I mean we all know that dieting and women go together like peas and carrots. We know this — collectively and together, even if we don’t agree that it should be this way – not because it’s inevitable or natural, but because we constantly get reminded that womenshouldbeondiets and dietingis afeminineactivity.
@msmely tweeted us a fabulous example of this type of reminder. It’s a reduced fat block of Monterey Jack cheese, re-named “Monterey Jill.” There’s curvy purple font and a cow in pearls with a flower, in case you missed the message. And, oh, on the odd chance you thought that this was about health and not weight, there’s a little sign there with a message to keep you on track: “Meet Jack’s lighter companion.”
So now we’ve gendered cheese and managed to affirm both the gender binary (heavy vs. light), heterocentrism (Jack’s companion Jill), and the diet imperative for women. And it’s just cheese people! Cheese!
A former editor at Cosmopolitan, Leah Hardy, recently wrote an exposé about the practice of photoshopping models to hide the health and aesthetic costs of extreme thinness. Below is an example featuring Cameron Diaz:
The story about Diaz, in The Telegraph, includes the following description of the image’s manipulation:
Face: Cheeks appear filled out
Thighs: Wider in the picture on the right
Hip: The bony definition has been smoothed away
Stomach: A fuller, more natural look
Arms: A bit more bulk in the arms and shoulders
Another example was posted at The Daily What. Notice that her prominent ribcage has been photoshopped out of the photograph on the right, which ran in the October 2012 issue of Numéro.
Hardy, the editor at Cosmo, explains that she frequently re-touched models who were “frighteningly thin.” Others have reported similar practices:
Jane Druker, the editor of Healthy magazine — which is sold in health food stores — admitted retouching a cover girl who pitched up at a shoot looking “really thin and unwell”…
The editor of the top-selling health and fitness magazine in the U.S., Self, has admitted: “We retouch to make the models look bigger and healthier”…
And the editor of British Vogue, Alexandra Shulman, has quietly confessed to being appalled by some of the models on shoots for her own magazine, saying: “I have found myself saying to the photographers, ‘Can you not make them look too thin?’”
Robin Derrick, creative director of Vogue, has admitted: “I spent the first ten years of my career making girls look thinner — and the last ten making them look larger.”
Hardy described her position as a “dilemma” between offering healthy images and reproducing the mythology that extreme thinness is healthy:
At the time, when we pored over the raw images, creating the appearance of smooth flesh over protruding ribs, softening the look of collarbones that stuck out like coat hangers, adding curves to flat bottoms and cleavage to pigeon chests, we felt we were doing the right thing… We knew our readers would be repelled by these grotesquely skinny women, and we also felt they were bad role models and it would be irresponsible to show them as they really were.
But now, I wonder. Because for all our retouching, it was still clear to the reader that these women were very, very thin. But, hey, they still looked great!
They had 22-inch waists (those were never made bigger), but they also had breasts and great skin. They had teeny tiny ankles and thin thighs, but they still had luscious hair and full cheeks.
Thanks to retouching, our readers… never saw the horrible, hungry downside of skinny. That these underweight girls didn’t look glamorous in the flesh. Their skeletal bodies, dull, thinning hair, spots and dark circles under their eyes were magicked away by technology, leaving only the allure of coltish limbs and Bambi eyes.
Insightfully, Hardy describes this as a “vision of perfection that simply didn’t exist” and concludes, “[n]o wonder women yearn to be super-thin when they never see how ugly [super-]thin can be.”
UPDATE: A comment has brought up the point that it’s bad to police people’s bodies, no matter whether they’re thin or fat. And this is an important point (made well here) and, while I agree that some of the language is harsh, that’s not what’s going on here. The vast majority of the models who need reverse photoshopping aren’t women who just happen to have that body type. They are part of an social institution that demands extreme thinness and they’re working hard on their bodies to be able to deliver it. This isn’t, then, about shaming naturally thin women, it’s about (1) calling out an industry that requires women to be unhealthy and then hides the harmful consequences and (2) acknowledging that even people who are a part of that industry don’t necessarily have the power to change it.
The Health At Every Size (HAES) movement attempts to interrupt the conflation of health and thinness by arguing that, instead of using one’s girth as an indicator of one’s health, we should be focusing on eating/exercising habits and more direct health measures (like blood pressure and cholesterol).
