bodies: fat

Cross-posted at Jezebel.

Sometimes marketing is so absurd that I am tied into knots trying to understand how an advertisement could possibly have been made and set loose into the world.  Like this ad for Zappos, sent in by Cheryl S., that claims it sells jeans in “fits for every body type”:

Are they actually mocking us?  Do they really think we are so stupid as to not find the text and visuals in this ad laughably mis-matched?  Are they trying to offend all people outside of this “range” of body types so that they don’t wear their clothes?  I just… I don’t know.

UPDATE! Business Insider featured the ad above and included another example:

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.

According to a 2008 market research study, 72% of yoga practitioners in the U.S. are women; 71% are college educated and 27% have postgraduate degrees; and 44% have annual incomes of $75,000 or more.  Yoga practitioners, then, do not reflect the general population.

So how inclusive is yoga?  A collection of covers from the magazine Yoga Journal, spanning the years 1975 to 2010, sent in by Janet T., gives us a clue.

As she points out, the historical progression of covers illustrates how the magazine started out with explicit connections to India and traditional yogis (below) and gradually moved towards featuring (and thus creating) western yoga superstars.

Of the 186 Yoga Journal covers that include a photograph (not an illustration) 78% show only white people. Though a 1997 issue with a story on “yoga in the inner-city” features a man of color:

66% of single-person photos are of a woman.  At least two covers include a story on yoga for people who aren’t necessarily young, thin, and able-bodied, but show a photograph women who are.

Although the feminization of yoga has been noted (and conversely, the need to masculinize yoga in order to appeal to men), it is rarely acknowledged that while women make up the majority of yoga practitioners, studio owners are more likely to be men.  Moreover, yoga superstars, such as Bikram Choudhury (the creator of the Bikram style of yoga practiced in a heated room), with incomes in the multi-millions, are overwhelmingly men.

In addition, while most yoga practitioners are female, the language of yoga is male, and assumes a gender-conforming (and often athletic and thin) body.  Some bloggers have called attention to raced, classed, gendered, sizist, and transphobic practices in American yoga culture that can be alienating and discouraging to current or would-be yogis, thus denying the potentially therapeutic elements of yoga to much of the U.S. population.  For example, the costs associated with yoga practice (classes, equipment, etc.) make it out of reach for most low-income people, while the gendered way that yoga philosophy understands the human body can make it uncomfortable for some transgender folks.

So, through the past 35 years of Yoga Journal covers, we can see how the representation of yoga in America both creates and reinforces a symbolic understanding of a practice intended for a very particular audience.


Christie Barcelos is a doctoral student in Public Health at the University of Massachusetts who rarely sees anyone who looks like her in yoga class.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.

Sociology PhD candidate Kjerstin Gruys recently guest posted about her effort to shun mirrors for one year in the hopes of improving her body image.  As any really interesting and challenging project should, it’s begun to get some major media coverage, including a story at Yahoo News.  When a political project starts getting mass media attention, though, it risks being contextualized and even co-opted by the status quo.  This is a case in point.

Interspersed among the article about Gruys’ project are links, an effort on the part of the website to get readers to spend more time on its pages and the pages of its advertisers.  These are probably randomly generated according to the content of the article.  So, since Gruys’ project is about her feelings about her body and avoiding mirrors for six months before and after her wedding day, the links center around beauty and weddings.  The first two links nestled in among the first few paragraphs read “Are you Satisfied with Your Face?” and “A Wedding Dress to Fit Your Body Shape.”

By publicizing her project, Kjerstin is trying to make the personal political.  But one of the only means of drawing awareness to her work includes losing control of how it’s talked about and delivered.  While she wants women to feel better about themselves, and some may be inspired by her project, in some ways this is also another instance of the mass media reminding women to think about the appearance of their face and body. The inserted links, further, can be read as upholding the very standards that Gruys is trying to combat.  And in at least some cases, they do. The “Are you Satisfied with Your Face?” link, in this vein, goes to a site sponsored by super-beauty project corporation L’Oreal.

Thanks to my student, Kirsten Easton, for sending along this link!

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.

A couple of years ago we posted a series of weight gain ads from the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s.  Yes, weight gain ads.  Say it a few times, see how it rolls unfamiliarly around your tongue.  If you consume popular culture, it’s rare to come across anyone suggesting that there’s such a thing as women who are too skinny. Quite the opposite. Yet, during the middle decades of the 1900s, being too skinny was a problem that women worried about.  And Wate-On was there to help them achieve the “glamorous curves” of “popular” girls.

