Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

So Cosmo Says You're Fat / Well I Ain't Down With That

Over at Voice in the Wilderness, Timmy posted about the recent trend towards cosmetic vaginal surgery (???), and it led to a pretty interesting discussion in the comment section. After thinking about it for a day or two, I left a bit of a long comment myself, and I figured maybe it was worth pulling out my main point and giving it a post of its own (yes, this is a way to post without writing something new, and I am lazy).

I get the impression that many people feel that the trend towards overly skinny models and celebrities along with anorexia and generally negative female body image is being driven by men and our desire to have women look attractive to us. And I'm sure that there is some truth to this, but I'm not sure that it's really the driving factor.

When it comes to being skinny, in particular, I think a lot of the pressure on women is coming from other women or from society (the media) to conform to what is considered aesthetically pleasing - where what is aesthetically pleasing is, not entirely, but significantly driven by women and gay men, filtering down primarily from runways, through magazines.

Consider the Reality TV show, 'America's Next Top Model'. Now if you follow the conventional wisdom, you'd figure that such a show would be all about skinny models who look skinny to please men (so as to be attractive to men), and you would think that this show following a group of skinny models around would be geared towards, and attract, a male audience. But this isn't the case. I, for one, can't stand the show, while my girlfriend is a big fan (well, she likes it more than I do, anyway). And we're hardly an unusual case. Consider this (telling, in its incoherence) write-up on 'Top Model' from Reality TV World,
"Looking back, the biggest questions are probably why it took so long for viewers to begin tuning in to watch a show starring attractive young women competing for a modeling contract -- and why they appear to largely be other women rather than the expected male audience."

But if you watch the show, it's obvious that it is targeted towards women. I've watched (under duress) a couple of episodes and in one that I saw there was the usual collection of stick figures, and one healthy looking girl. Of course this was the girl who was kicked off by the panel of judges. They pretty much came right out and said that the reason she was being kicked off was not because she wasn't a good model or that she wasn't attractive, but that, with her full figure (i.e. big breasts / hips), she belonged more in a 'mens' magazine like Maxim, not on the runway.

Consider this headline, "Flabby celebrities caught on camera', Or this one: 'So-and-so's battle with cellulite'. Where would you expect to see these headilnes? In a supermarket tabloid, the prime source of the hyper-criticism of any extra weight or jiggle that drives celebrities into their anorexia - and again catering to a largely female audience.

In the comments at Voice in the Wilderness, Princess Monkey takes hope that maybe 'urban' music, a culture where the super skinny model isn't the ideal, will begin to influence society away from the unhealthy skinny ideal (although I'd note that it's been a long time since Sir Mix-A-Lot released 'Baby Got Back' (the classic rap song which gives this post its title) and little has changed). But of course urban music is one of the most chauvinistic, macho cultures around, so maybe it's not surprising that this is one place where we get away from the super skinny model syndrome. You could write that off as just an artifact of black culture but I think you see the same factors at work in the country music scene as well.

So you can blame men for a lot of stuff, but I'm not convinced we're the prime culprits in this particular case.

Of course there are lots of other, (probably more important), related questions such as 'what is driving our increasing obsession with our bodies and attractiveness', and 'where do we draw the line between what is considered healthy and what isn't?' (most parents would get braces for their children but they probably wouldn't get them a nose job - why is this?) but I'm not up to taking any of those on today.


  • where what is aesthetically pleasing is, not entirely, but significantly driven by women and gay men, filtering down primarily from runways, through magazines.

    women and gay men, eh?

    the problem is women, yes, but the problem is also patriarchy. women compete with eachother and engage in this self-destructive behaviour because it is our gender role (you reference "the media" and "society" so it seems you are not ignoring this crucial component).

    i am a 22-year-old woman and most of my friends are twenty-something gay men and straight/lesbian women (despite 'girly' similarities, gay men and straight women have completely different realities, by the way, and lumping them together is ridiculous). what youve written here is completely inaccurate - men and maleness are a factor. youre right to say men cannot individually be blamed, but to remove the male/female aspect from this issue leads you down the wrong path entirely.

    everyone i know who obsessively diets (or doesnt, but stresses about weight) does it because theyre obsessed with being attractive to men or women. they have beaches and clubs and that hot dude in psych class on the mind. the only people who arent obsessing over being attractive to potential mates are people with eating disorders.