A recent study offered the HAES movement some interesting ammunition in this battle. The study recruited almost 12,000 people of varying BMIs and followed them for 170 months as they adopted healthier habits. Their conclusion? “ Healthy lifestyle habits are associated with a significant decrease in mortality regardless of baseline body mass index.”
Take a look. The “hazard ratio” refers to the risk of dying early, with 1 being the baseline. The “habits” along the bottom count how many healthy habits a person reported. The shaded bars represent people of different BMIs from “healthy weight” (18.5-24.9) to “overweight” (25-29.9), to “obese” (over 30).
The three bars on the far left show the relative risk of premature death for people with zero healthy habits. It suggests that being overweight increases that risk, and being obese much more so. The three bars on the far right show the relative risk for people with four healthy habits; the differential risk among them is essentially zero; for people with healthy habits, then, being fatter is not correlated with an increased relative risk of premature death. For everyone else in between, we more-or-less see the expected reduction in mortality risk given those two poles.
This data doesn’t refute the idea that fat matters. In fact, it shows clearly that thinness is protective if people are doing absolutely nothing to enhance their health. It also suggests, though, that healthy habits can make all the difference. Overweight and obese people can have the same mortality risk as “normal” weight people; therefore, we should reject the idea that fat people are “killing themselves” with their extra pounds. It’s simply not true.
Fat people shown with no heads, starving children shown with dull stares? The short explanation may be the difference between ashamingframe and a pity frame. Fat people are blamed for their obesity, so to show their faces stimulates shame and stigma. Starving children are helpless, homogeneous victims, so to stare into their eyes stimulates feelings of pity in the viewer.
The news media’s practice of showing what Charlotte Cooper has called “headless fatties” is ubiquitous. I won’t belabor it, but here are a few examples from the New York Times, Washington Post, and Reuters web sites:
Writing about this phenomenon on a news blog, Nate Jones says,
Picturing the obese without heads is a handy solution for an age-old problem: How do you illustrate a story on obesity without shining a spotlight on any individuals? Cropping out faces is more polite — and more legal — than leaving them in, the thinking goes. It’s journalism at its most paternalistic.
And then he asks,
Assuming we don’t stop covering obesity stories entirely, is there a way to illustrate them without saying, “Hello, you are fat. May I take your picture?”
But wait a minute. Why not ask that?
It seems to me that, in sparing a few news photographers some embarrassment — as they approach strangers and ask them this question — the media instead perpetuates the shame, embarrassment and stigma of millions of other people. (And if a few people get over it, ask, and show the full picture, it might just be less difficult to have the conversation the next time.)
Here’s a suggestion: instead of approaching people while they are eating alone on the boardwalk or at a fast food restaurant, how about finding people at work or school or playing with their children, and showing them living real, complicated, human lives with a potentially risky health condition?
An unscientific sample: Here are the 17 pictures on the first page of my Google images search for “obesity men.” The pictures include 15 individuals, 9 of whom have no faces. (The equivalent search for women yielded 30 obese people, 17 of whom were faceless.)
On the other hand
So why is it so different for starving children? Here are the Google images of “starving child.”
They all have faces. Also, none of them are White Americans (which makes sense, since hardly anyone starves in America, though many are food insecure). Also, maybe no one asked their permission to use their likenesses.
For obese people in a rich country, the shame and stigma is a big part of the problem itself — as the anguish it causes undermines healthy behavior. Shame and stigma does not promote healthy weight loss.
For starving children in a poor country, the pity of rich-country viewers is also part of the problem, because it becomes the story, detracting from systematic impoverishment and exploitation. For them, pity also seems ineffective at generating solutions.
Showing pictures of obese people and starving children in the news is important. Both of these practices set up dehumanizing scenarios, however, because they do not create images of complete people in the social contexts of their lives.
Cross-posted at Caroline Heldman’s Blog.Magic Mike is “wildly overperforming” at the box office because women and gay men are going to see it in droves. Thank you Hollywood executives for finally noticing that there’s plenty of money to be made off of heterosexual female and gay male sexuality. Magic Mike purports to be a movie that caters to het women, and while it does provide a highly unusual public space for women to objectify men, the movie in fact prioritizes male sexual pleasure in tired, sexist ways.
