bodies: fat

Cassie C. sent us a vintage ad that illustrates the way that beauty standards can change dramatically over time. The ad, for products called Fat-ten-u and Corpula, promises to help you get fat, a clearly desirable state:

Available at the Library of Congress.

Of course, it’s also worth noting that the woman in the photo likely wouldn’t be considered fat by current standards, partially because of a small waist that probably resulted from corseting.

Side note: The link Cassie sent us, at Whole Health Source, has two black and white ads as well, but I haven’t been able to verify them as authentic or find any info on where they were found or originally appeared, and I’ve found some questions about their authenticity.

In a society where being fat is considered a personal and social tragedy, it is difficult to imagine that anyone would be fat on purpose.   But if fat makes a person socially ineligible for the sexual gaze, then this can be quite functional for a couple of different reasons.

Women who find men’s sexual attention especially disturbing or scary, sometimes report gaining weight on purpose.  Being fat, they hope, will protect them from being looked at, unwanted touching, and sexual assault.  In a study by sociologist Julie Winterich, a lesbian suspects that she gained weight for this kind of purpose:

You know, I remember thinking one time, maybe one of the reasons I’m overweight is so that men would not be attracted to me, because I knew that I wasn’t attracted to them.

Another reason to become or remain fat would be protect oneself not from the attention that comes with the male gaze, but the fear that you would not be lovable, even if thin.  Being judged as sexually-unacceptable, in this scenario, is less terrifying than being judged as simply unacceptable.   This was the idea expressed in a recent confessional PostSecret postcard:

Source: Winterich, Julie. 2007. Aging, Femininity, and the Body: What Appearance Changes Men to Women with Age.  Gender Issues 24: 51-69.

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.

Sometimes public service announcements miss the mark.  Like really, really miss the mark.  In 2009 I described an anti-teen pregnancy PSA as gut-wrenchingly horrible and the feeling has not waned with time.  It suggests that teenagers who have gotten (someone) pregnant are dirty, cheap pricks, nobodies, and rejects.  We’ve also highlighted PSAs against statutory rape featuring children with giant breasts and an anti-domestic violence campaign in which you “hit the bitch.”

The campaign I’d like to discuss in this post is along these lines.  Brought to my attention by Debbie at Body Impolitic, it is the Georgia Children’s Health Alliance’s anti-childhood obesity campaign.  And it shames fat children and encourages viewers to retain negative stereotypes about them.  First, I wonder how it must feel to be chosen to be the posterchild for this campaign?

Second, some of the short videos available on the website confirm nasty stereotypes about fat people.  Like, all they do is eat:

Ironically, some of the videos acknowledge that fat children are subject to discrimination (at least from other kids), but that doesn’t appear to have stopped them from feeding that prejudice with their message.

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.

When Jessie Dress of Austin, Texas started the project Fa(t)shion February for Femmes and Friends, she was responding to what she perceived as a gap in the online community celebrating “fatshion,” or fashion for fat-identified people.   She explains, “I don’t feel like the fatshion blogs I see really represent the kind of radical queer fashion that I’m into and that feels like my community.”   Jessie committed to posting “outfits of the day” (OOTD) every day in February.  Her intention was to celebrate and draw attention to three kinds of politicized fashion projects – first, fatshion;  second, the fashion of femme-identified queers; and finally, the fashion of allies of both fat and femme-identified people.

The result was Fa(t)shion February for Femmes & Friends – an inclusive space for posting OOTD for those who find themselves outside the mainstream fashion ideal.  What started as her small personal project with a close group of friends has since exploded, with over 350 people participating in some way – a number that grows by the day:

Fa(t)shion February participant Gazel (of Gazelma)

The aim of the project is to “queer” fashion in a number of ways – to celebrate the subversive possibility of fashion.  What’s exciting about how the Fa(t)shion February project has developed is the many different ways this aim has been realized.  For example, an amazing conversation has emerged through the project regarding the  “fat experience.”  Fa(t)shion February was created to be explicitly inclusive of those who are often missing from the fatshion dialogue – that is, individuals on the fattest end of the fat spectrum.  This privileging of “bigger fats” is an attempt to further radicalize the fatshion phenomenon, but it has come with its own set of dilemmas.  Some users expressed fear of participation because they aren’t “fat enough” or aren’t fat-identified.  In response to a conversation on The Rotund, Jessie wrote on her tumblr,

The kinds of difficult – but incredibly important – dialogues that are happening in and around the project are part of what makes it succeed in its mission to use fashion as a tool of social activism and community building.

