Tuesday, March 29, 2011

"A daintier shoe would be overpowered"

In an earlier post, I discussed the issue of the kind of dieting women do not to get from "fat" to "normal," but from "normal" to emaciated. The kind of disordered eating that is standard-issue for women who ostensibly could take "worrying about weight" off their list of concerns, and worry about something else - international tragedies, career and family, what color to paint their toenails... the possibilities are endless.

In the comments to that post, there was some dispute over what constitutes a legitimate weight-related concern. That is, when will a woman actually benefit, in some tangible way, from attention to calories and portion size, beyond what's necessary to more or less maintain a natural-ish set point?

What seems to be the case is that there's a size at which a woman becomes no healthier and no more attractive if she loses weight, yet her non-emaciatedness, which serves as proof that she, well, eats, is classified - by the woman herself, by other (dieting/disordered-eating) women, or by (sadistic) men - as problematic. Not problematic insofar as weight loss would in some way improve the woman's looks. More like, women are expected to be careful about their diets, to feel guilty for eating bread/meat/pasta or other non-salad, non-yogurt items, and a woman whose physical appearance suggests having perhaps opted out of that game (although of course plenty of women of all sizes are dieting and exercising like crazy to be as they are) poses a threat to... to other women's desire to play the game? To men, who want to keep women down? Who knows. Women in this category would be laughed out of town (or accused of failing to own their privilege) if they referred to themselves as anything but thin, yet there is this substantial pressure on such women to be thinner still.

So we have the Sartorialist (via, and note the mention of "Sart's" fellow fashion-blogger girlfriend referring to her beau as her "weight-loss coach" because he tells her what to eat - delightful as always; more coverage here), with shots of a woman who has the audacity to blog about fashion at maybe a 4 rather than a 2, patronizingly declaring,

The subtle thing she achieves so successfully in these two looks [in photos, the woman has on massive platform heels] is to complement the sturdy but beautiful shape of her legs with an equally strong shoe. A daintier shoe would be overpowered but these shoes create a beautiful harmony for the lower half of her body.
Ah yes, thin-but-not skeletal women do best to wear thick stilts, because they're just a pair of kitten heels away from grotesque. Just... just... yes, heels can be slimming, and the wear-something-thick-at-the-ankle-to-give-the-illusion-of-slimmer-thighs strategy is nothing new, and explains why every so many years, flared jeans and '70s shoes make a comeback. The Sartorialist, for all his alleged fashion expertise, has highlighted a well-known phenomenon, not discovered something new and interesting about "proportions." But it is supposed to be some kind of rule that if a woman fails to reveal no body fat whatsoever, she has to wear massive clunkers on her feet, as though with a more delicate footwear choice, she'd positively stomp through it, crushing the poor ballet flat to bits. (In a classy touch, "Sart" features this woman, a blogger, he notes, without linking to her blog or providing her last name.)

But that's from the world of fashion - at a good remove from the sphere (so to speak) of models themselves, but it's true that, especially with the prominence of fashion blogs, those who write about fashion are held to an unusual standard. So consider that in a "Well" blog thread responding to the question of grown women with eating disorders, we have a commenter with no known association with fashion, unconvinced by a previous commenters claim that "Dropping a size does nothing to help society, and frankly, does not make your own life any better either."
I disagree with the latter part of this statement. My life has vastly improved since I lost weight. I didn't even lose that much - 15 lbs off a small 5'2" frame to put me around 100 lbs. But I was previously "pleasantly plump" while I am currently "fit" or "wiry" depending on who you ask. ALL areas of my life have improved - career, relationships, general life efficacy, you name it. Strangers, male and female, of all ages, are even nicer to me. It's a very strong reinforcer, and there are many days when I wonder if losing more weight will make my life even better.
Let's see. I get that bodies are different, and the same height and weight might appear as slimmer on one person than another, that a woman used to being a particular size who "balloons" up to Weight A will feel different about that weight than will one of the same height and proportions who struggled to get down to the same. So I will not go as far as to say that because I am and have for my entire adult life been something like this woman's "fat" size, and would be hauling myself to zee Parisian psychiatrists if I became concerned that I was fat, that this tells us anything definitive. But unless this woman's "extra" 15 pounds were contained entirely in a double chin, it's hard to see how, at her "heavy" weight, she presented as anything but slim. Not thin enough for the runway, but this isn't a concern a woman who's 5'2" and old enough to mention "career, relationships, [and] general life efficacy" should take into account.

