What if O stands for “Overwhelming body hatred”? (Reflections on the January cover of O: The Oprah Magazine)

O January Cover

O January Cover

As you can see above, the January 2009 cover of O features two different pictures of Oprah. On the left, Oprah is aglow. Dressed all in white, she exudes confident joy. On the right, a more quizzical, frustrated, and fuller Oprah dons a purple tracksuit. With her right hand, she indicates her “better” self, with her left,  she points to the question emblazoned across the cover “How did I let this happen again?”

A close-reading of this cover might question how the use of color perpetuates the notion that white is superior. The good white Oprah (or the thin Oprah, all in white with pearly whites blazing) is contrasted to the bad purple Oprah – that color Alice Walker so famously associates with womanism AND with blackness.*

The copy is telling as well, noting that “Oprah on her battle with weight” is “a must-read for anyone who’s ever fallen off the wagon.” Wow, weight as a battle and eating as an addiction akin to alcoholism all in one subtitle! And, in the left corner, “MAKING WEIGHT LOSS STICK” uses capital letters, indicating this is a directive, a must, something VERY important…

I admit to subscribing to the O magazine on and off since its launch. I like many aspects of the magazine- the book reviews, the emphasis on meaty copy rather than fluff, the coverage of global issues. Others I am not so fond of. For example, the “O List,” or those “must -haves,” many of which you would have to be a millionaire to purchase.  As this list indicates, the magazine suffers from rather pervasive class-blindness. Another aspect of the magazine I don’t like is its continual perpetuation of body hating messages that are all prettily wrapped up in a “love yourself” disguise.

This month’s cover, though, is perhaps the first one I will have to hide from my children’s eyes. I do not want them viewing this image, which screams that the “fat Oprah” is a failure. I don’t want them reading the copy that indicates one MUST be “Making Weight Loss Stick” by following a “simple plan.” I do not want them associating the color purple (Oprah, how could you?!?!?) with regret.

One thing I have liked about O in the past is that each month a black woman is on the cover – yes, it is Oprah, and yes, she is the magazine proprietor – but I still like the fact that a powerful, successful, brilliant, radiant black woman is on the cover each month. Having O decorating our coffee table along with Ms., New Moon, and The Nation conveys to my kids (I hope) that magazine covers are not only for thin white sexually objectified women.

Alas, this month’s issue of O will not be given a place on the table- it will hide away in a drawer, to be furtively read in preparation for further posts on Oprah’s “failure” to escape the body hating industrial complex, that prison house in which MOST of us dwell…

(As an aside, my nine-year-old daughter did see this cover and immediately tsked-tsked “That is so stupid mom. Why does she care so much about what she weighs?” Ah, these are the moments that melt a feminist mother’s heart.)

* See In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983).

(For an excellent post addressing  Oprah’s failure to make peace with her body, read Kate Harding’s “Dear Oprah” piece here. )

Published in: on January 27, 2009 at 1:41 pm  Comments (6)  

What if Bush has morphed into an incurable STI?

(The “What if you could buy social justice” series will continue after the New Year. For your holiday pleasure, there will be some more “festive” posts for the next few weeks.)

While you might have thought you could rid yourself of Bush this January, it seems that he cannot be gotten rid of easily. Rather, like an incurable STI, he cannot be completely eliminated but keeps causing different symptoms in the body politic, symptoms that will continue once he vacates the oval office, symptoms that will effect  the US body for years to come, unless, that is, Obama and co. can “cure” the festering sores left by GW…

The most recent flare-up of the Bush Virus will cause all sorts of symptoms in the reproductive organs of the populace.  Allowing ANYONE employed in the arena of healthcare to refuse services based on a “right of conscience,” this ruling will lead to more unplanned pregnancies, more STI’s, less prenatal care, less healthcare for society’s ‘others’ – those with STIs, those in poverty, those who are not of the ‘idealized norm’ and may have, gasp, HIV and non-white skin.

Work at Wal-Mart but don’t like people doing the nasty? Refuse to dispense birth control! Work as a receptionist making appointments for patients but think “every child is a gift from God”? Refuse to give appointments to those abortion-seeking heathens! Work as a nurse at a school and don’t think kids should learn ANYTHING about sex except to ABSTAIN? Refuse to give reproductive health information to students!

The great thing about this 127-page ruling is that it will GIVE to everyone – not just women. While much commentary rightly focuses on how this is another knife in the back to the female populace, it is also a knife in the back (or groin) to ALL peoples as it will exacerbate STIs, unplanned pregnancies, and, yeah! it can even spread the virus of poverty further! Ensuring that those who can’t “shop around” for needed healthcare, it also ensures that those who already have the shit end of the stick will be given even more crap to deal with. Can’t afford healthcare or groceries? Well, guess what, now you can’t get your birth control prescription filled either, so hear is another glorious mouth to feed to help you and your future generations stay down in the poverty quicksand.

As Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL pro-choice America, puts it, “This horrible eleventh-hour rule is a reminder that even though Bush is on his way out the door, his anti-choice legacy will continue to harm women’s health and privacy.” Yes, even though he is on his way out the door, he is leaving women (and men) with a gift that will keep on giving, kind of like herpes.