[The rest of the post is after the jump just because it’s somewhat long.]

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Cross-posted at Jezebel.

Last year in a post about the truism “sex sells,” I asked:

But whose sex is sold?  And to who?

“If it was simply that sex sold,” I continued…

…we’d see men and women equally sexually objectified in popular culture.  Instead, we see, primarily, women sold to (presumably heterosexual) men.  So what are we selling, exactly, if not “sex”?

I argued that what was really being sold was men’s (presumably heterosexual) sexual subjectivity, the experience of being a person in the world who was presented with images that were for his titillation. Women do not live in the world this way. They are not exposed everyday to images that legitimize their lust; instead, the images teach women that they are the object of that lust.

In light of this, Sociologist Beth Eck did a series of interviews attempting to tap into what it felt like for men and women to look at male and female nudes.  Her findings were pretty fascinating.

First, she asked men and women to look at naked images of women, including this one of Cindy Crawford:

Women viewing images of female nudes almost inevitably compared themselves to the figure and felt inadequate.   Said one women:

…the portrayal of these thin models and I just get depressed… I’m very hard on myself, wanting to be that way.

Women ended up feeling bad whether the model conformed to conventional norms of attractiveness or not.  When looking at a heavy set woman, they often responded like this:

I am disgusted by it because she is fat, but I’m also… I need to lose about 10 pounds.

I don’t necessarily find her body that attractive… Her stomach looks like mine.

Men, in contrast, clearly felt pandered to as holders of a heterosexual male gaze.  They knew that the image was for them and offered praise (for a job well done) or criticism (for failure to live up to their expectations).  About Crawford they said:

Personally I think she is attractive.

I like that.

Both men and women, then, knew exactly how to respond to female nudes: women had internalized their object status and men had internalized their subject status.

Eck then showed them male nudes, including this one of Sylvester Stallone:

Interestingly, both men and women felt uncomfortable looking at male nudes.

Men responded by either expressing extreme disinterest, re-asserting their heterosexuality, or both.  They did not compare themselves to the male nudes (like women did with female nudes), except to say that they were both male and, therefore, there was “nothing to see.”  Meanwhile, because men have been trained to be a lustful sexual subject, seeing male nudity tended to raise the specter of homosexuality.  They couldn’t see the bodies as anything but sexual objects for them to gaze upon.

In contrast, the specter of homosexuality didn’t arise for women because they weren’t used to being positioned as lustful.  Eck explains:

When women view the seductive pose of the female nude, they do not believe she is ‘coming on to’ them.  They know she is there to arouse men.  Thus, they do not have to work at rejecting an unwanted advance.  It is not for them.

Many women also did not feel lustful when looking at male nudes and those that did often experienced lust mixed with guilt or shame.  Eck suggest that this may be, in part, a reaction to taking on the active, consuming, masculine role, something they’re not supposed to do.

Summarizing responses to the male nudes, she writes:

Men, over and over again, reject the seductive advance [of a male nude].  While some women welcome the advance, most feel a combination of shame, guilt, or repulsion in interacting with the image…

This is what it means to live in a world in which desire is structured by a gendered sexual subject/object binary.  It’s not just “out there,” it’s “in us” too.

Source: Eck, Beth. 2003. Men are Much Harder: Gendered Viewing of Nude Images.  Gender & Society 17, 5: 691-710.

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.