    im not blaming men, im blaming the patriarchal system that creates these gender roles. women have to be svelte and slender with subtle curves in the right places - the perfect accessory to either a beefy man or metrosexual. tanning and dieting and obsessively working out is like an investment - how else will you find a mate who is close to your ideal?

    we cant only blame men because a lot of this self-hatred is propagated by women who fail to see what this mindset is doing to them.

    in the end, my friends are all pretty fucking stupid for not seeing through this crap. ive told them its bullshit. ive shown them its bullshit. im the fattest one of them and i have the best boyfriend (a sexy phd student who is as committed to me as i am to him, yay). the rest of them are mostly dating guys who come and go and damaging their self-esteem more and more each day. fun.

    the bridget jones diary and elfriede jelinek's women as lovers are good primers if you want to see why women hate themselves, and what motivates this hatred (hint: it has a penis).

    By Blogger ainge lotusland, at 12:49 AM  

  • Hey Declan: love the title. This is a kettle of fish for sure. Hat's off for taking it on.

    I gotta side with Angela. It's true that the issue of what drives us to contort ourselves into social aesthetic ideals is a complex one. I would never state that "it's all men's fault". I did say that patriarchy is a factor (a big one), and I stand by that. As you point out (indirectly) it's also patriarchy driving the urban music "hope" I talked about. My statement to that affect was more tongue in cheek than anything. Women are horribly demeaned in those videos. But we do see men "appreciating" full bodied girls. And the effects of urban music on youth culture is pretty profound. Sad as it may be, some young girls will get permission to accept their curves from 50 Cent.

    I think when women point to patriarchal systems as problematic, many men (rightfully) react with: "No way - I'm not like that". True enough. But listen to Angela:

    "im not blaming men, im blaming the patriarchal system that creates these gender roles."

    You didn't create the system, and maybe you don't even like it. But it's the one we have and it keeps women small, and plastic surgeons, and girly mag publishers in business. It's not about "blaming men" on an individual level. But men have driven the formation of North American culture for a very long time. And for a very long time, it was in their interests to keep women down - or so they thought. It matters that just when strength came to be seen as an attribute in a told us they prefer us skinny.

    Me, I know how far/fast I can run. I know how much I can lift. I (loosely) follow Canada's Food Guide. I don't have a clue how much I weigh.

    By Blogger Princess Monkey, at 8:33 AM  

  • I should probably clarify the limited point I was making.

    I certainly agree that society/the media/etc. is driving all of us (and especially women) towards trying to perfect our appearance.

    Most of these attempts at perfecting (from the female perspective) are driven by what men find attractive. Breast implants being an obvious example, losing weight being another.

    All I'm saying is that, on top of this male influence, there are other factors at work, perhaps the most important being the influence of 'fashion culture'. This fashion culture (IMO) is pushing the ideal body size for women past the point it would normally be at if it was only driven by what men want, into unhealthily skinny territory. Even to the extent that some men now desire this ultra skinny body type I suspect many of them are being driven/manipulated by the same influences.

    I only lump together gay men and women in two senses:
    1) they exercise artistic control over the fashion industry and 2) their sense of what is fashionable is not primarily driven by the what the average straight man finds attractive.

    Both seem like reasonable assumptions to me.

    Anyway, I wish you luck in trying to get your friends to see through all this crap.

    By Blogger Declan, at 9:08 AM  

  • Greay post Delcan, and I think you are on to something with your hypothesis. Fashion mags and so on are not edited or marketed to men, and I think most men find them boring beyond words. Like you, I could not sit through that modeling TV show.

    I read a interesting book a while back, called 'Survival of the Prettiest' by Nancy Etcoff. She tries to use social science methods to come up with objective standards for beauty.

    She writes that cross cultural studies have shown that people from [lists about ten very different countries from all over] "show signifigant agreement among people of different races and cultures about which faces are beautiful, although agreement is stronger for faces of the same race as the perciever."

    More importantly, she presents evidence that skinner is NOT what female beauty is all about. Using an evolutionary psych point of view, she argues that beauty is about fertility and one of the very best indicators of femaleness and fertility is a waist to hip ratio of 0.7, which is the overwhelming choice of men all over the world.

