bodies: fat

Usually, you want to match up with someone at about your level, or a little higher.  The trouble is that many people overestimate their own level.  Maybe that’s especially true of men.

One summer many years ago at the tennis courts, a guy I didn’t know  came over and asked me if I’d like to play. I hadn’t arranged a game with anyone, but I didn’t want to wind up playing some patzer.

“Are you any good?” I asked. He paused.

“Well, I’m not Jimmy Connors,” he said (I told this was many years ago), “but neither are you.”

In chess and other games, serious players have ratings. Give a roomful of possible partners, they can sort through the ratings and find a match with someone at roughly the same level.  It’s called assortative mating, though that term usually refers to the other kind of mating, not chess.  It’s the basis of the conflict in this poignant scene from “Louie.”

Vanessa is not a ten, neither is Louie.  According to principles of assortative mating, the tens will wind up with other tens, the nines with nines, and so on down the attractiveness scale. One problem in the “Louie” scene is that Louie seems to have an inflated view of his own attractiveness.  He’s aiming higher than Vanessa.  That’s typical.  So is the importance that Louie, the man, places on physical attractiveness. This excerpt begins with Louie telling Vanessa that she’s a really beautiful . . . . He can’t bring himself to say “girl”; he’s probably going to say “person.” But he’s obviously not saying what he thinks.

Or as Dan Ariely and colleagues concluded from their study of HotOrNot members:

[Men] were significantly more influenced by the consensus physical attractiveness of their potential dates than females were. [Men also] were less affected by how attractive they themselves were . . .  In making date choices, males are less influenced by their own rated attractiveness than females are.

Another dating site, OK Cupid, found a similar pattern when they looked at data about who gets messages.  They asked their customers to rate profile photos of the opposite sex on a scale of 0 to 5. They then tracked the number of messages for people at each level of attractiveness.  The graph below shows what women thought and what they did – that is, how attractive they found men, and who they sent messages to.

1 (2) - Copy

Men who were rated 0 or 1 got fewer messages than their proportion in the population.  That figures. But even men who were only moderately attractive got more than their share. Generally, the fewer men at a level of attractiveness, the fewer total messages women sent. The 4s, for example, constituted only 2% of the population, and they got only 4% of all the messages.  The Vanessas on OK Cupid are not sending a lot of inquiries to guys who look like George Clooney.

But look at the men.

1 (2)

Men are more generous in their estimates of beauty than are women. But they also ignore the Vanessas of the world (or at least the world of OK Cupid) and flock after the more attractive women.  Only 15% of the women were rated as a 4, but they received about 26% of the messages.  Women rated 5 received messages triple their proportion in the population.

What about those with so-so looks?  Women rated as 2s received only about 10% of the messages sent by men. But men at that same level received 25% of the messages women sent.  The women seem more realistic.

Vanessa too has no illusions about her own attractiveness. She refers to herself as “a fat girl,” and when Louie, trying to be kind, says, “You’re not fat,” she says: “You know what the meanest thing is you can say to a fat girl? [pause] ‘You’re not fat.’” But it’s only when she challenges Louie’s view of his own attractiveness that their relationship starts to change.

Y’know if you were standing over there looking at us, you know what you’d see?

What?

That we totally match. We’re actually a great couple together.

She doesn’t explain what she means by “totally match.” It could be their interests or ideas or personalities, but the imaginary stranger looking at them from over there couldn’t know about any of that. What that generalized other could see is that they are at roughly the same place on the assortative mating attractiveness scale.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

We commonly hear claims that men are naturally more muscular and physically intimidating than women.  “It’s a biological fact,” someone might say.  If that were true, though, we wouldn’t have to work so incredibly hard to make it so.

@IllMakeItMyself sent in this great example of the way in which we are pushed to force our bodies into a gender binary that we pretend is natural.  On the upper right part of the Men’s Health cover, it reads: “Add 15lb of muscle” and, right next door on the Women’s Health cover, it reads “5 ways to lose 15 lbs.”

If we have to try this hard to make it true, maybe we’re not as different as we think we are.

1

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

1

Writer and director Elena Rossini has released the first four minutes of The Illusionists.  I’m really excited to see the rest.  The documentary is a critique of a high standard of beauty but, unlike some that focus exclusively on the impacts of Western women, Rossini’s film looks as though it will do a great job of illustrating how Western capitalist impulses are increasingly bringing men, children, and the entire world into their destructive fold.

The first few minutes address globalization and Western white supremacy, specifically.  As one interviewee says, the message that many members of non-Western societies receive is that you “join Western culture… by taking a Western body.”  The body becomes a gendered, raced, national project — something that separates modern individuals from traditional ones — and corporations are all too ready to exploit these ideas.

Watch for yourself (subtitles available here):

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Last week NPR reported that scientists now trace some of the rise of American obesity to the fear of fat.  Beginning in the 1970s, nutritionists began warning Americans to consume less fat.  This initiated the “low fat” and “fat free” crazes that still linger.

