Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Told you so...

Remember when I said that the nontroversy over Wanda Sykes' performance at the Washington Correspondents' Association dinner was more about who gets to say what about whom? Well, Christopher Hitchens, noted gin-soaked gasbag and contributor to Slate and Vanity Fair, has confirmed my suspicions. New York magazine quotes Hitchens on Sykes:
You stay classy, Mr. Hitchens.

The fat and the disgusting

I don't like the media's obsession with weight and the supposed flaws in women's bodies. I avoid discussions of who's too fat and who's too skinny on What Tami Said. But actress Kirstie Alley has made her weight the primary topic of conversation on her self-flagellation media tour that included stops on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and the cover of People magazine. And it makes me angry. Not so much at Alley. I have empathy for her. From her recent interviews, the actress seems to be someone uncomfortable in her own skin, someone whose self-worth is tied up in how close she is to 128 pounds. I'm sure it does not help that Ms. Alley is part of a profession that discards women who have the gall to 1) grow past a size 2, or 2) age past 30. I'm not sure I'd have the emotional backbone to live and work in Hollywood. I am more angry with the media, specifically People magazine, who allowed Alley to pour her neuroses and self-hatred into this week's cover story.

Kirstie Alley always seemed to me like the kind of brassy, ballsy gal who would be fun to hang with. Gotta love a woman who marries a Hardy Boy and thanks him for "giving her the big one" during an Emmy acceptance speech. I was happy when the actress publicly owned her weight gain and didn't shy away from using the word "fat," but disappointed to learn what Alley thinks being fat means, which is a version of the tired meme of big girl as sad, self-deprecating, dowdy, sexless, friendless and out-of-control. Oh, and add "butt of the joke" to that. Her "Fat Actress" TV series was far less groundbreaking than I hoped it would be. Author Jennifer Weiner explains my dismay very well:

"A show like this has the potential to be successful for all of the wrong reasons," Weiner believes. "There's a good chance of missing the larger message: that there are 65 million women above a size 14 in this country who are not self-loathing and not objects of jokes and shtick."

And Ray Richmond of The Hollywood Reporter, while critiquing "Fat Actress," also highlights why I find this week's People article so disturbing:

The fact that Showtime would exploit — and enable the self-ridicule — of a woman so obviously insecure, needy and vulnerable is shameful but hardly surprising. It's what television does.

Reading the People piece was uncomfortable and troubling. Alley lays bare her hatred for her fat self:

"[The scale] said 228 lbs., which is my highest weight ever. I was so much more disgusting than I thought."

"I'm totally inhibited. When I'm overweight I will not go out. With my closest friends, yeah. But you wouldn't see me at a premiere."
"I don't know what you're supposed to wear when you're fat," says Alley, who rotates 12 identical Target dresses.
"I haven't been having sex." (In the past, Alley has claimed that she avoids "fat sex." But in the People article, she claims she would hook up with Jamie Foxx who she believes "would understand a full-figured woman." Incidentally, in her show Fat Actress, Alley once aimed to hook up with a black guy with the reasoning that black guys like fat women. Considering how disgusting Alley finds fat women, there is a lot you can parse out of her thinking about black men as make-do romantic partners and the desireability of black women.)

The article predictably recounts tales of butter-laden feasts and sugar binges, and then provides a pictorial of Alley at various weights overlaid with the actress' comments about her body. A 1999 image of a seemingly lithe Alley gets the response, "I weighed 148--was fat!" Another reads, "The thighs! I probably weighed 170." A rear shot of Alley at her heaviest is labled "Hideous!"