    She goes on to say that models, no matter how thin, are all very close to this range - even twiggy. They are statistical rarities in that they are often very tall and busty as well as hourglass shaped.

    She also points out that no amount of dieting can alter this shape, although it may lower abdominal fat, another indicator of poor female fertility (hormonal imbalance can be a large factor).

    I also have little idea about what motivates the stick figure mania, but I doubt that most men groove on it. I suspect that women do not grok the waist to hip ration as intuitively as men do, and they may confuse it with a drive to be thiner and thinner, thinking there is no upper limit on thin-ness and attraction.

    The competition for a mate is surely a lagre factor, but I doubt it can account for all of it. One can't forget that women don't just want impress men - they want to impress **other women** with the quality of mate they can get.

    The good news is that this is to some degree a phase in life. If you marry well - for love and companionship - it will decline in importance.

    I tell my wife all the time that she has no competition in this world. Why? There is no one else out there that has a long, shared, deep history with me. She is irreplaceable, and her value can only grow over time when it is seen in that light.

    By Blogger Curt, at 4:14 PM  

  • they are not reasonable assumptions because youre still ignoring the underlying systemic factor of patriarchy.

    when women/femmy gay men are setting standards for their gender, theyre doing it under a big rock of patriarchy. whether the so-called 'average straight man' agrees with these parametres is irrelevant.

    oppression isnt just men ordering women around, its also women ordering women around and engaging in self-hating, self-destructive behaviour. why do women do this? why is it nearly impossible for a woman to accept herself? why is this behaviour restricted to one gender? does the fact this gender is historically subordinate to the other come into play?

    it seems men really want to wash their hands of this, and the fashion industry being dominated by women/gay men seems like an easy out. what about all the straight men in marketing and executive positions?

    do you want women to tell you that maleness/patriarchy has nothing to do with it because this is what youve rationally concluded?

    By Blogger ainge lotusland, at 6:55 PM  

  • also, princess monkey, urban music is a very diverse genre.

    i dont find that song that goes "ass and titties, ass ass and titties, ass and titties, and big-booty bitches" all that inspiring (it was the music the gay landscaper was dancing to on the chappelle show)

    the one hiphop song that did have a good feminist message is kanye west's workout plan. see, it shows women how ridiculous they are... so it is good.

    By Blogger ainge lotusland, at 7:12 PM  

  • Curt - thanks. Oddly enough I made some of the same points about the waist-hip ratio and it's constancy through the years in my comment at Voice in the Wilderness.

    You're right that this body obsession fades with age, especially in the context of a healthy relationship, but it seems like, for any given age range, the obsession is rising in our society.


    Ainge - "do you want women to tell you that maleness/patriarchy has nothing to do with it because this is what you've rationally concluded?"

    What I want is for women to stop beating themselves (and each other) up and trying to diet away into nothingness. What I'm saying is don't do it on my (gender's) account.

    You can't solve a problem without understanding what's causing it, and I think that the fashion industry is
    a definite causal factor.

    I don't really buy the argument that the reason the fashion industry promotes such an unhealthy and unappealing body type is because of the oppression of women in partriarchal societies in the past.

    But let's say that I do and there is a clear compelling case that the lack of equal rights and opportunities for women in the past is behind the fashion industry's drive towards skinniness.
    How does that help us? The last few decades have seen clear advances for women's equality in almost every area, and yet anorexia, and the desire to be super-skiny seem to be stronger than ever.

    What do you suggest for changing the fashion industry or changing how women relate to it? I figure pointing out that, to some extent, they are doing this to themselves, identifying one of the prime sources of negative imagery, and noting that it's not really what most men are looking for are all positive things.

    As an aside, the idea that only one gender engages in self-hating behavior and that it's the one with the far lower suicide rate doesn't really wash with me.

    By Blogger Declan, at 7:52 PM  

  • "they are not reasonable assumptions because you're still ignoring the underlying systemic factor of patriarchy."

    An unprovable point - patriarchy - and one I reject.

    "when women/femmy gay men are setting standards for their gender, they're doing it under a big rock of patriarchy. whether the so-called 'average straight man' agrees with these parametres is irrelevant."

    Gee, what *would* be relevant? Are you making a religious point or a social science one?

    "oppression isnt just men ordering women around, its also women ordering women around and engaging in self-hating, self-destructive behaviour. why do women do this? why is it nearly impossible for a woman to accept herself? why is this behaviour restricted to one gender? does the fact this gender is historically subordinate to the other come into play?"