I will toss out a wild guess and speculate that the positive changes this woman experienced are 90% her own thrill at being some arbitrarily-chosen weight, 10% the approval women get from others who are equally weight-obsessed for having "accomplished" something along these lines, for having asserted her membership in the just-a-salad club. Or maybe it's exercise endorphins. Oh, and she's probably wearing more form-fitting clothes, and confusing the fact that tight pants turn men's heads with some kind of transformative effect stemming from her weight loss. (Side note: leggings-as-pants never really caught on in Paris, but one of the few times I saw a woman in those, the male head-turns they inspired were quite something.)

Women in our society who are in fact overweight/fat/heavy, who lose weight, get compliments and witness a spike in male attention, perhaps career prospects. This is not in their imagination, and this is why we refer to such a thing as sizeism. Thin women who lose weight and claim to see this effect are witnessing something easily attributed to other factors (explained above), and are projecting the genuine concerns of heavy women onto themselves. In extreme cases, they imagine that they really are fat to begin with, which is what leads this particular woman - who is already, as another "Well" commenter points out, below BMI-normal - to write, "there are many days when I wonder if losing more weight will make my life even better."

And who's to say it wouldn't? Maybe she'd be so happy to weigh as little as she could before keeling over that if she was informed that a side effect of toeing that line was keeling over, she'd consider it worth the risk. It's a bit like the ex-gay who gets more pleasure out of thinking of himself as a heterosexual Christian than he would from an actual sex life with another man. The problem in both cases is not at the individual level - who's to say what works for individuals? - but once these broadly-speaking ridiculous goals get imposed on the general population, as they have in both these cases.

16 comments:

Isabel Archer said...

I am very slightly shorter than the woman from the Well column; through most of my adult life, my weight has fluctuated in about the range that she describes. I can't say I've ever noticed random strangers reacting to me differently at one weight or another, and (actually somewhat to my surprise) they don't seem to have had much influence on my dating prospects at various points in life. I know that I'm talking about a small n here, but it's perhaps worth it to make the world more sane about these touchy issues. I'm guessing that perhaps the Well commenter's weight loss has made her more self-confident, which is perhaps a variation of the guess that you presented in the post.

Alternative explanation: commenter is a troll trying to get a rise out of others.

Britta said...

Yeah, I agree with you. I am 5'5" and "curiously light" (for some reason I weigh less than I look like I do). My weight has also fluctuated in around that range, putting me either at the low end of normal BMI to too light to walk the Madrid catwalk. Beyond the normalish body-policing/commenting relatively thin women get (where'd it all go? do you have a tapeworm? is that *all* you're eating? are you anorexic? are you sure? are you sure your sure?), I would say the only difference I've noticed is at my lowest adult weight slightly more people have asked me if I was recently ill. (Except for my grandmother, who no matter what weight I am thinks I am too fat, though that is another issue.)

Unless you are in an industry which requires skeletal thinness, I really doubt most people would even notice a 15 lb weight difference. The markers for weight seem to really, like you pointed out, be in clothing--are your clothes baggy? too tight? form-fitting? flattering? etc. I've noticed, even at my biggest, if I wear baggy pants people will ask me if I've recently lost weight.

There's also the issue that no matter how low your BMI, even if you are at a weight that almost no one would suggest you lose more, there is still the issue that your body is imperfect, and has cellulite and flabby bits that you are supposed to obsess over, and you look at airbrushed models and realize that you look nothing like them, because you have things like inner thigh fat. If you don't worry about size, then you worry about shape. If you don't have to worry about shape, then you have to worry about arm flab and inner thigh fat, and so on.

Also, on eating, I think women get conflicting messages. On the one hand, women are supposed to be "effortlessly thin," where Cameron Diaz look-alikes eat 5 cheeseburgers every night. On the other, we're supposed to be disciplined and only eat vegetables and low-fat protein, where eating a piece of pizza is "pigging out." There does seem to be a gender divide, where women are supposed to eat lots of steak around men, and only eat yogurt around other women.

Anyways, these are my incoherent thoughts.

[also, I have more to say about CCOA, but that will require more time and brainpower than I have at this moment]

Phoebe said...

Blogger "ate" so to speak my last attempt...

Isabel Archer,

"I know that I'm talking about a small n here, but it's perhaps worth it to make the world more sane about these touchy issues."

