Wednesday, November 10, 2010

When fat meets black and female on the TV screen

Last week, I had the opportunity to interview Jennifer Pozner about her new book Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV [Seal Press, 2010]. As a fan of Jennifer's feminist activism and her work in media literacy and, yes, (hangs head in shame) a watcher of trashtastic reality television (Come on! Who can resist Real Housewives of Atlanta?), it was exciting to dig into how reality programming affects our behavior, our culture and our beliefs, including those about race and women.

I am working on in-depth posts about the book for my blogs at Psychology Today and Love Isn't Enough. I'll post them here, too. In the meantime, Jennifer was kind enough t
o share an excerpt of the book--a chapter on Toccara Jones' appearance on America's Next Top Model--for What Tami Said readers. (See below)

I watched Toccara as a contestant on Tyra Banks' America's Next Top Model (back when I could still stomach ANTM and Ty-Ty's megalomania). And I liked her. I liked that she looked like me. (Okay, not like me exactly. But like me in that she is a black woman with big hair and a big body. She is unmistakably beautiful--she knew it and wanted other folks to know it, too.) I also liked that Toccara was outgoing and confident. Most of all, though, I admired her comfort in her skin and body. Isn't that what we want all women and girls to do--love themselves?

Maybe not.

Over eight weeks, Tyra and Co. set out to teach Toccara that it was not okay to love her zaftig body. This, I suppose, should be no surprise on a show centered in the modeling industry.
But there was something else. That Toccara was not just a big woman, but a big, BLACK woman on a show devoted to upholding prevailing Eurocentric standards of beauty and femininity, gave her treatment a different edge. Seeing Toccara dressed in the dungarees and button-down shirt of a mechanic at a photo shoot where her competitors--the thinner, mostly-white women--were made glamorous and extra-feminine, recalls an ugly hierarchy of female beauty where women of color always wind up at the bottom. And judge Janice Dickinson referring to Toccara as "it"? Well, 'nough said. And all this during a season where other black women-- ultimate winner Eva Pigford and also-ran "Ya-Ya" DaCosta-- were given the "black bitch" and "uppity black bitch" edit respectively.

In her book, Jennifer Pozner chronicles the messages delivered by sho
ws like America's Next Top Model. She illuminates the "why" behind biased and drama-laden shows (Hint: $$). Most helpful of all, she offers exercises we can do to make sure when we get our RHOA on, we do so critically. Anyone interested in the intersection of "isms" and pop culture needs to pick up a copy of Jennifer's new book. In the meantime...

Excerpt from Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV

Toccara’s Story: When Weight and Ethnicity Meet on Top Model

[America’s Next Top Model] Fan-favorite Toccara Jones literally ran into her cycle 3 audition bursting with humor, energy, and pride. “I’m Toccara, and I’m big, Black, beautiful, and loving it!” she told the judges with a snap. On her home video, she said she wanted “to encourage full-figured women to appreciate their bodies and know that they’re beautiful.” With evocative eyes, bold curves, and personality to match, Toccara was a rare exception: a Top Model contestant who actually fit her “plus-size” label, complete with a natural 38DDD bust that actually respected the laws of gravity. In a bathing suit at a pool party for semifinalists, the 5'9" pinup-in-the-making announced that if the show was looking for “something juicy, then here I am. I’m 180 pounds, and I’m carrying it well, and I’m loving it,” she laughed. “They shouldn’t be scared. Don’t be scared, America!”

The audience wasn’t scared at all—they were enthralled. Viewers voted her “CoverGirl of the Week” four times in a row (including the episode in which she was eliminated). It’s likely that fans appreciated Toccara not only for her great looks and vivacious attitude, but for her uncompromising faith in herself. In a sea of frail waifs obsessing over nonexistent “flab” on their washboard stomachs, here, finally, was a woman who felt at home in her own skin. “I love myself. I love my shape. I love my curves,” she declared. “Some people think that America’s not ‘ready’ for a plus-size model. I’m here to break that norm. I’m gonna be the first Black plus-size model to be on the cover of twenty magazines!” She believed in her beauty, and it was hard to watch her and not share in that belief. Even her railthin competitors were envious. “I wish I was more like Toccara. She’s fabulous. She has a confidence in herself,” mused skinny, nineteen-year-old Norelle.