Jeremiah gave us a great excuse to re-post this already-posted material.  He sent in an ad for Wate-On featuring Raquel Welch:

There are interesting conversations to be had here.  Is pressure to be full-figured any different than pressure to be thin? It’s just another kind of pressure to conform to a particular kind of body.  Is the mid-century ideal different than the contemporary ideal of “curvy” women? In other words, are these women any less thin, or any less hourglass-figured, than the supposedly curvy icons of today: Beyonce, JLo, etc?  Are there any products for women who think they are too skinny today?  Can we make an interesting comparison between the capitalist and the medical solution to “too skinny”?  Other thoughts?


Julie C. found this ad in a newspaper from the 1960s:

The text:

“If skinny, thin and underweight take improved WATE-ON to help put on pounds and inches of firm, healthy looking flesh. WATE-ON supplies weight gaining calories plus vitamins, minerals, protein and other beneficial nutrients. Clinically tested. Fast weight gains 4, 6, 10… as much as 20 and 30 pounds have been reported. No over-eating. Helps make bustline, cheeks, arms, legs fill out, helps put firm solid flesh on skinny figures all over body. Helps fight fatigue, low resistance, sleeplessness and nervousness that so often accompany underweight. Underweight children and convalescents can take WATE-ON. It’s a clinically tested, pleasant formula sold around the world. Buy some today and start putting on weight FAST. Satisfaction from 1st bottle or price refunded. At drug stores everywhere.”

Another (year unknown, found here):

Taylor D. sent in this add for Wate-On (found here), which targets African American women:


Here’s another brand for a similar product from 1943:



New Natural Mineral Concentrate From the Sea, Rich in FOOD IODINE, Building Up Weak, Rundown Men and Women Everywhere.

THOUSANDS of thin, pale, rundown folks–and even “Naturally Skinny” men and women–are amazed at this new, easy way to put on healthy needed pounds quickly. Gains of 15 to 20 lbs. in one month–5 lbs. in one week–are reported regularly.

Kelp-a-Malt, the new mineral concentrate from the sea–gets right down to the cause of thin, underweight conditions and adds weight through a “3 ways in one” natural process.

First, its rich supply of easily assimilable minerals nourish the digestive glands, which produce the juices that alone enable you to digest the fats and starches, the weight-making elements in your daily diet. Second, Kelp-a-Malt provides an amazingly effective digestive substance which actually digests 4 times its own weight of the flesh-building foods you eat. Third, Kelp-a-Malt’s natural FOOD IODINE stimulates and nourishes the internal glands which control assimilation–the process of converting digested food into firm flesh, new strength and energy. Three Kelp-a-Malt tablets contain more iron and copper than a pound of spinach or 7-1/2 lbs. of fresh tomatoes; more calcium than 6 eggs; more phosphorous than 1-1/2 lbs. carrots; more FOOD IODINE than 1600 lbs. of beef.

Try Kelp-a-Malt for a single week and notice the difference–how much better you sleep, how firm flesh appears in place of scrawny hollows” and the new energy and strength it brings you! Prescribed and used by physicians, Kelp-a-Malt is fine for children, too–improves their appetities. Remember the name, Kelp-a-Malt, the original and genuine kelp and malt tablets. There is nothing else like them, so don’t accept imitations and substitutes. Try Kelp-a-Malt today, and if you don’t gain at least 5 lbs. of good, firm flesh in 1 week, the trial is free. 100 jumbo size tablets, 4 to 5 times the size of ordinary tablets, cost but little. Sold at all good drug, stores. If your dealer has not yet received his supply, send $1.00 for special introductory size bottle of 65 tablets to address below.

Vintage Ads posted another example:


If you are a normal healthy, underweight person and are ashamed of your skinny, scrawny figure, NUMAL may help you add pounds and pounds of firm, attractive flesh to your figure.

For NUMAL, a doctor-approved formula, contains essential minerals and vitamins that may aid your appetite. Then you eat more and enjoy what you eat. But that isn’t all. NUMAL contains a food element which is also a great help in putting on weight. So don’t let them snicker at your skinny, scrawny figure. A skinny, scarecrow figure is neither fashionable nor glamorous. Remember, the girls with the glamorous curves get the dates.
So start NUMAL today…

Lauren McGuire spotted this ad (at Vintage Ads, via Jezebel):

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.