Yup. This is also why I allude to my own height/weight in the post. Not to be all, come on and judge my body, but to point out that, as a woman of 5'2", with a small build, with a set point closer to this woman's idea of "fat" than her idea of "thin enough... for now," I can shed some light on what is or is not insanity in this context. I mean, I've been living in Paris and NY, not places where anything short of obesity gets approvingly called "thin." And when I was weighed at the visa office (a required administrative step, among others...), I got an enthusiastic "bon" from the (also-small) woman who weighed me. If the Parisians are on board, I don't think my size is one a woman would be dieting to save herself from.

"I'm guessing that perhaps the Well commenter's weight loss has made her more self-confident, which is perhaps a variation of the guess that you presented in the post."

Not even a variation. That's it exactly.

"Alternative explanation: commenter is a troll trying to get a rise out of others."

Doubt it. She's not saying anything extreme or outrageous. Unfortunately - I wish what she was expressing were unusual. The high and low weights seem about right for a thinness-obsessed but not hospitalization-ready woman of that height. And the nature of this argument... I've heard it enough from women in real life who are absolutely not trying to provoke, but who really do think normal BMI=fat. This is true of many, many, many women 'of a certain age.' Depressing.

Britta,

"There does seem to be a gender divide, where women are supposed to eat lots of steak around men, and only eat yogurt around other women."

Absolutely. With men, the idea is to appear to have a boundless metabolism, suggesting that you'll stay thin forever and pass on "thin" genes to children. With women, it's to avoid seeming like a show-off, or to show solidarity in resignation to a lettucy-yogurty vision of femininity.

Britta said...

Oh, on eating, there's also the health aspect as well. I heard that there is now a new eating disorder "orthorexia," to describe people who are obsessed with only eating extremely healthy foods. In that sense, cheesecake isn't bad because its fattening, but because it is unhealthy. Conveniently, healthy foods are all very low calorie, and unhealthy foods are also fattening. I know people who would deny being weight conscious, but rather claim they are health conscious, that's why they think carrots have too many carbs, etc.

It's also interesting to think what tangible benefits size 2 women will get when they become size 0. More male attention? Judging the preferences of most heterosexual men I know, a slim woman losing weight usually detracts from her attractiveness. A job promotion? This seems unlikely unless the woman was told to lose weight for her job. More friends? Seems doubtful. Lack of feeling bad when looking at popular images in culture? Not unless losing weight also comes along with the ability to photoshop your body in real life, etc.

Beauty standards for women are mirages, where it always seems just out of reach (unless of course, it seems completely out of reach), and you think, if I could just lose 5 more lbs, or if my chin were that much smaller, or my legs were one inch longer, etc, but chances are, if you did press a button to change what you disliked, you would find something else to be dissatisfied with.

On a psychological level too, even women who are supposedly at the pinnacle of beauty are judged very harshly, so even though they might get wealthy off of their looks, psychically it's probably pretty terrible to realize if you ever leave the house without your stomach sucked in, people will claim you are pregnant, or to be told to your face that being 6 feet and a size 2 makes you look like a cow and that you should really be a size 0, etc. I imagine it's probably just as difficult as it is to be 5'2" and 115 and think, if only I could lose 5 lbs and get to my college weight.

Finally, obsession with weight and clothing size seems pretty inaccurate, since again, bone size and density can make women who look the same size weigh really different amounts, or women who have the same amount of body fat wear very different sizes.

Britta said...

Oh, and one more procrastinatory comment, I think the whole dynamic where thinner always = better life really nails it. While it is true dropping from a size 24 to a size 4 will make your life significantly easier, there comes a point of diminishing returns.

I think this ties into the concepts of "pretty privilege" and "thin privilege" that jezebel-type blogs like to talk about. I would never for one instant deny that these exist or that it doesn't result in privileges thin & pretty people received all the time but aren't aware of, but, unless you are so beautiful you get offered instant fame and fortune, being thin and/or pretty doesn't magically make your personality and life circumstances better. Size 0 women still get dumped or cheated on and worry about finding love, still get fired, still worry about jobs, still have neuroses and confidence issues and personality flaws, still worry about money and health insurance etc.

I guess my point (if I have one) is that if you want a better life, after a certain point of weight loss it seems like you should devote that time to instead improving other aspects of your life rather than on losing yet another 10 lbs.

PG said...