No plus-size model on ANTM has had a fraction of Toccara’s sexy swagger or posing talent (not even winner Whitney Thompson, whose performance was sometimes lackluster, but whose blond hair and white skin made her a “safe” choice to grace the cover of show sponsor Seventeen). Judge Nolé Marin glowed about her progress: “She photographs absolutely amazing week after week.” Studying the proofs of her topless pose for Lee One True Fit jeans, photo shoot director Jay Manuel (Mr. J) raved, “Toccara looks so perfect!” A wardrobe assistant agreed: “Not even one bad picture.” She performed consistently well even when she was set up to fail. Producers often didn’t provide clothing in her size. There were no bras to fit her and only a medium-size robe when the girls had to become living lingerie mannequins in a La Perla store window. When her competitors wore gorgeous designer gowns and fantasy getups such as “glamazon” or “seventeenthcentury courtesan” for a Ford photo shoot, Toccara was thrown into the frumpy button-down shirt and slacks of a parking garage attendant. She knew the deal, and she wasn’t having it. “I wanna know why all the girls were so nice looking and here I am looking like I work at Home Depot?” she asked the wardrobe director. As if a size 14 dress is as elusive as a unicorn, the snotty stylist barked back, “Do you think I’m going to be able get a rack . . . loaded with clothes in your size?”

Toccara refused to take the blame for the stylist’s lazy approach to her job. “You can’t find something in my size, so I’m supposed to feel bad?”

Yes, unfortunately. On ANTM and similar series, plus-size models are set up for psychological manipulation. Off the bat, Tyra makes sure to say during each audition episode that she’s casting the plus-size girl for “her personality” and “her strength” (i.e., not for her looks), and that she’ll have to be “better than” the “normal” girls. The few Rubenesque hopefuls who make the cut handle the first rounds of fire with confidence and aplomb, eventually falling apart after being systematically ripped to shreds by judges, photographers, designers, and marketing execs. This deliberation about Toccara is typical:

JUDGE JANICE DICKINSON: The car looks better than she does. If the body could just slim down 150 pounds, that would be good.

TYRA BANKS: Then she’d be 30 pounds.

DICKINSON: That would be better.

DESIGNER AND GUEST JUDGE MARC BOUWER: She’s not America’s Next Top Model. It’s ludicrous to think that she would be.

JANICE: It will never be top model.

Eventually, this separate-and-unequal treatment finally began to crack her armor. “I’m just trying to stay positive, but it’s hard . . . it hurts,” Toccara cried on a friend’s shoulder after the Ford shoot. This was the first moment of weakness she showed in seven weeks (unlike most tearful ANTM contestants). She admitted that they “made me feel so bad and ashamed.” That week, she landed in the bottom two for the first time. She took it in stride. “I never let it break my spirit,” she said the following week. And that’s precisely why they sent her home at the end of the episode (she certainly hadn’t “lost her drive” or
“checked out,” as Tyra claimed).

Toccara’s self-confident truth ran counter to Top Model’s script for plus-size participants, who are set up to be broken down. Once they become sufficiently self-loathing, they are eliminated—supposedly for “losing their fire” or not believing in themselves enough. Underneath these bogus clichés, the judges mean, “We worked as hard as we could to erode your self-esteem, and now that you’ve finally internalized our nagging voices: sayonara, sister!”

This didn’t work on Toccara. But producers held true to their alternative reality and, through Selective Editing Theater, led viewers to believe she was ousted because she had “become a ghost of her original self.”

Try as they might, Top Model didn’t break Toccara. Instead, she has been one of the series’ most successful alums. Between 2005 and 2009 she signed with the prestigious Wilhelmina agency, graced the covers of numerous women’s and men’s magazines, and has appeared in Vogue Italia, Ebony, Essence, Vibe, and Smooth. She walked runways for BET, Hot 97, Alice & Olivia, and others. High profile companies such as Target, Avon, Torrid, and Rocawear have hired her; Hennessy made her one of six celebrity “brand ambassadors.” She shares a manager with hip-hop stars Missy Elliott and 50 Cent, and has been a correspondent and cohost on three BET shows and had cameos on the UPN sitcoms Girlfriends and All of Us.

To the rest of the mainstream media, Toccara is recognized as one of the most successful African American plus-size models working today. To reality TV producers, she’s just a fat Black girl who needs to lose weight. In 2005 and 2008, VH1 paid her to join the casts of VH1’s Celebrity Fit Club and Celebrity Fit Club: Boot Camp. (Modeling jobs are fewer and further between for women of color— and for plus-size models of any ethnicity—than for white women size 2 and under, which may explain why she accepted.) She worked hard and lost thirty two pounds, but the cover girl was badgered by made-for-prime-time “therapists” and doctors who refused to believe she felt beautiful, framing her self-acceptance as “dysfunctional” “denial.”

During one of my favorite moments from a decade’s worth of reality programming,
Toccara finally lost her cool and told off Celebrity Fit Club’s bullying panel. “All of y’all can kiss my ass if y’all don’t like the fact that I like who the fuck I am,” she screamed. “You’re making people in real life think that I’m dysfunctional. This,” she said, gesturing at her hourglass figure, “is not dysfunctional. I look good!” When her cast members tried to calm her down, she yelled, “I bust my butt every week, but they don’t see that. All they see is the fact that I say I love myself. That’s an issue? That’s an issue?” The show portrayed her outburst as a rant from an out-of-control diva who needed to “have some class.” In reality, it was righteous rage at the idea that anyone overweight should hate themselves—and at the stacked deck orchestrated to enforce that principle.