P.S. For coverage of this issue on the Rachel Maddow show, see the video link at Blog for Choice here: http://www.blogforchoice.com/archives/2008/12/rachel-maddow-o.html

What if F-words (fat and feminist) were stripped of their negativity? A review of Bolt

My daughter and I went to see Bolt last night. Probably my favorite thing about the film was the representation of Penny’s mother. She was fat. But, her fatness was not focused on, it was not used to characterize her, it was not used as code for “she is dumb.” Rather, it was represented as normal, as average, as not having anything to do with what type of woman or parent she was. She was a nice character who played a very small role in the film, yet this representation of fatness as something NORMAL, as just another body type, is HUGE as it so rarely happens.

Usually fat is used to indicate a character is dumb, funny, evil, lazy, gluttonous, and/or diseased. Often the fatness of the character becomes the primary focus – they are seen as fat first, and as human second, it at all. Fat is used as a sight gag in many movies – so much so that fat bodies themselves create an expectation of humor. If you are fat and not funny, you are breaking expectations.

Many films have done “fat-face” (akin to black-face and yellow-face). Fat face is like the ‘lookist’ equivalent of the racist tradition of black/yellow-face. Yet, when actors like Gwyneth Paltrow, Edie Murphy, and Tyler Perry don fat suits for laughs, it is seen as funny – rather than discriminatory.

Thus, Bolt broke relatively un-trod ground in its depiction of fat as normal. Imagine if the majority of films and television shows gave us this “fat is normal” message; imagine how this could change the body hatred that has become widespread in the US. Imagine too how it would hurt the sales of the multi-billion dollar diet/fitness/surgical industry that seeks to make us all – fat, thin, short, tall, hairy, bald – find fault with our bodies.

This “love yourself as your are” message fit in with the grander narrative of the film – Bolt learns to like himself despite the fact he is not the super-dog he though he was. We would do well as a culture to learn this same lesson.

My second favorite thing about the film was the representation of Penny. She is brave, heroic, independent, and caring, or, as one review refers to her, she is “fully equipped with the habitual spunk of a Disney New Feminist.” Her lightening speed scooter riding skills are Bond-worthy and, for once, we have a chase scene where the female is neither sexualized nor incompetent.

While in the TV show she and Bolt star in, he is her repeated savior, in real-life, the two are equally heroic – Penny for her refusal to give up when Bolt is lost as well as for standing up to her evil studio boss, and Bolt for his refusal to give up the hope of returning home to Penny. While the end of the film involves Bolt saving Penny from a burning building (in typical male must save female narrative style), it is ultimately Penny’s mother who saves them both by realizing that the Hollywood life is not a good place for dogs or girls.

Thus, while the film does not shout it’s pro-feminist, pro-fat message loud and proud, it certainly goes a lot further than the likes of Wall-e or Kung Fu Panda in putting strong females front and center, and, in the case of Penny’s mother, stripping the fat body of its negativity. For these reasons, as well as for the wise female feline Mittens and the sly debunking of masculinized fan-culture in the character of Rhino the hamster, the film is worth a watch. And, as someone who has never managed to stay awake through a Bond movie (so repetitive, so yawningly macho, so tediously sexist), I would recommend it over Quantum of Solace any day

Published in: on December 1, 2008 at 11:37 am  Comments (10)  
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What if every day was “Love Your Body Day”?


Can you remember a time when you felt completely at home in your body? When you looked at your reflection and saw no ‘imperfections’ or areas that needed ‘fixing’? When you loved each and every inch of your mortal coil? When you frolicked around with not a body care in the world – perhaps say, on the beach with no concern for whether your bathing suit was ‘flattering’ to your figure? When you felt confident and beautiful completely naked (with the lights on)? When you didn’t have a body policing voice in your head?

Can you also remember when the policing voice kicked in? Maybe it began when a classmate told you your nose was too big, your dad suggested your thighs were chunky, your grandma noted how her hair was always straight… Maybe the policing voice grew slowly as you watched television and read magazines that constantly told you your body was not ok, that it did not deserve love.

Ten years ago, the National Organization for Women inaugurated national Love Your Body Day to mitigate this policing voice. While this day has spurred lots of activism and awareness surrounding beauty and body image issues on college campuses and among feminist groups, the love your body message has sadly not spread to wider US culture. If anything, the past ten years has seen further entrenchment of body policing and body hatred. Cosmetic surgeries of every type are on the rise while new body policing practices, such as teeth whitening and anal bleaching, continue to proliferate.

Yet, while cultural indictments to hate and police our bodies are ubiquitous, we can resist. In so doing, we are body loving activists. As the popular t-shirt saying “Start a Revolution: Stop Hating Your Body” suggests, we all can be part of this crucial revolution. We can, as Eve Ensler suggests in her wonderful play The Good Body, begin by “stepping off the capitalist treadmill” and “stop trying to be anything, anyone other than who you are,” to realize “we live in a good body.”

So dear readers, today and everyday from here on out, please love your body, turn off the body policing voice, and start a body revolution!

Happy Love Your Body Day!

Published in: on October 15, 2008 at 1:23 pm  Comments (5)  
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What if you are not ‘fit to wed’?

So, waiting in lines is one of those activities that most of us humans abhor. As such, it often brings out the worst in people.

The other day, after waiting a LONG time to speak to a “communications consultant” (talk about job title inflation!) at a cell phone store, the woman behind me in line kept edging closer and closer to me, invading my personal space and privacy while she jiggled her keys and jumped agitatedly from foot to foot. I glanced back, hoping to benignly indicate that she was standing a bit to close and her impatience was quite rude. As I did so, I noticed she was wearing a common uniform of the young and fit – a skintight gym outfit in black accompanied by what appeared to be brand new very expensive tennis shoes. The top, much like a bra, had a logo above the left boob that read, “fit 2 wed.”