Erg. Ugh. Just…[cringe]. That is my reaction upon seeing a clip (first posted at Jezebel), sent in by Dmitriy T.M., of a segment from a recent episode of the reality show Bachelor Pad. The show is a spinoff of the popular shows The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, consisting initially of 20 former contestants from those two shows, one of whom is voted off by the rest of the cast each week. This week, the contestants indicated their votes for who should leave by getting to anonymously throw paint-filled “eggs” at others’ backs. But in case that wasn’t sufficiently humiliating, the host also had contestants throw eggs in response to the question “Who are you least attracted to?” Here’s the segment with the women:

It’s a depressing illustration of the current TV obsession with public humiliation and bullying as entertainment. It’s hard not to feel for Erica as she stands there feeling each successive hit, being publicly held up as the least desirable woman there. But her response is also revealing; it exemplifies the way women are encouraged to think of themselves as being in competition. At 2:54 Erica talks about the experience and the difficulty of having a body that, while appearing incredibly thin to me, in that environment qualifies as notably curvaceous.

But in her ability to defend herself and push back against the judgments of others, she falls back on a common strategy: not questioning the standards of beauty themselves, but simply trying to refocus them, in this case (at about 3:05) pointing to another woman who is “way bigger” and not “that pretty.” The result is to reaffirm both the idea that body size is an objective and essential measure of attractiveness (so being bigger automatically should make you less attractive than a smaller woman) and that women’s self-esteem and resistance to negative judgments of their own attractiveness must come at the expense of other women, with whom them are always, and inevitably, in competition.

The “Let’s Move” campaign is Michelle Obama’s initiative to curb the childhood obesity epidemic in the United States.  According to the campaign website, its goals include “creating a healthy start for children” by empowering their parents and caregivers, providing healthy food in schools, improving access to healthy, affordable foods, and increasing physical activity.  Here is an example of the kind of “social marketing” that the campaign is releasing:

This campaign video is particularly notable for 1) its raced, classed, and gendered assumptions about the responsibility for promoting physical activity among young people; 2) the way it emphasizes personal responsibility while ignoring structural determinants of health; and 3) its Foucauldian implications (for the real social science nerds out there).

First, the video portrays a middle-aged white mother (in the kitchen, no less) who encourages her daughter to get exercise by having her running around their (apparently large, middle-class suburban) home in order to find the $1 she asked for.  It ends by stating: “Moms everywhere are finding ways to keep kids healthy.”  Not only does this assume that “moms” (not “parents”) have responsibility for keeping their kids healthy through intensive mothering practices, it fails to account for the fact that the childhood obesity epidemic (itself a social construct in many ways) is greatly stratified by race and socio-economic status.  It is not clear to the viewer how they might encourage their children to exercise if they live, say, in a small apartment or a neighborhood without safe places for kids to play outside.

Second, a growing body of research points to the fact that structural-level inequalities, not individual-level health behaviors, account for the majority of poor health outcomes.  This research illuminates a disconnect in most health promotion initiatives — people have personal responsibility (engage in physical activity) for structural problems (poverty; the high price of nutritious food; safe, well-lit, violence-free places for kids to play).

Finally, the video illustrates what some social scientists have noted about new forms of power in modern public health practice — for example, health promotion campaigns such as this one can be thought of as the exercise of “biopower,” or Foucault’s term for the control of populations through the body: health professionals and/or the government are entitled by scientific knowledge/power to examine, intervene, and prescribe “healthy lifestyles.”  In this example, the campaign uses marketing strategies to remind the (very narrowly defined) audience of their duty to engage with dominant health messages and concerns (i.e., childhood obesity) through the control of bodies (that is, their children’s).

In the “Let’s move” campaign video, then, we see that (white, middle-class) moms have a responsibility for encouraging their children to get physical activity without an acknowledgement of the gendered expectations of caregiving, structural determinants of health that effect childhood obesity, and the implications of top-down control of the body.


Christie Barcelos is a doctoral student in Public Health/Community Health Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where she studies social justice and health, critical pedagogy, and epistemology in health promotion.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.

This weekend I went to the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles to see the Beauty CULTure exhibit. The description of the show suggested a critical perspective on beauty:

Through different lenses focused on the body beautiful, the exhibition examines both traditional and unconventional definitions of beauty, challenging stereotypes of gender, race and age. It explores the links between beauty and violence, glamour and sexuality and the cost (in its multiple meanings) of beauty.

The exhibit, to be fair, included a 30-minute documentary that touched on several critiques: the socialization of children, the pressure felt by adult women, the role of capitalism, and sizism and racism in the industry (featuring Lauren Greenfield’s work on girl culture and weight loss camps and Susan Anderson on child pageants).