    Why are you saying that everything women do is a result of what men do? Why do you insist on making men the 'first cause' and thereby disrespecting women's choices? Why on earth should we expect the genders to be the same, other than in dignity? Different bodies, different hormones, there's an awful lot to account for different behaviors in them as groups before we ever get to the question of culture. Don't men also engage in stereotypically self destructive behavior?

    "it seems men really want to wash their hands of this"

    It seems to me you want to wash your gender's hands of it, and seek to do so by blaming men. Note I'm not saying men are totally innocent. Is there anything you would pin on women or are they really just helpless puppets in your opinion?


    It's my observation that men are more likley to break from peer pressure and that might be a factor in why women migth succumb to fads like this in greater numbers then young men, even when they are aware of its negative consequences.

    In response I think having young women spend more time away from the mall/internet/peergroup and with different sorts of people, older people with a wider experience of life, would help them to understand the manipulation involved in a magazine like Cosmo, and thereby dismiss it.

    It's obviously good advice for young men as well.

    *peace* Angie. I brought up the waist to hip thing to try and show how the push to be thinner goes beyond what men want and also try and suggest it's futility. If that message can get out, perhaps the peer pressure can be broken, or directed to something less harmful.

    I do think women should focus on living a full life and one being someone who is great to be around because the whole looks obession is futile and sad. A sharp mind and a sense of humour are so much more long lasting and rewarding.

    By Blogger Curt, at 8:39 PM  

  • my name is not, and has never been, angie :)

    social science, ie, the unshakable faith in positivist epistemology, ie the ridiculous modernist assertion that we can examine ourselves with the same detachment one uses when applying the scientific method in the hard sciences, is as much a "religion" as a belief that the historical process of patriarchy actually exists.

    i believe history is a greater tool in understanding society than the piecemeal approach of cobbling together statistics and findings, fitting them into a rational argument, and declaring it law as if personal bias and history had nothing to do with what we've decided is the correct interpretation.

    does genetic material account for the disparity in representation between men and women in the house of commons? is there some kind of 'politician' combination of amino acids that women just dont have? women are free and able to run for office. women are encouraged to run for office at all costs. and yet they dont run for office in droves despite being the majority... surely history and the historical role of women is the most compelling explanation for this disparity.

    declan, i stated before that anorexia is better understood as a disorder that has more in common with ocd and anxiety than with dieting and image. its more of an atelophobia thing than a competition thing. there is a serious difference between a compulsive dieter and an anorectic.

    curt, have you seen trainspotting? theres a scene where one of the characters goes on about how the english are wankers, but the scottish are worse for allowing themselves to be colonized by wankers. this is how i feel about women - they do need to resist these conventions which lead us to strive to be the perfect male accessory. because women (especially in the liberal democratic countries) have the freedom to do it, but dont, i blame them. i blame them way more than i blame men who dont acknowledge the impact of a historical bias in the favour of men and maleness.

    declan, regarding your exhortation to attempt to solve this image problem with women... i dont think the entire argument should rest on "but men like boobies and hips and bums, so start having them" ... :P basically, femininity needs to redefine itself. women have to have a source of self-worth independent of men and maleness.

    also, with regards to the fashion industry, i have to say it is not what needs to be changed. people have to stop trying to be the fashion industry, yes, but the fashion industry is art, and shouldnt be politically answerable to society.

    i love skinny, androgynous models parading around in embellished/deconstructed clothing. i love airhead designers talking about all the meaning behind their neo-boheme collection when its so obviously what everyone is doing. while it may be fun to be a human canvas for a day, i dont need to be one.

    maleness does not only impact female behaviour. men are also subordinate to gender ideals.

    i just dont understand how you two can sit here, knowing exactly how recently women have acquired rights, and still maintain there is no such thing as patriarchy. is there no such thing as racism, too?

    By Blogger ainge lotusland, at 9:45 PM  

  • Yes, now I think I can agree with some of your points. :-)

    "social science, ie, the unshakable faith in positivist epistemology..."

    Now you're on to something. As a religious person I could not agree more. Science can only tell us us about appearances, not why something is, or what we ought do in response. 'Why' also goes a long way to determining what to study and how (study methodology). I also like to look at historical examples, so good on ya.