Yet, it now seems that people who followed the advice of nutritionists at the time — to eat less cheese, milk, and meat and more pasta, potatoes, and rice — were likely to get fatter, not skinnier.  The closer a person stuck to the dietary guidelines, the more weight they would gain and, the more weight they gained, the more others would pressure them to stick to the dietary guidelines.  The phrase “cruel irony” only begins to capture it.

The ad below, from 1959, is a peek into another era.  Just a few years before the fear of fat began, the sugar industry was plausibly suggesting that eating more sugar was the best way to stay slim.  This was industry association propaganda, but no doubt the potato and pasta industries contributed to the story in the ’70s just as the meat and dairy industries are in on it today.

1

The revision of our nutritional guidelines reminds us to be skeptical of the conventional wisdom.  Moreover, it should inspire us all to check our tendency to judge others.  We don’t have perfect knowledge that allows us perfect control over our bodies.  Scientists are doing the best they can — and hopefully not taking too much funding from for-profit food industries — and individuals are restricted by whatever knowledge and resources they have.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Haley Morris-Cafiero is an artist, a photographer, and a scorned body.  Aware that her appearance attracts disgust and mockery from some, she decided to try to document people’s public disdain.  The result is a series of photographs exposing the people who judge and laugh at her.  She chose to publish several at Salon. Go take a look. I’ll wait.

Dmitriy T.C. was the last of many who’ve suggested I write about this.  I’ve decided against it in the past because I anticipated a critique, one that dismissed the project on the argument that we can’t really know what is going through these people’s minds.  Maybe the cop is just a jerk and he does that to everyone?  Maybe the gawkers are looking at someone or something on the other side of her?  Where’s the proof that these are actually instances of cruel, public anti-fat bias?

In some cases, Morris-Cafiero has a story to go along with the photo.  The girl waiting to cross the street with her, she said, was slapping her stomach.  In another instance, she overheard a man say “gorda,” fat woman.  This type of context makes at least some of the photographs seem more “legit.”

But, as I’ve thought more about it, I actually think the project’s strength is in its ambiguity.  The truth is that Morris-Cafiero often does not know what’s going on in the minds of her subjects.  Yet, because she carries a body that she knows is disdained by many, it is perfectly reasonable for her to feel like every grimace, look of disgust, laugh, shared whisper, and instance of teasing is a negative reaction to her body.  In fact, this is how many fat people experience being in public; whether they’re right about the intent 100% of the time is irrelevant to their lived experience.

And this is how people of color, people who speak English as a second language, disabled people and others who are marginalized live, too.  Was that person rude because I speak with an accent?  Did that person say there was no vacancies in the apartment because I’m black?  Was I not chosen for the job because I’m in a wheelchair?  Privilege is being able to assume that the person laughing behind you is laughing at something or someone else, that the scowl on someone’s face is because they’re having a bad day, and that there must have been a better qualified candidate.

For many members of stigmatized groups, it can be hard not to at least consider the possibility that negative reactions and rejections are related to who they are. Morris-Cafiero’s project does a great job of showing what that looks like.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Our recent post collecting examples of creative resistance to sexually objectifying advertising was a big hit, which makes me think y’all are going to love this one.  The National Eating Disorder Information Center paid to put up a creative ad/trash can.  It reads “Shed your weight problem here” and encourages passers-by to dispose of their fashion magazines.

2 3Another great example of how organizations can creatively push back against the harmful messages spread by corporations for profit.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

In 2010 a scandal that erupted when designer Mark Fast decided to use four plus-size models (US sizes 8-10) in his catwalk show at London Fashion Week.  Protesting his decision, his stylist and creative director quit, leaving him just three days to find replacements.

The incident is a great example of how even relatively powerful figures (e.g., designers with catwalk shows) often have to pay a price for deviating from cultural rules. Designers are often criticized for only hiring waif-like models, but this shows that they don’t get to do whatever they like without consequences.

While it’s easy to condemn Fast’s stylist and creative director for walking out on him, the truth is that even being associated with deviance can bring consequences.  Sociologist Erving Goffman introduced the idea of the “courtesy stigma” to refer to the stigma that attaches to those who are merely associated with a stigmatized person. A recent Grey’s Anatomy episode dealt with exactly this idea in a story about the reaction to an attractive blonde married to an obese man. Her willingness to stay with such a person was a source of curiosity and disbelief.  Similarly, siblings of the mentally ill or mothers of children with  attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder might suffer courtesy stigma when people wonder if the mental illness is genetic or the parenting is bad, respectively.

So, while it’s tempting to say that Fast’s employees hold reprehensible ideological beliefs (a hatred or intolerance for “plus-size” women), it’s also possible that they thought being associated with the show could hurt their chances of success in a very competitive career.  In an industry that stigmatizes fat so powerfully, I can imagine it might be terrifying indeed to be seen as endorsing it.

Cite: Goffman, E. (1963) Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Engelwood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in.  Enjoy!

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
  • Bust: Levelled
  • 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.

Cross-posted at Business Insider and The Huffington Post in Spanish, French, and German.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.