G.M. Cairney pointed out a set of photos at Time that highlights the scrutiny women’s bodies are under, the expectation that we constantly work to make our bodies look smaller, and a general cultural fat phobia, while making me wonder, again, why does this merit a slideshow? The article (which features only women) focuses on celebrities’ outfits at the Golden Globes on Sunday and makes it very clear what the main criterion for success is: could it possibly, in any way, from any angle, make these celebrities, most of whom are tiny, look even slightly larger than they are?

Here’s one of the offending garments, on Jennifer Lopez:


I don’t know that I particularly like the dress, but does it make her look fat? The author assures us, though, that this is a disaster: “White is a fright on an ample derriere, or on anyone who is not a size 0.” That’s right: if you’re over a size 0, the entire color white is off-limits to you.

Christina Aguilera’s dress commits the sin of making her look “buxom” and “hippy,” and she is rather oddly compared to Mae West as though that’s a bad thing:

Jennifer Love Hewitt’s dress is described as a “high-calorie confection,” reinforcing the association with fat.

All of these criticisms rest on the central assumption that there is an ideal body type that we should all be aspiring to, and that the role of fashion is to “camouflage” any areas that don’t conform. Any outfit that doesn’t do this has, by definition, failed, no matter how it actually looks on the person. Yes, the specific dress is supposed to be unique, individual, unlike anything else there, but the body inside it isn’t.

As Lisa once asked, wouldn’t it be something if instead we thought the point of fashion was to emphasize whatever shape we have, to  make our bodies look different from one another? Crazy thought, I know.

Laura Heron sent in a article from the Economist about changes in union membership. The article, which takes a fairly negative view of the effects of unionization, includes a graph, titled “Where trouble lies,” that illustrates how much union membership has shifted from the private to the public sector in the U.S. Today, 36% of public employees (7.6 million) are members of a union, while only about 7% of employees of private companies (7.1 million) are:

Such a change, from primarily private-sector and often blue-collar workers to government employees, many of whom will be white-collar, middle-class, and relatively highly educated, has significant consequences for employers, governments, employees, and the issues likely to be of primary concern to the labor movement more broadly.

I used the data given in the article to create a chart comparing the percent of private- and public-sector employees in unions in Canada, the U.S., and Britain “today” (by which I assume they mean 2010, though they don’t specify, so be cautious there; also, they didn’t provide the private-sector rate for Canada, so I just used the data I had):

Aside from that, Laura’s attention was drawn to the post partially by the way labor was represented. To make sure we don’t miss the fact that unions are “trouble,” they illustrate the story with this image depicting labor as a fat, ravenous, naked figure devouring resources from the trim man in business attire:

A subsection of the article is also titled “Fattening the Leviathan,” and as the image at the end of the article makes clear, we need to cut this monster down to size:

It’s sort of the mirror image of the “fat cat” rhetoric often used to depict the wealthy as greedy individuals who gorge themselves on profits at the expense of workers. In either case, the central element that makes such rhetoric work is the perception of fat people as lazy, ravenous, greedy individuals who take more than their fair share of available resources.

Anna J., a student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, sent in this vintage ad for Spirella girdles that provides a good reminder of how women are repeatedly told that our bodies are never, ever acceptable as they are, but are always in need of “improvement” through the use of products (found at The Great Fitness Experiment):

But hey, if you don’t feel like wearing a girdle, perhaps some tapeworms are your solution:

UPDATE: Reader Syd says the tapeworm ad is a hoax, though other readers disagree, and the practice itself definitely occurred. I don’t know how to find out, but since there’s at least some question about it, I’d take it with caution. However, commenter Angela pointed out that Tyra Banks recently had a story on tapeworms on her show:

As Anna points out, “It’s really interesting how ads have changed over time, but the expectation of culture that women be dieting has remained the same.”  Certainly more people wouldn’t tell women to eat a tapeworm — sanitized or not — these days, but plenty of questionable products out there still promise weight loss with “no diet” and “no exercise,” and my bet is you could pick up any women’s magazine currently on the shelf and get a range of advice on how to make sure you lose any weight you might have gained over the holiday season.