Phoebe,
The relationship among weight, perceived weight, tailoredness of clothes and perceived attractiveness is an interesting one. Based on personal experience, I'd say that wearing more tailored clothes definitely can create an illusion of being thinner than one looked in baggier clothes -- my family seems especially prone to this illusion. And then in most contexts, wearing tailored clothes also is socially rewarded, because you look wealthier, more professional, and yes, thinner.

Britta,
I think you're absolutely right that there's a point of diminishing marginal returns on weight loss, where the time, attention and willpower devoted to it could go to a goal that would have a higher marginal utility for the resources you give it. But you don't even have to be a size 24 for there to be significant benefits to reducing how fat you are. Size 0 women have problems that all women have, just as rich people have problems that all people have, but they don't have the problems peculiar to non-thinness/non-wealth. It's much like any other privilege discussion.

From my privileged perspective as someone living in a country where it's socially forbidden to describe darker skin as any less good than fairer skin, I find the skin-lightening obsession in much of Asia (and from what I've heard, Africa and the West Indies) to be horrifying, but I'd never claim that in those countries there aren't significant social rewards to being lighter-skinned. Sure, there's a point at which living like a vampire has diminishing marginal utility and your life will be more improved by going out in daylight than by that slight gain in fairness, but the skin-whitening products and overall advice has an audience because the benefit exists. All else being equal, you'll be more employable, marriageable, etc. if you're light than if you're dark, and in such places a few admonishments of "Dark Is Beautiful Too" will come off as patronizing.

PG said...

Oops, got sidetracked by comments from my first reaction to the post and its links, which is that I find it ludicrous for Jezebel’s Jenna Sauers to criticize someone who writes about fashion and is photographing a woman to mention how her body type might affect what clothes flatter her. I would LOVE to see more fashion blogging that implicitly acknowledges that some women's bodies aren't going to look great in whatever the latest style (leggings as pants, for example) is, and explicitly recognizes the great style of women who don't resemble runway models at all.

Phoebe said...

PG,

Will get to the rest, but first, re: your second comment - the problem with the Sartorialist's remark wasn't whether the term we are now using to describe non-waifs is "curvy," "sturdy," or "normal," nor is it that he dared mention the fact that the woman, though thin, is not fashion-industry emaciated. It's not, how dare a fashion blogger exhibit evidence of the Male Gaze.

The problem - the glaring one that many seem to miss - was that rather than present this as, these shoes work well with her legs, end of story, it was about how a woman who would be slim in any context other than the fashion industry, including just walking around NYC or Paris is too sturdy/curvy/normal to wear a more dainty shoe. Dainty shoes are, after all, the bulk of women's dress shoes, as well as a good number of casual options (ballet flats, stylish loafers, etc.). What the Sartorialist is claiming, what's so outrageous, is that you have to be stick-thin to pull off shoes that are not giant platform clunkers, which is to say, you have to be skeletal to wear 99.999999% of even stylish and expensive shoes and have it not look bad. It's an altogether extreme version of the whole 'does she have the legs for a miniskirt' question, instead of defining an out-there look as only for the few, suggesting that all but the most slender must compensate with shoes like those shown if they don't want to "overpower" their shoes.

In other words, the problem is in part that he presents a woman who is thin, who does not need to lose weight, as nevertheless too hefty to look good without wobbling in giant platforms. It's also that he defines curvy/normal/sturdy as a woman who is thin. Yes, it's Fashion, but it's street style, she's (apparently) a style blogger, and we're enough on the periphery of the industry there that the fact that the woman would be too sturdy/normal/curvy to model is irrelevant.

XB said...

This is my first time commenting, but I've been following this blog for awhile on my pal Britta's suggestion! So de-lurking to random muse on a few things in this discussion.

To some degree I'm sympathetic to the argument that there are 'marginal gains' for women of an average size trying to lose weight - but 'gains' on whose terms? It's imaginable that for lots of women, health isn't just BMI or fitting into a size 0 or even about the perceptions of other people, but is about the kind of bodily (and moral) discipline that comes with dietary restriction/exercise. Reading between the lines of some "healthy living" blogs out there, the everyday routines of weight-loss regimes can be very self-defining. So it's not just that women are mystified by the media/culture into misrecognizing what constitutes health (although that's part of it), it's also important that notions of disciplining the self can take on this particular salad-yogurty form.