Would several pages of a woman labeling herself "disgusting" and "hideous" constitute an acceptable cover story for a major magazine if the topic was anything but fat? No, I think people would find Alley's self-loathing as tragic as I do if she struggled with alcohol or drug addiction or anorexia, or if her disgust was prompted by her skin color or a larger-than-average nose or some other physical characteristic. But our society, which oddly associates morality with thinness ("I was bad today. I had dessert with lunch.), thinks that it is right and good that people who are overweight (particularly women) hate themselves. Despite all evidence to the contrary (like the fact that the average American woman wears a 14), we are very invested in the idea of the pitiful fatty. It only makes sense that Alley gets the People cover and not Emme or Monique or Jill Scott or Kathy Najimy or any of the other women who, fat or no, seem to get on with the business of living (including romance and fashion, etc.), rather than wallowing in self-loathing.

Celebrity magazines enjoy two narratives about weight: The Carnie Wilson/Ricki Lake-type "I was so so fat and it was so awful, but now I'm thin and fabulous and can live a full life," or the Alleyesque "I was once thin and now I am fat and it is so awful." Neither of these narratives resemble the lives of the women I know who wear sizes larger than 14. Whether or not they would prefer to fit into size 6 jeans, they live full and active lives and would never, ever label themselves "disgusting" for carrying a little extra junk in the trunk. Life, after all, is about much more than weight.

Here's a message that you won't see in celebrity weight profiles: the reality that the diet mindset doesn't work--the measuring, the shaming, the labeling of benign foods as "good" or "bad" is a recipe for relapse (which is good for the diet industry, because after folks like Alley fall off the wagon, they inevitably come back for more books, prepared meals and pricey counseling). There was no room in the People article or Alley's "Oprah" interview for criticism of Jenny Craig (Alley's former employer). The actress carried all the scorn for lacking sufficient willpower. And that's a shame. Because fatness is less our society's problem than our disordered, contradictory and unnatural relationship with food.

You know what I wish?

I wish peace for Kirstie Alley. It is not good for the soul to think yourself "disgusting" and to make yourself the object of ridicule.

And I wish that we all--especially we 62 million women who wear a size 14 and up--would get wise to plot to make us feel bad about ourselves. People who find themselves "hideous" make great consumers. Think of all the books and magazines and diets and potions and plastic surgery and spa treatments and hair weave and clothes and gadgets a person might buy in order to "fix" what is wrong with them. There is something disgusting afoot...but it ain't Kirstie Alley.

P.S.: Spare me the comments about fat and health and obesity epidemics. It is true that Americans have bad habits, including overeating, poor nutrition and sedentary living, that can lead to overweight and chronic illness. The foe is not fat but the lifestyle that may (or may not) lead to it. Much can be achieved by encouraging people to listen to hunger cues, moderate portions, eat mostly whole foods and exercise. Nothing is achieved by fat shaming and fat hatred. It is also true that weight is not a reliable determinant of health. It is possible to be overweight with excellent blood work and an active lifestyle; folks just come in all shapes and sizes. Very often we confuse health with compliance to the latest physical aesthetic--one that is unnatural to most.
P.P.S. I wanted to add my response to an Anonymous commenter here to clarify my thoughts on this:
Understand, I am not claiming that All heavy women are happy to be heavy and want to stay that way. And I am well aware that society does not afford large women the same things that it affords the thin.

I have long struggled with my weight. I am an emotional eater, prone to picking up something low nutrition/high calorie when bored, sad, angry, happy, etc. I am working on that. I am also constantly struggling to make wise food choices and to keep my body moving.

At the same time, I think my life amounts to more than numbers on a scale. I have days when I feel disappointed because I didn't get in any exercise or because I've eaten too much fast food. But those failings don't make me "disgusting" or unworthy of love or cute clothes or any of life's other goodies. I am still good at my job. I am a good friend. I am a writer. I have interests. I have people who love me. I have romance and, yeah, sex.

We only judge women this way--making eveything about them about their bodies. Think of all the male actors who are larger than the ideal. Will you ever see a cover story on John Travolta or Cedric the Entertainer talking about how fat and unloveable and worthless they are? How they cannot leave the house or dress nicely because of their weight? I think not.


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