Watching Magic Mike was an experience. Many of the female theater-goers around me were hollering demands (e.g., “take it all off, baby!”) and grunting approvingly during dance scenes. The camera unabashedly focused tight on the dancer’s abs and buttocks, requiring viewers to objectify the male actors. I’ve written elsewhere that living in a culture that objectifies girls/women is highly damaging, and emerging male objectification is a corporate wet dream to sell products by creating new body dissatisfactions/markets.
Make no bones about it, this movie is all about reinforcing the notion that men are in control and men’s sexuality matters more. It baffles me that the filmmakers were so effective in conveying these themes in a movie about male strippers that a mostly female audience is eating up. Have we learned to devalue our own sexual pleasure so thoroughly that the scraps of het female sexual pleasure provided by Magic Mike feel like a full meal?
Aside from the questionably-empowering viewer interaction with the film, the content of Magic Mike is old-school sexism wrapped in a new package. It reinforces prevailing notions of masculinity where white men are in control, both economically and sexually, and women are secondary characters to be exploited for money and passed around for male sexual pleasure.
Most of the women in the film are audience members portrayed as easily manipulated cash cows to be exploited for money. In one scene, the club boss, Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) gets his dancers pumped up before a show by asking them, “Who’s got the cock? You do. They don’t.” Dallas has a running commentary that forcefully rejects the idea that female audience members are sexual subjects in the exchange.
Beyond the foundational theme of male control, many (but not all) of the simulated sex acts the dancers perform in their interactions with female audience members service the male stripper’s pleasure, not hers. Dancers shove women’s faces into their crotch to simulate fellatio, hump women’s faces, perform faux sex from behind without a nod to clitoral stimulation, etc. As a culture, we have deprioritized female sexual pleasure to such a great extent that these acts seem normal in a setting where they don’t make sense.While the men in Magic Mike strut their sexual stuff with a plot line that constantly reaffirms their sexual subjectivity, the few supporting female roles show women in surprisingly pornified, objectifying ways. Magic Mike is pretty tame when it comes to male bodies. Lots of floor and face humping, but no penis or even close-up penis tease shots through banana hammocks. In fact, viewers aren’t exposed to any male body part that they wouldn’t see at Venice Beach. The same cannot be said for women.
The movie features gratuitous breast scenes galore (yes, the breasts are the scene) and full body (side and back) female nudity. One of the male stripper’s wives is reduced to a pair of breasts that are passed around when her husband encourages another male stripper to fondle them because “she loves it.” The few recurring female roles in the cast are flat with no character development, including the romantic interest, while the white men in the film enjoy extensive character development.
Other disturbing moments are peppered throughout the movie. Magic Mike (Channing Tatum) makes a thinly veiled rape innuendo when he’s “teaching” a younger guy how to approach a woman at a club: “Look what she’s wearing. She’s asking to be bothered.” The movie also asks viewers to laugh at a larger woman who hurts a dancer’s back when he picks her up (see photo and trailer below). And one of the main characters has a homophobic reaction when he’s grossed out that his sister thinks he’s gay. Also, this is a story about white men where both women and men of color exist at the margins. The Latino DJ is a drug dealer (how original), and the two Latino dancers barely talk.I was heartened and humored by grandmas and teenage girls asserting their sexual subjectivity in the theater by yelling at the screen. It is wonderful to see so many women spending money for an experience that purports to cater to our sexual desires. We want to feel powerful when it comes to our sexuality because we’re constantly robbed of sexual subjectivity through popular culture, pornography, the male gaze, and in the bedroom. One Sexual Revolution later, men are still twice as likely to achieve orgasm than women during sex.
If Magic Mike is our sexual outlet, we deserve something better. When women turn around and engage in the same objectification that harms us, is that empowering? When the men we’re objectifying on the screen are degrading women and prioritizing their own sexual pleasure, and we eroticize this behavior, is that empowering? And when women eroticize sexual acts that don’t involve the clitoris/orgasm, is that empowering? I don’t have definitive answers to these questions, but I do know that Magic Mike would have been a radically different film had it truly been about female sexual pleasure. It’s high time more women were calling the shots in Hollywood and making mainstream movies that feature female sexual pleasure.
Magic Mike trailer. To see the sexual double standard, note how the trailer frames male stripping as a “fantasy” life, and imagine this term being applied to female strippers in a Hollywood trailer.