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Perpetuating the Beauty Myth

Call to Bodily Discipline Reinforces Dangerous Standards for Appearance

By Erica L. Werner

There are too many thin people at Harvard. One of them is Evan P. Cucci '96, whose ridiculously offensive opinion piece, "Developing the Student Body," appeared in the Crimson this week.

The misogynistic, self-congratulatory and near-fascist column begins with the assertion: "There are too many fat students at Harvard. These students can be seen just about everywhere [as if they're some strange, illiterate race]...The definition of fat should not be limited to those who are too big for their britches, but also those who could simply use some toning or trimming."

The piece continues in the same astounding vein. Operating on the a priori assumption that fatness is bad, Cucci recommends a battery of mandatory physical education programs and nutrition seminars.

Cucci's support for a Foucauldian system of bodily discipline is for the most part predicated on an invocation of the Athenian mind/body ideal. He quotes "the progressive thinker" John Dewey--neglecting to mention that what was progressive in the early part of this century is hardly progressive now--as follows: "there is an impossibility of achieving intelligence through any system that does not use the body to teach the mind and the mind to teach the body."

The familiar "sound in body, sound in mind" argument is certainly questionable on its own terms. More importantly, it is irrelevant to Cucci's desire for a slimmer student body, inasmuch as its goal is not actual weight loss, but a more vague ideal best defined as "being in touch with your body."

It should go without saying that you don't have to be thin and toned to be in touch with your body; unfortunately it doesn't. My body, for example, doesn't want to play intramural sports, like Cucci's does: it wants to eat yummy food and take lots of naps. And why shouldn't it?

The answer to that question speaks to the thinly veiled sub-text of Cucci's column, which is a simple reinforcement of societal standards of physical appearance. Cucci is not addressing himself to the gravely obese, whose weight poses health problems, but, as he makes clear, to those who could simply use some toning. (Although towards the end of the piece he issues the unsupported and out-of-left-field observation that "Too many people in the Harvard community are eating themselves into the grave.")

Why should we be thin, trim and toned? Only because that is what society valorizes, especially in women. This is a truism, and one which Cucci has clearly accepted, even as he ostensibly jogs along some sort of moral high ground.

As we women well know, there is a fairly large disparity between the weight we are "allowed" to be for the purposes of health and the weight we are taught we "should" be. No one is going to die an untimely death because they're not sufficiently "trim"; much more dangerous are the eating disorders that the presumed importance of trimness leads us to adopt.

We'll feel better if we get in shape, Cucci and the rest of society argue. But why will we feel better? Because we will look better, not because we will be in better physical condition. Many more women diet compulsively--an unhealthy means of weight-loss--than exercise; many of those who exercise do so to lose weight, not to become healthy.

Arguably, exercise and reasonable dieting offer benefits beyond the purely aesthetic. However, women aspire to a physical ideal that many body types cannot shape themselves into, no matter how much they exercise or how much celery they eat. Yet women are taught to place more value on being conventionally attractive than on being fit.

Cucci's opening sentence fore-grounds the hegemony of the beauty myth: he could have chosen to complain that there are too many out-of-shape people at Harvard (though even the term out of shape implies a single, acceptable shape).

Cucci offers the peculiar contention that many students want to improve their bodies but do not know how. In fact, it's no secret that if you work out and/or diet you will lose weight. But that is much easier for some than for others, both because of individual physical constitutions and because of the ways in which eating and food are overdetermined in this society.

Granted, in the second-to-last paragraph of his commentary, Cucci inserts the statement that "There is certainly nothing wrong with carrying more baggage than is required." But this nonsensical observation, with its implication that a certain amount of "baggage," and no more, is "required"--required for what?--in any case directly contradicts Cucci's initial assertion that there are too many fat people at Harvard.

If Cucci's argument were correct, all those "long, enjoyable hours running along the Charles at dawn" (at dawn, for Heaven's sake!) would have earned him a corresponding mental acuity. Apparently not.

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