The American obsession with fat is doing more than clogging our arteries—it is colonizing our culture. Incendiary reports on the all-consuming “obesity epidemic” saturate the media: According to the most recent statistics, two-thirds of Americans are overweight and one-third are obese. Shows like the “The Biggest Loser” place comically adipose contestants on display in their skivvies, while sites like thisiswhyyourefat.com showcase contributors’ attempts to pack as many calories onto a plate as possible. Apparently, just about anything can be deep-fried, doused in gravy, and served with bacon. The dieting industry counterpoises this delight in excess, raking in over $40 million per year from Americans’ bodily angst. When combined with the pin-thin ideal of beauty espoused by the fashion industry and heeded religiously in Hollywood, the situation becomes combustible. At once addicted to fast food and worshipful of heroin chic, American society has expunged the middle ground from its depictions of bodies. When it comes to weight, the center, it seems, cannot hold.
Recent efforts to combat the fat neuroses particularly virulent among American women do not seem to be helping. Take, for example, Glamour’s decision to run a single photo of plus-sized model Lizzie Miller in last year’s September issue. As Editor-in-Chief Cindy Levine gushed, the image did not feature a celebrity or a supermodel, but “a woman sitting in her underwear with a smile on her face and a belly that looks...wait for it...normal.” Yet a quick flip through the magazine’s other 193 pages of single-digit figures makes the abnormality of Miller’s stomach painfully manifest. Considered in the context of the issue at large, the photo appears more like a publicity stunt than a genuine attempt to challenge the size-zero standard. Miller is too obviously the exception, and Levine’s remarks sound self-congratulatory rather than sincere.
Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty,” which features “real women, not professional models,” constructs its message entirely around those loaded words: “real” and “normal.” These terms prove problematic, not simply for their vagueness (who decides what the phrase “real women” actually means?), but for their brazen attempts to legislate the normal. Harming yourself in an effort to conform to society’s expectations of how your body should appear, rather than acquiescing to the natural demands of hunger and the sagging of old age, certainly seems inauthentic. Yet affixing the word “normal” to a nebulous concept linked with larger waist lines is equally troublesome. The effort draws attention to the female body as a site of political contestation, to be argued about and picked apart by others. Like so many cultural forces, it reduces women to their bodies, to the myth of the female as flesh, immanence, and passivity, the embodiment of limitation and contingency. What’s more, it delegitimizes the experiences of certain women—those who are thin, both naturally and unnaturally—and ostracizes them to the realm of abnormality.
After years of battling teenage insecurities, I have accepted the fact that I will probably never be at peace with the diameter of my thighs. Does Lizzie Miller’s photograph ease my anxieties? Does she help me come to terms with the fact that I do not, and biologically cannot, resemble the models who grace the pages surrounding her? Not really. If anything, her exile to a single three-by-three frame makes it clear that she, and other bodies like hers, remain eminently out of place in Glamour, rightly so or not. Even if Dove’s campaign does manage to invert contemporary beauty norms, it creates an out-group of its own—a fact that the campaign itself illustrates with its disparagement of the “thin, young, and blond.” Although Dove purports to employ objective, universal standards, the “beautiful” and the “normal” can only be defined in relation to their opposites: the ugly and the abnormal. Someone will always be the loser in our cultural beauty contests.
Every day, I watch my female friends struggle with society’s prescriptions of how much they should weigh and how much they should eat. Rationalizations of chicken-tender consumption, 10-minute debates over getting a second cookie, and self-punishments at the MAC for feeling “too full” after dinner all make dining-hall meals feel like a survey course in female fat phobias. Yet seeking recompense through the mainstream media, at least in the model of Glamour and Dove, may not prove fruitful. The implication that a certain representation of the female form is more “real” or natural than another merely devolves into the initial conundrum: the attempt to define normality, a culturally contested term with a perpetually unstable meaning.
Courtney A. Fiske ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.