Victoria Snelling said...

This book is on my wish list and having just read that extract, I think I might get it sooner rather than later. Thanks for posting this.

Laura(southernxyl) said...

JUDGE JANICE DICKINSON: The car looks better than she does. If the body could just slim down 150 pounds, that would be good.

TYRA BANKS: Then she’d be 30 pounds.

DICKINSON: That would be better.

I don't watch TV and this kind of thing is why.

I have had some conversations with my "skinny white girl" daughter (5'4" and 120 pounds, maybe) who has told me with real dismay that her stomach sticks out.

I've not tried to reassure her that she's not fat. Because being fat, or not being fat, isn't the problem. She has fat friends and family members whom she loves. That isn't it.

It's that women aren't supposed to take up space in the world. You're morally superior if you take up less room than other people. Vanish into nothing; that's better, as that stupid judge says.

So what I told her was: you are entitled to every cubic millimeter of space you take up. You are entitled to every molecule of oxygen you breathe. Don't shrink up! Expand! Take up room! (throwing my arms out). She laughed but it did seem to help.

I think I've seen studies about black girls' self esteem being less tied to their weight and so forth than white girls' are. I had a dear friend back in Memphis who was as you describe Toccara Jones. She was black and large and absolutely beautiful. She knew it and everybody else knew it too. I wish I knew where all the body image crap comes from. It's ridiculous.

Lady C said...

I do not watch reality tv, because there is no real in reality.

Tasha Shaffer said...

It's sad that people put others down because they are miserable over their weight and self esteem. Popular culture has made it that way. Women are supposed to see themselves as sexy skinny models and if they don't then there is something wrong with them. Men are also meant to see women as toothpicks. Why is this so ingrained in so many people's eyes? Hurray for people like Toccara Jones.

I believe that "larger' women are starting to appear more on television. Movies such as Hairspray and Precious. But as far as racism comes, I wonder if that will ever go away? I wish it would!

Susan said...

Reality TV has become all about the pretty skinny white girl. America's Next Top Model only brings this out more with the way the judges treated Toccara Jones. I completely agree with the way she acted during Celebrity Fit Club. For the therapists to tell her that she is dysfunctional because she loved the way she looked. It was perfectly acceptable for her to have an outburst. Personally I think she had become a great role model for girls of any size by having such confidence about her body image. There aren't enough of these role models that have this same loving image of themselves that Toccara Jones has throughout all of her media appearances.

Kjen said...

I remember watching that season of ANTM. I loved Tocarra but I remember agreeing with the judges> I didn't think about all of the weeks/days? she had to endure the same criticisms.
But I think that Tocarra's 'storyline' was also an accepted narrative arc i.e. bring in someone who doesn't fit typical beauty standards, praise them initially, then constantly remind them that their uniqueness is a deficiency. This is especially pronounced when it comes to weight and Black women nowadays.
In recent news stories, I've noticed the talk about Black women and obesity seems to come from the angle that Black women just don't seem to know that they are fat, so if we can just point it out to them they'll jump on the bandwagon of needing to diet until they're model size.

brownstocking said...

1) I squeed when I met Jennifer at NWSA, and am reading her book now.

2) Thank you! I loved ANTM and Toccarra, but as soon as she got booted off, I was done with the entire series because that chick was BAD! I loved her self-love, because she, too, is me in a way.

I don't have her level of confidence, I'm getting it bit by bit, but I wish Toccarra all the best, and hope she grows from all of her experiences!

ChyennePeppa said...

Does anybody besides Janice Dickinson like Janice Dickinson? She's always rude about thicker or plus-sized woman. I think she's projecting her own insecurities and body issues onto these women.

How would they call her accepting herself dysfunctional? What many weight-crazy people would love for women like Toccara to do is hate themselves. Today's methods of losing weight hasn't changed in decades. Hate yourself, that'll drive you to lose weight-or kill yourself. It's bad enough that some people get hated on because of their body size, but now you have the media and society,after all these years,still saying that it is a requirement to hate yourself in order to lose a couple of pounds. Requiring someone to hate themselves is a dysfunction on YOUR part. Labeling someone loving themselves as having a dysfunction is ridiculous.

NewNaturalista said...

First off, I'm SO happy I found your blog! It's amazing, I'm bookmarking it as we speak. (Thanks for including me in your blogroll, I'm honored.)

I'm not surprised at Toccara's issues. As cheap as Tyra's reality show feels, I applaud her for pushing the envelope.

Through this show she is exposing what we long suspected about the fashion industry. I think it will and has in some small way changed perceptions. I don't think the fashion industry will change anytime soon, but at least they're having the discussion.

Toccarra btw is absolutely stunning. She's not just pretty for a big girl, she's BEAUTIFUL period.


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