Another musing: It's interesting that comments made in these types of discussions - no matter if they're of the "pro-dieting" flavor, or critical as all hell - are generally couched in some kind of first-person positioning on the health/weight scale, i.e., "I'm this and this size, or have this and this experience with weight issues, [and say from experience...]" What I'm trying to say is, there's no neutral position outside of the body/health discourse from which to comment on these issues - or, if there is, it's nearly impossible to occupy it. We all have bodies, we all have weights, and that automatically positions us somewhere on the continuum.

Thus, it seems like certain experiences with your body/weight/looks enable certain kinds of interventions into the issue. Say, if you have never self-consciously "struggled" with weight (we'll put this in scare-quotes), it's a lot easier to universalize what should be deemed appropriate limits on 'struggling' or what it means for your 'life to improve.' By the same token, comments coming from the perspective of people who have actively sought to restrict their diets - or just care, in ways that others don't seem to understand, about the minute changes in their weight - are relativized (i.e., this is a Dieter's opinion).

This is all why, no matter how critical/self-reflexive, etc. the comments, I find the weight discussion to be a snake eating its own tail. The issue isn't how to establish what is properly healthy - what the boundaries of the excessive or inadequate are - but to, duh, emancipate ourselves from the terms of the Weight Discourse altogether.

Of course, this doesn't mean denying the link between weight and health - that would not only be irrational, it'd be precisely dependent on the discourse, by reversing it. The tougher thing is parsing out and getting rid of the way health gets moralized or otherwise assigned arbitrary values - whether this is saying that fat people suck, or that the 5'2 100-lber is cuh-razy (not that anyone on this blog was doing either).

Phoebe said...

XB,

So much to respond to, from you, also more from PG and Britta. So by way of starting my response - and I will respond to more as well! - before abandoning the library for the day...

Yes, in these discussions, inevitably you get the whole 'Well me, I weigh this at that height, and so..." angle. The reason I think that angle is actually quite relevant here is, we have a woman who's a particular height describing various weights at that height and their social significance, so women of that same height (Isabel Archer, yours truly) have some anecdata, about what, more or less, these figures mean as one goes through life. (Often, conversations along these lines ignore height, referring only to weight and size, wherein 130lbs and size 8 = "so thin, you'd be crazy to think otherwise," as though all women are 5'7" and up.)

As much as it pains me to have brought about yet another size-announcing-fest, and as much as I know if this blog were Jezebel, my commenters and I would all be banished for eternity, I think in this context hearing from women who are about 5'2" about what reaction one receives at the heiferish weights closer to 115 than 100 is helpful insofar as my point is that women of these proportions are not subject to any kind of "fat stigma." If I were not this size myself, and had not been living in cities known for being especially harsh on bigger women, I probably wouldn't know that the "big" size the commenter refers to is "big" only in the commenter's imagination. I suppose I could have picked a more roundabout way of making that point, one that allowed for the possibility that my body is that of a WNBA player, but this is a case where personal experience is relevant, as Isabel Archer puts it, in figuring out what is or isn't sane. As in, it's not sane to think the world opens up for a grown-up woman of 5'2" if she goes from 115 to 100.

My point isn't that women of my size are the height (so to speak) of perfection, or on the contrary that we have a moral/feminist obligation to embrace our no doubt hideous bodies. Rather, that we do not face discrimination on account of our size, and that - as others have alluded to - the challenges we face in our lives are unrelated to our weight. This is something it kind of does take women who walk around with this kind of build to point out.

I will at some point get to the rest - what it means to "emancipate ourselves from the terms of the Weight Discourse altogether" (why that's both imperative and impossible), why the woman who has never "struggled" with her weight as good as doesn't exist, etc.

Britta said...

Well, before Phoebe responds some more, I will add YET another response.

PG
I agree with you completely. I hope it didn't sound like I was denying thin privilege, etc. I don't doubt that there are benefits that come from not only going from being morbidly obese to normal, but from being upper range normal to thinner (maybe less in terms of the "I can't get healthcare or will get booted off a plane, but in terms of social approval, definitely). I think I was trying to focus on already thin women--women who are already the "after" photo--feeling like their life will be improved with weight loss. I also know, as a thin woman myself, the admonishment that women shouldn't strive to be thinner might sound patronizing, which I hope it's not. I usually avoid these sorts of conversations for that reason--I can't really speak to what it's like to be a larger (if not large) woman in society, so I don't want to minimize or dismiss things, in the way white people saying to POCs "oh you just imagined it," is jerky and reinforces racial privilege. I think, getting at XB's point a bit, when talking about embodied experiences, it's so hard if not impossible to speak objectively, yet at the same time people do have larger opinions on the issue not tied to personal experience. I always hesitate about revealing any personal info about my appearance for that reason, but, at the same time, it is true that one's experience of the world comes from living in one's particular body, and that experience is hard to separate from how one thinks about looks, or weight, etc.