“Huh, how typical,” I thought – not only is she an annoying space-invader unable to wait in line respectfully, but she is advertising herself as female meat that is ‘fit 2 wed.’ I assumed this was some sort of advertisement to go along with her skintight attire, as in “look at me, I am so hot, you should marry me.” However, upon looking back again after she started complaining that her dog was waiting outside and she was in a hurry, I noticed the back waistline of her workout pants read “getfit2wed.com.” Aha, I thought, it’s an actual company!

Following up my curiosity later at home, I discovered the Fit2Wed website, a “bridal boot camp” offering “an ultimate outdoor workout designed to transform your body.” Ugh. The site is pink-orrific with pictures exclusively of women. Apparently men don’t need to be fit to wed.

With the tagline “Get fit for your wedding day” and copy that encourages you to “look awesome in your wedding dress,” the site claims it is “changing lives, one workout at a time.” Yes, because what is more important for a woman than to get married, to look hot doing it, and to ‘change her life’ by changing the way she looks?

I hadn’t heard of any bridal boot camps before, but my gut tells me this San Diego based company is not unique. As books such as White Weddings by Chrys Ingraham

or analyses such as “My Big Fat Unnecessary Wedding” by Jessica Valenti make painfully clear, weddings are not only BIG business, they are also rabidly sexist, heteronormative, and lookist.

A dear feminist friend of mine is getting married soon. She shared that as she shops for wedding dresses, she is continually asked questions of the “how much weight do you plan to lose before the big day?” ilk. When she replies “none” and shares she likes her body the way it is, thank you, she reports that the salespeople are invariably dumbfounded. I mean, how can you possibly be happy being fat, let alone on your wedding day?!?

This belief is what Fit2Wed trades in, despite the usual claims that its about ‘health’ and ‘feeling good’. If it isn’t all about the inches and number on the scale, then why the before and after photos detailing the inches, pounds, and body fat lost?

This bridal boot camp mentality is very disturbing and is not the purview of only this small San Diego company of course. The fit2wed paradigm is merely another cog in the appearance-is-all wheel that runs roughshod over women’s lives. It is apparent on shows such as The Bachelor that indicate only beautiful women are worth considering as marriage material. It fuels the bridal magazine and television show industry, inducing women to spend fortunes not only on the wedding and the run up to it, but also on ‘beautifying’ their own bodies for the ‘big day’.

While marriage as an institution is problematic in many ways, this ‘bride as booty’ mentality seems particularly worrying and yet massively common. Don’t the supposed ‘new women’ of this century, who claim to sympathize with feminist ideals even if they don’t call themselves feminists, find this mentality a bit insulting, outdated, and downright sexist? Well, apparently not – at least not if the many women who offer gushing testimonials on the Fit2Wed website serve as any indication.

Problem is that this waiting in line experience and later research into Fit2Wed confirmed in me a dislike for the gym clad hot bodies who prance around in public in their skin tight workout attire. I am aware that not all such bodies are like the woman who was so rude at the Sprint store, nor do all people who workout do so to be ‘hot’ according to societal standards. If only people like the woman I ran into weren’t so damn ubiquitous. Seems like a better logo for her to paste above her left breast would be “just another piece of objectified meat.” Hey, now that gives me an idea for a better name for “bridal boot camps” such at Fit2Wed: how about Fit2Bbooty with taglines such as “changing women into objectified bridal booty, one workout at a time”?

What if we got over the whole weight thing?

In the past few weeks, I have enjoyed squeezing a number of summertime activities into my life before heading back to the grindstone of fall semester. (By the way kind readers, as classes start tomorrow, the frequency of my posts may diminish… But, I will do my best to keep “kicking ass” in the blogosphere).*

While soaking up sun at the beach, whizzing down slides at water parks, swimming at public pools, and being spun upside down and backwards at theme parks, I have appreciated the wonderful diversity and beauty of all the different bodies that populate this planet.

I love body watching at the beach, but not the kind of bodies that popular culture deems ideal. No, in fact the bikini clad bodies with long blonde hair or the board short wearing six-packs that cavort in groups while tossing Frisbees are not the bodies that bring me the most joy. Rather, I like those bodies that our culture deems imperfect, undesirable, as too fat, too hairy, too pale, too wrinkly – I like to see these bodies in all their different swimsuits and sunwear enjoying the surf and sand. I am saddened when such a body feels the need to hide itself under a sarong or when is visibly worried about being out in public. I hate to see such a body wearing what is obviously an attempt to hide. I love it when all the ‘Othered bodies’ refuse to buy into the bodily hatred our culture doles out by obviously enjoying letting it all hang out at the beach.

At water parks and swimming pools, even more bodily diversity is often apparent as these tend to be family hangouts rather than quasi-pick up places for the young and hot to strut their stuff (it seems even at ‘family beaches’ it is hard to get away from the feel of California beaches as pick up joints). And, at water parks and pools, pretty much everyone is in a bathing suit because that is all you can wear if you wish to ride the slides or dip in the water. In fact, these places should be a required experience for the crazy designers and advertisement big wigs out there who stubbornly perpetuate the idea of ideal sizes and average height/weight. As such places attest, bodies (no matter their age) are radically diverse. Now, while this truism does not hold up so well at certain public pools (I was in Palm Springs once at a pool where a friend and I were playing “Try to spot the real boobs” due to the overwhelming presence of surgically modified uber-tan fat-free bodies posing poolside), for the most part, a public space populated by swim-clad wearing bodies will reveal a fact that people like to deny: bodies come in all shapes and sizes.

