she was too fat to be in the television show built around her stand-up comedy routine. “I felt like I was going to die and I nearly did. It was beyond my control, and almost 20 years later I am still utterly destroyed by any negative assessment of my, or any woman’s, body.”

Many of the experiences recounted in Fat Sex are triumphant such as Samantha who reports:

…my husband thinks I’m a rock star in bed. The women before me, and there were quite a few, were afraid to get naked, were even more self-conscious than me. … Once my clothes are off, I want to embrace my sexuality. I’m a sexual being.

During sex, it’s the one place I feel like I can just be me, let it all hang out. Yeah, I’ve got fat on me. But my junk still works like everybody else’s.

Fat people manifest a wide range of flavors of sexual expression–to name a few from the book:

  • a happily monogamous couple dealing with a family that refuses to respect their son’s fat wife;
  • a fat man with many satisfied girlfriends of various body sizes (who don’t know he’s a player);
  • a fat woman in a long-term, lesbian relationship dealing with insecurity as her fat partner loses weight due to diabetes;
  • and a long-term polyamorous triad in which “All three [partners] …  have issues with their own weight, but not with their partners’ [weight].”

In some stories the search for affection along with sex plays out in a more poignant manner.  Delilah had many partners–sometimes in consensual “gang bang” situations–from high school onward. Even after she had attained a cult following in fat fetish porn films, the men who admired her and sought her out for sex refused be seen with her in public. Students of human behavior have just begun to expand beyond considering fat women’s sexual experiences solely in light of male reactions like the ones Delilah dealt with.

Researcher Sonya Satinsky and her colleagues asked an extremely pertinent question, “How does a women’s feeling about her body impact sexual satisfaction?”  in “An Assessment of Body Image and its relationship to sexual function in women.” Just as Weinstein finds self-esteem is THE major factor. Satinsky’s study concludes that “having higher levels of body appreciation predicted higher levels of sexual function (arousal, orgasm, satisfaction, overall  function), regardless of body size.

So how do you get self-esteem when the whole world is telling you that your fat body is wrongity-wrong-wrong-wrong and undeserving of pleasure?  Most of those who have come to terms with their size (or their partner’s size) have had some contact with fat activism either in person or online.

In “Fat Shame to Fat Pride: Fat Women’s Sexual and Dating Experiences,” published in the journal Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society, Jeannine A.  Gailey obverves that as difficult as it is to embrace fat pride, the effect on a woman’s sex life is dramatic. The women she surveyed report that, “With increased confidence, they are seeking partners who treat them well and satisfy them sexually.

As a storyteller, I have noted another development affirming the growing sexual prowress among fat women–

The recent popularity of so-called “curvy” or “Big Girl” erotica, a genre with strong romantic overtones that mark the intended audience as clearly female is another trend to watch. Authors publishing in this area inclue:  J. S. Scott (Big Girls and Bad Boys: A BBW Erotic Romance), Alexis Moore (Curves for the Billionaire), Christa Wick (Curves Ahead), Gretchen Lane (Big Girls Don’t Cry), Christin Lovell (Curvosity), Adriana Hunter (The Plus-Size Loving Series and the Wealthy Men & Curvy Women Series), and Australian Angelina Verdenis (Big Girls Lovin’ Series) and even a 2010 mainstream Silhouette entry, A Whole Lot of Love by Justine Davis.

My own experience gives credence to the “self esteem leads to better sex at any size.” I had the great good fortune to be raised to consider myself adequate to any task. Although I was a chubby kid and dieting was part of my life from age nine onward, no one ever told me anything was wrong enough with my body to make me unlovable. I naturally discovered masturbation as any adolescent will given enough privacy. By the time I was ready to explore sex with partners I was fat enough to turn some men off, but I just shrugged and moved on.

From Fat Sex to scholarly appreciation of self-esteem to curvy erotica, I feel hopeful as I watch so many fat people throwing off oppression to pursue a fully sensual life–one orgasm at a time!