I also agree that our culture puts out such unreachable standards for women that no matter how much you conform to beauty standard/weight standard X, however thin you become, there will be someone else thinner to aspire to, and people like Karl Lagerfield, who announce that barbie has cankles, and so forth. In that sense, I don't doubt that most women get some psychological benefit to a lighter number on the scale, even if practically it has no benefits or is even counter productive (e.g. comes at the expense of muscle loss). In that sense, I completely understand why a size 4 woman, in certain situations, might feel like a total cow. I don't think it's irrational, at really almost any weight, for a woman to feel pressure to lose weight. (Even a size 0 woman who is not 5'10" will feel "fat" in comparison to models) I do think though, that there is a point where it's productive or maybe even necessary to tune out media and to look objectively in the mirror.
Also, I don't think I expressed this clearly, but people seem to use concrete measures as a stand-in for not just their thinner self, but their better perfect self, which I think a delusion. A size 0 version of a currently size 2 woman is merely thinner, not prettier, smarter, more successful, or even necessarily more confident. I feel like in pop culture size 0 gets bandied around like a magic unicorn size, where if you can arrive there you have unlocked the secret key of (body) perfection. I guess the reason why I identified my size, was that I wanted to communicate that "size 0" as people speak of it is primarily a fantasy, and chances are they won't look or feel the way they imagine if they did reach that size. Also, aside from psychological benefits, if an already thin woman reaches size 0 and does feel like she's reached body nirvana, there's the question of what it practically does to someone's life. Unless you also happen to be 6 feet tall and 15, you are not going to be asked to be a model, and chances are your size will go unnoticed by anyone but you or maybe a few female friends. In that case, you have to balance continuing dieting for your own personal sense of worth vs. doing other things with your time.

(ok, that's not all addressed just to PG, it kind of started off there and then meandered off. Also, sorry for writing a novel on your blog!)

Phoebe said...

OK, an attempt at addressing the rest...

Britta, you first (3 most recent comments - and keep the serialized novel coming!):

Yes, "orthorexia." That, and veganism supposedly about health or ethics that's really a way of restricting intake, health problems that conveniently allow a new wardrobe of tiny and expensive clothes... Women are supposed to be always on some kind of a diet, yet it's considered lowbrow or embarrassing for a certain high-socioeconomic-status, well-educated, "serious" woman to care about such matters. So while Jane Next Door will admit to feeling gross after eating a pint of frozen yogurt, her upscale equivalent will refuse a candy bar because she's concerned about how industrialized and un-France-like our food system is.

"I guess my point (if I have one) is that if you want a better life, after a certain point of weight loss it seems like you should devote that time to instead improving other aspects of your life rather than on losing yet another 10 lbs."

This is the classic thing about anorexia being about control, because life in all its complexity is harder to sort out than are calorie counts. Heck, even if we remove the "other aspects of your life" aspect (controlling weight because work and romance are too tough, say) and stick to the question of physical appearance, it's a whole lot easier to lose weight than to wake up with an entirely different face, height, skin color, hair texture, etc. It also comes from, as you (?) discussed in comments to a different post, the fact that we associate extreme thinness with models and actresses, as though an average-looking woman who loses weight would become not a thinner average-looking woman, but Gwyneth Paltrow.

"I usually avoid these sorts of conversations for that reason--I can't really speak to what it's like to be a larger (if not large) woman in society"

But this is precisely the value of women who are thin but are not/could not be models entering this particular discussion. The point isn't to speak for women who are the victims of fat being stigmatized. It's to point out that the nuttiness around already-thin women's weight is not about that issue, except in a twisted way, with thin women imagining one pound gained could be the first of a hundred. There is on the one hand a real concern faced by some women, on the other a neurotic one held by others.

Britta said...

Yeah, something that I've been thinking about (which I will expound in detail on your blog. I hope I get paid by the word! ;), from your blog and other things floating around the internet, is the way people break down something nebulous like "beauty" into a series of discrete traits in a beauty taxonomy, and then imagine that beauty is a sum of those parts. I think like you say about calories, in that sense, instead of thinking "I want to be beautiful" you can think, I want X nose shape, and Y cheek bones, and Z hair color, which seems more manageable. Of course, someone can have all those and not be beautiful, or have none of those, and be beautiful. Also, it's not like getting on of those traits necessarily makes you X% more beautiful than you were before.