At a beautiful outdoor pool overlooking the Puget Sound I swam at this summer while in Seattle, I witnessed two memorable body moments. Unfortunately, neither of them were positive. In the first, a boy of about six pulled off his shorts and underwear poolside so as to change into his swimsuit. Upon seeing him, his father became irate and started shouting “What is wrong with you boy?!? Get your clothes back on!!!” Then, he began to verbally abuse the woman with him (who appeared far too young to be the boy’s mother but seemed to be the father’s girlfriend). He questioned her judgment, asked her what was wrong with her to let the boy do that, yelled at her for letting the boy embarrass him in public. A general sense of dread spread over the sun chairs. I could collectively sense others wondering if they should say something, if they should pretend they couldn’t hear, if they dared to step into a ‘private matter’ when the man ‘in charge’ was obviously extremely angry and was not short on muscles to back up that anger. As the yelling went on, I myself wondered what to do. I have stepped in before in similar settings with mixed results. (Once, I phoned 911 when a man was beating a woman outside a gas station only to be chased down the street by the woman as she was so angry I ‘lied’ to the police about her boyfriend). Cringing inside for the naked little boy and the woman (and hating the father), I got up to walk towards them not knowing what I would say or do. However, before I got there, the boy grabbed his stuff and ran to the bathroom, and the woman did the same. The man, all smug in his self righteous king of the castle manner, laid back in his chair and gave his other children a look that said “you better not give me no shit neither.” I wanted to say something, I wanted to call him out on his assholery, but I didn’t. Frankly, he scared me. And to think that all this was over a six year old boy being so excited to get in the pool that he bared his butt poolside. Who the frig cares?!? The dad obviously did – he acted as this brief show of nudity was a catastrophic emasculating episode.

The other memorable body moment involved seeing a girl of perhaps 14 wearing cumbersome gingham outfit that resembled a swimsuit from another century that consisted of long bloomers, a sleeved top, and a Holly Hobbit style bonnet. I happened to spy the cover of the book she was reading, something like How to be an Obedient Woman. Now, I of course have no idea why she and all the women with her were dressed like this, or what the idea of ‘obedience’ meant to them, but judging from their attire, it seemed to involve keeping one’s body covered, even when swimming. While the choice to do so would be one thing, the title of the book suggested another – that being an ‘obedient female,’ a ‘good girl,’ meant one should deny the fleshy parts of existence. I am not sure why this group of women struck me so much, or why I felt so saddened by their dress code. Although I agree people should be able to choose how they cover (or do not cover) their bodies, I have a sort of gut reaction to bodies that appear to be excessively covered in order to hide what are deemed as ‘defective’ parts. In some cases, the defectiveness seems to be associated with being a female body. In others, it is due to inhabiting a body that differs from the ‘ideal.’ In either scenario, I am saddened when people appear visibly uncomfortable or embarrassed about their own unique embodiment. (Mind you, I am not a fan of major boobcrack or buttcrack display in public spaces either – mainly because such let-it-all -hang-out antics tend to play into an objectifying “I am just meat for your enjoyment” paradigm.)

This Saturday while riding as many extreme roller coasters as possible in very hot Valencia, California, I did more musing on the variability of bodies. Most people wore short shorts and tank tops due to the 90plus degree weather. Some were thin, some were fat, some were hairy, some were wrinkly. One thing I noticed while jammed in close proximity to other bodies in line is that even thin, toned bodies have the so called “cottage cheese” look to their thighs and/or “tummy rolls.” These fleshy parts are natural. They are not gross or ugly but only perceived as such because we live in a culture that profits off of making people hate their bodies. If it was ok to have jiggly thighs, varicose veins, tummy pouches, and love handles, how would corporations rake in the dough on cellulite creams, diet pills, age-defying potions, and Botox injections? I was pleased that the heat prompted the fleshy display of so many different types of bodies and this got me thinking about a fat-hating conversation I heard earlier this summer.

While at dinner at a relative’s house, someone brought up the news that airlines might start charging passengers by their weight. Now, my family is not known for having “skinny genes,” quite the contrary in fact, but a number of people piped in about this being a good idea. One of the more skinny obsessed in attendance suggested she should get a discount due to her low weight. Judging by the comment thread here, lots of people agree that charging by weight is a good idea. However, if you consider that what we weigh is a complex combination of genetics, metabolism, age, diet, and, now more than ever, how we are force fed high fructose corn syrup, it doesn’t seem fair to reward those who can eat trainloads of food and weigh in at 110 while punishing those whose bellies expand if they merely look at a cookie. Seems to make about as much sense as charging for skin color.

Yet, as the people at the dinner table bemoaned “It’s so uncomfortable when you are crammed next to a fat person that spills over into your seat.” Yeah, will imagine how it feels to be that fat person. Do you think s/he likes to not “fit” in our world, to be reminded that if you are over a certain weight/height you don’t belong? Flights are uncomfortable full stop. Yes, it is hard to be crammed in next to so many other bodies, but give me a fat seat companion over an annoying one any day – or over a kid kicking my seat the entire flight while her/his parent snores away in oblivion.