    "does genetic material account for the disparity in representation between men and women in the house of commons?" It might, you know. If in aggregate terms women decide they don't like what politics has to offer them, who are we to say it's wrong? That does not mean some women want to take up that fight; it's a big enough world for both. I don't know how we could ever say the number of women in field X should be Y.

    "surely history and the historical role of women is the most compelling explanation for this disparity"

    I'm not so sure. I acknowledge the difference, but am less likely to disparage it. The modern world offers more opportunity for women than any before, since brawn is not what it used to be. If women haven't taken up power politics, perhaps they see their power best wielded in other ways. Yes, I'm thinking of the family, where mothers can have enormous influence on future generations, albeit on a smaller scale.

    "is there no such thing as racism, too?"

    I would not say patriarchy or racism don't exit, only that they should not be the first thing one reaches for when seeking to explain something. They are so big a fuzzy it's hard to know what is really being asserted. The power the words have aquired in recent years has lead to much abuse. Ockham's razor probably applies here.

    I also think it is very dubious to make bold assertions about other people's motives - they are always, always shrouded in mystery. We can speculate, but we can't know.

    I try to make a habit of not doubting other people's motives. It kind of cuts them off at the knees and I really do want to hear what they have to say. I might argue instead that the course they have chosen will not lead them where they claim they want to go...

    By all means tell women you don't agree with the course they're taking (too scotish), but if they don't like what you're saying, don't they have that right? Agree to disagree? And Delcan and I, we can say 'I don't buy the theory' even if we see some of the same phenomena. Causation is always the hardest thing to prove, if it can be proved at all.

    As for the Angie thing, I used to have a friend by that name... oops.

    By Blogger Curt, at 10:26 PM  

  • hey I think that characterization of my argument definitely qualifies as a straw er, woman :)

    You say, "women have to have a source of self-worth independent of men and maleness." and I couldn't agree more. But my point is that there is more to it than this - women need a self-worth independent of fashion industry dictates as well.

    The fact that men don't go for the skinny androgynous look and yet fashion still serves this up as a role model which women try to emulate is only meant to demonstrate that there are (at least) two problems at work.

    Here's my vastly oversimplified mental concept of what I'm trying to say:

    1) fashion industry (driven by the artistic tastes of women and gay men) promotes a very skinny body type as the ideal
    2) women buy into this ideal, get depressed that they can't meet it/ diet like crazy to meet it
    3) women looking to change the situation blame patriarchal male-dominated society for this problem
    4) society changes to be less patriarchal but the problem only gets worse
    5) man says, hey, I don't even like this ultra skinny look so maybe the source of the problem lies somewhere else.

    I guess where we mainly disagree is on point #1, where you feel (putting words in your mouth, correct me if I'm wrong) that it is a society which gives women few options / little respect / provides few successful role models / treats them as sex objects / etc. which lowers their self-worth which is what really causes them to want to be really skinny (or at least makes them vulnerable to this).

    And I don't doubt that all that stuff may play a role. But I honestly think that the fashion industry, with its ideas about what is aesthetically pleasing, is playing a bigger (independent) role.

    And I don't think the fashion industry should get a free pass because it is art. If we could break the link between fashion and behavior and body image then fine, but that seems unlikely to me.

    Architecture is art too, but if you try to build a giant 70's revival concrete box on my block you're going to hear from me.

    Finally, I never said there is no such thing as patriarchy, just that I don't think that is what is driving the fashion industry.

    As an aside (I love asides), I certainly appreciate all the comments from everyone, this is probably one of the best discussions we've had on this site, and it's definitely made me (re)examine my own opinions on the topic.

    By Blogger Declan, at 10:36 PM  

  • "3) women looking to change the situation blame patriarchal male-dominated society for this problem
    4) society changes to be less patriarchal but the problem only gets worse"

    society is "less patriarchal" but that doesnt mean that its impact has been erased. femininity is still closely linked to subservience. this does not mean that every man is domineering and keeping us down, but that we are socially conditioned to be bossed around.

    also, the problem is not 'worse' but constant. ridiculously unnatural victorian waistlines, foot-binding, dangerous boob jobs... women have been doing stupid, unhealthy things to keep up with beauty norms for ages.

    By Blogger ainge lotusland, at 12:48 AM  

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