Like, pretty much everyone who has to describe Liz Taylor's beauty mentions her violet eyes and long eyelashes. However, if, say, I were to wake up tomorrow with her eyes and eyelashes, I still wouldn't be as beautiful as Liz Taylor, because beauty doesn't come in easily measurable quantities (not that European scientists haven't tried!)

(note: I think it is absolutely true that standards of beauty in the US and Europe are tied to a certain racial and class ideals, and in that sense if you do have the "right" collection of individual beautiful traits you will probably be attractive or respectable enough, not to mention receive certain privileges, but you won't necessarily be "beautiful" )

Phoebe said...

PG, first comment:

I think you and Britta are right that clothing fit impacts how size is perceived, but that actually wasn't where I was going when I suggested that the newly-100-lbs woman was perhaps now wearing tighter pants. It was just that men will turn their heads for virtually any woman in tight pants, size 0, size 20, whatever. (If there's a size at which women in tight clothes no longer receive this, it's well over what BMI would call "overweight"; if there's an age limit, it's well over the various ages at which women are presumed "past it.") There are cultural variations in whether the head-turn is subtle or obvious, whether it's accompanied by remarks or whistles, but the head-turn for tight pants (also: miniskirts) itself is universal.

Phoebe said...

XB, what I didn't get to earlier:

"It's imaginable that for lots of women, health isn't just BMI or fitting into a size 0 or even about the perceptions of other people, but is about the kind of bodily (and moral) discipline that comes with dietary restriction/exercise."

Precisely! Same as "beauty" is often less about the end result than the fact of having gone to the hair and nail salons, etc. It's about participating in what are often social (or at least socialized) activities of female physical maintenance/improvement.

"Say, if you have never self-consciously 'struggled' with weight (we'll put this in scare-quotes), it's a lot easier to universalize what should be deemed appropriate limits on 'struggling' or what it means for your 'life to improve.'"

Find me the woman in our society who has never gone through a phase of fixation on thighs, salad, etc. If actual eating disorders are uncommon, disordered eating is standard for women, and not just upper-class ones. It's if anything the choice some women make to opt out that's done self-consciously.

"The issue isn't how to establish what is properly healthy - what the boundaries of the excessive or inadequate are - but to, duh, emancipate ourselves from the terms of the Weight Discourse altogether. Of course, this doesn't mean denying the link between weight and health [...]"

You've hit upon the problem. A declaration that women should stop the salad-yogurt nonsense and eat normally fails because what's "normal" and because there really are negative consequences - health, social, professional - for women in particular who are heavy. I'm very much in favor of don't-worry-about-it for women for whom weight is not a real concern, but at the same time I know that if even an always-slim woman truly ignored nutrition, this would not only be unhealthy nutritionally, but could mean that one day her metabolism won't keep up and she too would be subject to the fat stigma. There's no not worrying, but at the same time, there's worrying much, much less than is standard.

"The tougher thing is parsing out and getting rid of the way health gets moralized or otherwise assigned arbitrary values - whether this is saying that fat people suck, or that the 5'2 100-lber is cuh-razy (not that anyone on this blog was doing either)."

I don't see how it's wrong to claim that the views expressed by the 100lb commenter are "cuh-razy." There's nothing inherently crazy about having her height and weight. It's the views she expressed, which were, well, insane. Partly her own insanity, and partly societal insanity that this woman had absorbed. But yes, to think the world's your oyster at 5'2" and 100 lbs but not 115 is truly, truly nuts, unless, again, you're assembled in such a way that all the weight goes to one very obvious spot, such as a double chin.

Phoebe said...

Britta,

"the way people break down something nebulous like "beauty" into a series of discrete traits in a beauty taxonomy, and then imagine that beauty is a sum of those parts."

That's certainly what funds the plastic surgery industry. It's interesting both that each part "fixed" does not amount to a beautiful whole, and that when you go somewhere where most are naturally "right" feature by feature, coloring-wise, etc., most Northern Europeans, Midwesterners of Nordic origin, etc. do not actually resemble supermodels. This, idiotic I know, surprised me when I first moved to Chicago. I'd assumed "blond" "blue-eyed" and "small-nosed" added up to Claudia Schiffer. Seems not.