Seems to me a better solution would be for airlines to offer a few rows with less seats and more leg/body room. If you are taller or fatter or merely want to stretch out, maybe these seats could cost a bit more (but not double, and not the price of first class). I know this is not very feasible in our profit is all culture, but is a dehumanizing weigh in at the check in counter really the best airlines can come up with? This would give being “overweight” an entirely new spin. I can just imagine alarms going off at the check in scales and the accompanying shouts: “This one is over weight by 20!” “This fatty is over by 50!”

What the heck does that term really mean anyway? Over what weight? How can a person ever possibly be over the weight of their own body? They can be over the weight culture deems normal, over the weight doctors peddle as healthy, over the weight diet gurus suggest one needs to be at, over the weight considered attractive by a thin obsessed society, but certainly not over the weight their own body naturally stabilizes at. Now, factors like high fructose corn syrup and dangerous dieting lead to a weight that might be over the set point of one’s body – but this is due to culture practices that pump food full of junk while expecting people to be as thin as possible and, in so doing, promote crazy dieting/eating habits. Ridiculous.

This is why I don’t use the term overweight. I think it’s is an idiotic brainwashing three syllable mind-numbing term. It should be banished from the lexicon. I also hate obese. Medicalized hogwash. The term I like is fat. If we embraced the term, perhaps we could embrace fat on our own bodies. Cuz most bodies have it somewhere – even those thin little bodies in teeny tiny shorts have fat somewheres. Fat is human. Bones are for skeletons – you know, when you are dead. So, let’s get over the whole stupid weight thing and embrace the fact that our bodies are made of flesh, and bone, and FAT.

*A big fat thanks to Eric Stoller and Womanist Musings for each giving me a “Kick Ass Blogger” award.

What if make up wasn’t used as barometer of feminist cred?

As a scholar who has done a fair amount of work in the areas of beauty and body image, and as one who critiques what I term “the beauty imperative” of our culture, some might be surprised to find out that I am a make up junkie. In fact, I have often been accused of not being a “real feminist” because I like wearing make up. I am aware my predilections for mascara are likely due to my similarly make up crazy mom. I recall the thrill of making up with her collection from a young age. I would get all gussied up and then go out and pet our pigs or talk to the cows about the troubles of my young life. Mind you, I loved horseback riding, swimming, and getting dirty just as much as I loved dips into mom’s make up drawer. Neither of my parents ever suggested I should or should not wear make up, nor that because I was a girl I was limited in any way (thanks mom and dad).

Later, though, I had relationships in which partners suggested I was “prettier without make up” or that they wanted to see “the real me.” Well, a person who loves make up is the real me, damnit! I don’t always wear it, I don’t feel like I have to wear it, but I like to wear it. I am annoyed when people (usually men) suggest I don’t “need it.” Of course I don’t need it! I don’t need espresso everyday either but damn if I don’t enjoy it.

I do not wear make up (when I do) to play up to the male gaze or be viewed as “properly feminine” – if anything, in my job as a women’s studies professor, I am more suspect BECAUSE I wear make up. Last semester, many of my advanced feminist theory students repeatedly challenged me regarding make up. Several of them seemed to believe my fondness for eye shadow made me a sellout (because who cares how well you know your Butler or Hallberstam when you’re eyelids are colored hot pink, right?). The problem I see with this attitude is that telling women they should not be wearing make up is no better than telling them they have to. Shouldn’t we be able to choose for ourselves? Isn’t feminism supposed to be about choice? Heck, if I had my way, men could more readily choose to wear make up if they wanted to. Why should women get all the eyeliner fun? (For a good historical analysis of changing attitudes towards make up and whether or not women/men should wear it, see this post here. Note also the ire and passion this topic generates in the comments section…)

The emphasis Jessica Valenti puts on feminism being about choices, even when those choices include fishnets or red lipstick, is one of the reasons I like the book Full Frontal Feminism. While I personally find high heels fashion torture, and certainly don’t think elementary school girls should be crippled by them, I don’t see a women in stilettos and think, “Oh, that poor unenlightened dupe.” Likewise, I understand why young girls might WANT to wear make up (and even high heels) – yet, as with other choices, I think we as adults should promote girls (and boys) to question why they want to do such things.

Feminism has an ugly history of imposing all sorts of appearance-based rules – no bras, no shaving, no make up. Well, sorry bell hooks, but as a double D woman, I find going braless a back-breaking experience. And, I know I have learned this from our shave happy society, but I prefer all my underarms without hair (even the male ones).

In the world of women’s studies and feminist scholarship, beauty norms and practices have been scrutinized since the get go. For instance, Mary Wollstonecraft warned women about the dangers of valuing themselves based on their looks and her daughter, Mary Shelley, went on to write Frankenstein, a classic novel that questioned appearance based judgments.