But the actual photographs in the exhibit overwhelmingly affirmed instead of challenged our beauty culture.  While the four images above, highlighted at the website, include an Asian woman, an older woman, and a picture of a child beauty pageant contestant designed to make us question how we raise children, the actual photographs were mostly conventionally-attractive, white, thin professional models glamorously outfitted, posed, and lit.  These photographs outnumbered those that included women of color, older women, “plus-size” women, and critical images (e.g., photos of cosmetic surgeries) by something like 10 to 1.  I didn’t leave feeling like I’d gained some perspective on the crushing pressure to be “perfect”; I left feeling like I’d flipped through a Cosmopolitan, awash in idealized images of female beauty, and more consciously aware of my deficiencies than when I arrived.

I say, skip it.

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.

The title question haunts me.  I’m a feminist, a recovered anorexic and, yes, I’m on a diet.

Because of my experience with anorexia, I know how horrible things can get when one starts obsessing about “bad foods” and setting (and re-setting) weight-loss goals.  My eating disorder made me miserable, and I have lasting health issues that could eventually shorten or lessen the quality of my life.

That said, recovering from anorexia made me a feminist.  While battling for my sanity and health, I became increasingly pissed off at the THIN=BEAUTIFUL*GOOD environment we live in.  Our culture’s valorization of thinness caused well-meaning friends to compliment me on my rapid weight-loss, literally up until the weeks that I entered treatment. Even after entering treatment, some people didn’t think I was skinny enough to be “really” anorexic.  Worse, my awful then-boyfriend hinted that it would be great if I could recover without gaining any weight, “since you’re not, like, scary-thin.”

In the end, I got better, got angrier, and ultimately re-arranged my life so that I could stay healthy and continue fighting-the-good-fight as my career.

We feminists typically view dieting — and, particularly, the diet industry — as an expression of patriarchy that is bad for women.  As a scholar who studies the harmful effects of our culture’s beauty standards, I agree with this.  Diets (which FAIL 95% of the time) drain women’s energy, happiness, and wallets – often while risking our health.  Hence, “RIOTS, NOT DIETS!” has become a well-known rallying cheer for many feminists.

Dieting can also be understood as a type of “patriarchal bargain” (an individual woman’s decision to accept gender rules that disadvantage women-as-a-group, in exchange for whatever power she can wrest from the system).  By strategically losing weight, we accept the THIN=BEAUTIFUL*GOOD equation (which implies FAT=UGLY*BAD), and propel ourselves into positions of greater social advantage.  On an individual level, having “thin privilege” feels empowering.  (Recall, Oprah Winfrey — arguably the MOST powerful woman in the world — has described “going to the gym when I really prefer wine and chips” as her greatest accomplishment!)  Yet, these THIN powered feelings depend upon a system of inequality in which power/privilege/respect are denied to others on the basis of these standards.

Frustratingly, given the patriarchal bargain of weight-loss, being radically anti-diet as a political stance doesn’t always fit comfortably as a personal stance. Because we live in a society that punishes women for being “fat,” even the most dedicated feminists report struggles with body image.  The threat of becoming a martyr for this cause (i.e., by voluntarily giving up ”thin-privilege,” if we’ve got it) can be terrifying.   Add to this the personal fact that I’ve gained an (subjectively) uncomfortable amount of weight in the past year by neglecting to care for my body, and suddenly I’m facing a conundrum.

So what’s a good feminist to do?  Here’s how I’ve proceeded.


Step 1: Shun Mirrors for 1 Year

I was saying mean things to my reflection in the mirror and wanted to lose weight, urgently.  My body insecurities were reaching a dangerous peak, and it scared me.  Was I on the verge of a relapse? 10 years ago, I’d probably have gone on an extreme diet, but this time something blissfully self-protective kicked in.  I still did something extreme, but in a vastly more body-positive direction: I decided to shun mirrors for a year.  Yep, you read that correctly.  I’ve embarked on a quest to go without mirrors for 365 days.

Thus far it’s been enlightening (and challenging), but hasn’t completely resolved my body image issues.


Step 2: Revamp Eating and Exercise Habits to be Healthfully Moderate

So, in addition to shunning mirrors, I’ve decided to monitor my food and exercise until I’m back on track. As an advocate of the “Health at Every Size” movement (which stresses the importance of healthful behaviors but rejects the idea that there is a universal “healthy weight”), I’m going to try to judge my “success” based on my behaviors, instead of my weight.  My goal is to consciously re-engage in healthful eating habits and joyful activity, and then accept my body size and shape wherever it settles.  As much as I’m still tempted to “get skinny,” I know I can live with this, and (more importantly) I know my body can live through it.

But I still hope I lose some weight.


So, what do you think? If “fat is a feminist issue,” can a feminist diet?


Kjerstin Gruys is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Sociology Department at UCLA where she’s writing her dissertation on clothing size standards in the fashion industry. At her blog, A Year Without Mirrors, she’s chronicling her commitment to avoid her reflection for 365 days.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.