Today, there is lots of talk of “empowerment” and claims that owning one’s beauty, sexuality, desire, etc are feminist moves. However, while I agree that women should be able to choose whether they want to look or dress certain ways, I also think it is imperative to remember the socio-cultural contexts in which these choices are made. We don’t live in a vacuum, and as much as we like to resist or subvert the white supremacist, capitalist, heteronormative, patriarchy, we are all still shaped by it. Thus, even those choices that seem “free” or “empowering” are enacted within a sexist society. As such, when a female looks a certain way, even if she chooses that look and finds it empowering, she may be variously objectified, ridiculed, exploited, etc. So, I can see why some feminists claim that wearing make up is anti-feminist. Yet, if as feminists we judge other women’s feminist cred based on whether they wear mascara or shave their legs, aren’t we enacting a gaze that is just as judgmental as the traditional male gaze? As a colleague of mine writes,

“It is an obvious point, but keeping women in the habit of judging each other and themselves by the way they look just keeps us from banding together and overthrowing the whole system! …Your scholarship and work is questioned/judged based on what you look like; are you ‘brown’ enough, are you ‘peripheral’ enough, are you too ‘pretty’…”

This idea that one is “too pretty to be a feminist” arises quite often. It goes against the “feminists are all ugly, hairy man-haters” mantra. Each semester, I hear versions of this belief. Last semester, a student shared that her dad asked her “So how ugly is your professor?” when she got home from her first Introduction to Women’s Studies Class. Yet, I am not sure that students surprised by the fact that I am not “ugly” is a good thing even though it might help to chip away at the ugly feminist stereotype. Instead, I wish students would question such norms and social constructions all together. What the heck is ugly anyhow? (I disagree with the premise that our definitions of beauty are hard-wired that the new book Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty by Nancy Etcoff makes). One person’s pretty is another person’s ugly, and as the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

I understand that wearing make up is not without its problems. For example, recent work in ecofeminism and other areas reveals the environmental implications of everything from nail polish to product packaging. However, wearing make up seems like small potatoes compared to so many other social ills and norms. As a post over at Feministe notes, the “patriarchy” benefits from our squabbles over these relatively minor issues. In the post, Octogalore writes, “If ‘the patriarchy’ were reading many of these posts, they’d be chortling right now. Fiddling while Rome burns!” I agree that we often spend far too much time on trivialities and not enough trying to dismantle patriarchy and other oppressive social systems. Examining beauty norms and practices is certainly important, but looking at the wider causes of our obsessions with appearance seems far more fruitful than trying to wrench the lip gloss from every female hand. Further, in today’s era of infinite war, widespread genocide, and toxic dumping, it seems splitting hairs over bodily decoration is a bit trivial. (This is in fact while I have redirected my more recent research at issues of militarization and corporatism rather than at beauty and body image issues.)

Of course patriarchy, consumer capitalism, sexism, racism, classism and ageism perpetuate oppressive beauty norms and bodily expectations, but the wearing or not-wearing of make up need not necessarily bolster all of the above. The enjoyment of adorning the body goes as far back as recorded history, and I for one enjoy adornment practices. I feel they are part of being an embodied entity. Like tattoos or piercings or fashion, make up is another way to decorate and enjoy one’s body. If it is not enjoyable to the individual body, then by all means that body should not feel pressured to wear make up. As with tattoos, make up is not for everyone. It is perhaps a bit like alcohol – not necessarily good for you, but enjoyable. (Now, the puritan minded out there might claim that using any sort of alcohol or drugs is indicative of some sort of dangerous dependency, but that is fodder for another post…)

This to make up or not to make up is a subject that is very complex and could take longer to dissect than all of Hamlet’s soliloquies. Thus, I will end this already long post with the mere claim that while I don’t think wearing make up is a feminist act, (as this post at Alternet suggests), I don’t think NOT wearing it is one either.

Published in: on August 19, 2008 at 9:59 am  Comments (18)  
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What if the beauty imperative wasn’t so profitable? (Beauty Imperatives part 5)

In addition to the worrying (mis)representations of race, gender, and sexuality in reality TV, economic class and body size are represented in ways that either put monetary hardship under erasure (via the ‘we are all middle class or above’ syndrome most shows represent), that mine the body insecurities US culture creates for profit, and/or that perpetuate damaging beliefs in regards to class and body image.

Class was largely put under erasure in The Swan and other surgical shows, with matters of economics being ‘written out’ of the picture via the fact that makeovers were paid for. Questions of affordability, of the relative monetary driven exclusiveness of the surgically altered club, or of the fact that many of the ‘Swans’ could never afford such alterations on their own were never addressed. This plays into the myth of democracy the show upheld, the idea that “anybody can be a Swan,” and ultimately also colluded with the mythical American Dream of individualism – a dream that handily overlooks factors of class, race, sexuality, and ability.

The Swan also predictably emphasized perhaps the most overarching standard of the body beautiful in America today – the thin body. Equating happiness with the removal of ‘excess’ flesh, the show’s surgeons happily ‘liposculptured’ numerous locations on each of the contestant’s bodies. On the show, ‘ugly duckling’ contestants were codified as horrifically fat if they dared to move beyond the region of size 8 and all the women seemingly required not only liposuction but also excessive diet and exercise regimens. Drawing on repeated ‘before’ shots of contestant’s bodies, the camera zoomed in on supposedly disgusting butts, thighs, and stomachs, while contestants repeatedly made comments like “I feel so fat and ugly in my own skin.” Here, the show presented average female bodies as disgusting, as all too fleshy and out of control.

The show, perhaps unwittingly, also revealed that our fat-hating culture has created various lucrative possibilities. For example, when a doctor on the show enthused during a liposuction procedure “See how nice and golden the fat is. That’s a lot of cheeseburgers,” he not only objectified the female body he was working on, but also significantly equated fat with gold, illuminating the links between flesh and revenue.

Similarly, on Extreme Makeover, a female contestant was told she had to lose 30 to 40 pounds or she would not be given her makeover. Claiming her weight of 175 pounds was “medically unsafe,” her surgeon threatened to disqualify her and effectively coerced her into losing weight. Later, after the surgeon performed liposuction on this same patient, he giddily proclaimed, “It’s gold! It’s gold! It’s gold!” while storing the liposuctioned fat in beakers. These shows thus offer us haunting visual evidence of the ways in which flesh quite literally translates into profit for cosmetic surgeons while underscoring the cultural belief that the public performance of the body, to be acceptable, must be a fat-free performance.

I wish I could say this racist, sexist, classist, heteronormative fat-hating beauty imperative had gone the way of surgically based reality TV shows. Unlike the shows though, this imperative has not ended. Rather, it was displayed in all its horror during the July 13th airing of the Miss Universe pageant where women from around the globe trotted around in ball gowns and bathing suits, sporting light skin, long straight or wavy hair, white smiles, and small waists. Even though 80 countries were represented, the women looked hauntingly similar. From what I could bare to watch (about twenty minutes) there was not one disabled women, not one very dark skinned woman, not one woman with a nose that didn’t look like it came out of a surgeons ‘after ‘pictures, not one flat chest. I hope we soon wake up and put an end to all such beauty contests and, in so doing, begin a new approach to beauty, one that realizes that beauty comes in all colors, shapes, sizes, sexualities, and income brackets. For this to occur thought, the beauty industrial complex, which rakes in billions a year, must be dismantled for yet another ugly side of corporatism is the way it mines our bodies (and the socially constructed insecurities surrounding them) for profit. So, next time you are hating your body or feeling unbeautiful, please ask yourself who is profiting from this belief… It certainly isn’t you.

(This concludes the 5 part Beauty Imperative series. But, no doubt I will continue to post on these issues as it doesn’t look like our body image issues  in the USofAppearance-obsession will be going away anytime soon…)

What if we refused to take part in a controlling, panopticon-style gaze of our own and others’ bodies? (Beauty Imperatives part 2)

The trend to glorify the edited texts and ‘edited’ bodies of Reality TV necessitates a consideration of how the Reality TV genre is defining a very particular version of American subjecthood. Reality TV opens up new possibilities as well as new limitations for representational politics. Unfortunately, the representational politics of makeover shows offer far more limitations, especially in relation to the representation of race, class, gender, sexuality, and (dis)ability.

Reality TV profoundly impacts what counts as a ‘normal body’, as a ‘beautiful body’, and shapes new realms of social power in which certain types of bodies are deemed more ‘real,’ or inhabitable, than others. Of course, Reality TV effects far more than beauty/appearance standards. It also enforces ideas, stereotypes, and normalizing criteria in relation to race, class, age, abitlity, sexuality, etc. According to most Reality TV, the world is like the cast of Friends— white, hetero, middle class, attractive by conventional standards, etc. But, unlike sitcoms and other fictional TV, the reality genre functions according to a ‘reality paradigm’ — a set up that claims to show the ‘truth’ about people and thier lives.  This representational stance is far different as it conveys expectations and norms of normal subjecthood. In effect, it has made celebrity culture, or the obsessive watching/judging of others, something that is now done to everyone, not just to celebrities. By promoting new and increased surveillance of the ‘real individual,’ reality TV has made the judicious watching and ‘sizing up’ of others – and ourselves – a natural (and even expected) component of everyday life. 

While many people featured on reality tv are characterized by extreme personalities and behaviors (for supposedly added extra entertainment value), this is where the extremity ends. Those featured may be bizarre personality/action-wise, but, for the most part, are ‘normal’ according to other criteria, such as body size, ability, appearance, age, class standing, etc. The message here seems it’s ok to be a bitch as long as you are ‘hot,’ it’s ok to be a pathological liar if you have a nice six pack, it’s entertaining to be a racist, especially if you can look cute while doing it.

Worryingly, Reality TV summons us to survey others with a judgmental, all-pervading gaze in everday life. It directs us to critique private actions, beliefs, and conversations, to put others under a punitive surveillance. At the same time, it also promotes a degree of self-surveillance, a tendency to judge oneself via the standards of particular reality shows. In relation to The Swan, for example, viewers were prompted to judge their own appearance against those of the surgically altered ‘Swans.’ In relation to the many hetero-romance scripts (The Bachelorette et al) viewers are encouraged to judge their own and others relationships by fairy tale standards.

This panoptical impulse that Reality TV fosters is particularly evident when one examines audience reception and fan readings of reality shows. As various web sites devoted to Reality TV evince, many people are avid viewers, watching shows with the minutest attention to detail and then reporting back with episode recaps, blogs, queries, comments and/or chat.

Further, fans seem to very closely identify with certain show participants or certain situations. For instance, fans of The Swan discussed their favorite contestants, forecasted who would win the pageant, criticized those whose makeovers they saw as less than perfect, commented on appearance ‘defects’ they felt they shared with certain contestants, and continually discussed their desires to be on the show. In so doing, these viewers created a public dialogue that began to redefine standards of beauty, acceptable appearance, and desired behavior. In effect, their identifications reinforced the shows message that appearance is all and, by colluding and promoting this message on the internet (and presumably in their private lives as well), such fans worked to further inscribe and uphold the beauty imperative so rampant in contemporary USA.

One of the most common viewer responses seemed to be uncritical adoration of the show accompanied by a marked desire to become a ‘swan.’ Moreover, as post after Internet post revealed, viewer responses were marked by a particularly brutal surveillance of appearance. Offering scathing critiques of contestants’, such commentary seemed to have a sadistic impulse colored by envy, competition, and scorn. Worryingly, this scrutiny of the body was often then turned inwards, with posters reflecting on their own ‘ugliness,’ their own need for surgical intervention.

But, what is we refused to take part in this controlling, negative gazing? What if we decided to move outside of the prison house of the panapticon wherein we are directed to discipline ourselves and others?  Well, it would mean a lot more self esteem would be flowing. And, a lot less money for the corporate machines that profit off self/body hatred.  Sounds like a good option all around to me.

***FYI, If you are not familiar with the concept of the panoptican, read Foucault (especially Discipline and Punish). Even if you are, read Foucault! His work is fabulous.There are also many good feminist theorists who respond to/further his work such as Judith Butler, Sandra Bartky, Susan Bordo…

What if your non-surgically altered body just doesn’t cut it? (Beauty Imperatives part 1)

Reality TV shows that suggested the non-surgically altered body was in dire need of transformation had their heyday a few years back. Shows such as Extreme Makeover, Dr. 90210, Miami Slice, and I Want a Famous Face revealed that inhabiting an ‘average’ body was no longer acceptable.

While the surgical fest of these earlier shows has been replaced with the likes of Ten Years Younger, America’s Top Model, She’s Got the Look and Battle of the Bods, which also argue appearance is the be all and end all, the surgical imperative has not abated. Rather, surgery has gone underground and, instead of featuring cosmetic surgery as the key to beautification, beauty competition shows hide the fact that many of their contestants have been surgically sculpted. As with the many movie stars who don’t advertise their surgical alterations, these shows pretend the bodies on display are natural. This stance is perhaps even more insidious than the surgical celebration offered by shows such as The Swan because it denies the extreme diversity of natural bodies, insisting that the tall, ultra-thin, white-smiled, small nosed, big-boobed, wrinkle-free bods are natural rather than constructed via abnormal exercise, eating, (and all too often surgical) regimens.

Back in 2005, I published a paper examining the show The Swan entitled “Excessive Performances of the Same: Beauty as the Beast of Reality TV” in Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory Special Issue. While the show itself is no longer running, I think the analysis is still pertinent in our appearance-obsessed society. Due to the response to my “What if we gave up the ‘top model’ paradigm rather than expanding it” post, I will be posting arguments from this paper in blog sized bits in order to keep the analysis of the beauty paradigm going. Hope you enjoy!

For those of you who never had the displeasure of watching The Swan, the show aimed to transform so-called ‘ugly ducklings’ into ‘beautiful swans’ via multiple surgical alterations. Undergoing up to twenty surgical procedures, contestants were then given three months to recover before being judged on national television in a beauty pageant style competition. Again and again, contestants would confirm the claim made by so many cosmetic surgeons (and their patients), that ‘improving’ one’s looks would lead to happiness and success. For example, the first season’s winner, Rachel Fraser, responded to criticism of the show by arguing “I don’t think anybody should fault anyone for making themselves a better person.” Yeah, because cutting away bits of your body and adding in fake booby bags really improves the type of person one is.

I don’t intend to suggest, as some critics have, that enjoying the ‘performance’ of beauty is somehow non- or anti-feminist. Rather, I am troubled by the pervasiveness of a very narrow beauty imperative and especially in the growing cultural approval and faith in the ‘surgical fix.’ Quite problematically, surgical makeover shows and their top-model variety descendents tell us that the appearance of our bodies is more important than the contents of our minds, that our twisted social attitudes towards beauty are entirely acceptable, that our identity is lodged in the size of our nose or the firmness of our thighs, that liposuction and breast augmentation are two key elements in the fabrication of ‘better people’.

Such messages are particularly appalling when we consider that one of the former Swan contestants is an elementary school teacher – a teacher who now daily offers her surgically altered self to her young students as an embodied reminder that success in America is reliant on appearance – that one day, they too can grow up to fulfil the ‘American Dream’ and have their noses whittled away, their fat sucked out, and their faces lifted.

Such messages are also problematic when we note that another Swan convinced her young son that he needed to lose 45 pounds to be happy after her own Swan induced weight loss; that another enthused during season two’s premier that her own transformation inspired her mother to go for Botox. How wonderful – now all ages and genders are being encouraged they must lose weight to be happy, be wrinkle free to be successful, undergo the knife to achieve confidence and self esteem.

Most worryingly, these beauty=success messages foreground individual agency while simultaneously ignoring or failing to assess a social cure. For, shouldn’t society be taken to task for its rigid beauty conventions, its mass dissemination of unreal standards, and its excessive valorisation of a very narrow beauty imperative? Instead, shows such as The Swan and the more recent Ten Years Younger suggest that the unease many feel towards their appearances and identities is not socially constructed and maintained, but is an individual problem that can and should be fixed.

And, as revealed in the narratives of surgical makeover shows, the body beautiful is not fat, not disabled, not gay, and not ‘too ethnic looking’. It is a body chiseled, sculpted, dieted, and surgically altered into a fairy tale version of beauty.