Hollywood


Body Love Wellness has a very revealing interview with a Biggest Loser finalist here (Part 2 here, and some additional thoughts on the interview here). I think it is awesome that Golda got the straight story on this.

Whether to diet is a very personal decision, but I think it is bad news bears to make it dramatic enough to be a reality show–the kind of slow, moderate weight loss that people seem to agree is “healthy” (not that I personally am even particularly convinced of that, of course) does not exactly make good TV. Even worse now that clueless workplaces have weight loss competitions loosely based on this concept (my complaint being that–even if you buy into weight loss as a positive–it should never be a straight “competition” based on the scale because, since different people lose at different rates, that all but guarantees people will do stuff that is risky or ill-advised. Adults can do what they like with their own bodies, but feeling coerced to participate in a weight loss competition is not cool).

Individual fat people may be unhealthy, and I’m sure some individuals have benefited from The Biggest Loser. Statistically it seems likely enough, I guess. But it is by no means a given that any particular fat person is so unhealthy that it justifies overexercising in 90-degree heat, purging, diuretics, and a caloric intake so low that it is likely to screw up your metabolism for life. These things are a bad idea on principle, and fat people are being used as guinea pigs in a way that is very irresponsible. I am far from the first to make this observation, but I suppose something actually beneficial, like a HAES show, would be far less popular because fatties would be empowered, not punished.

I understand what it is like to want this badly to be thin, but The Biggest Loser just preys on that desire and feeds into viewers’ beliefs about fat people (all for entertainment value–it’s not like this is an altruistic venture designed to benefit humanity) in a way that is very distasteful to me.

But the process [of converting the originally male lead role for Angelina Jolie] was a bit trickier than just changing the hero’s name and adding high heels. ‘In the original script, there was a huge sequence where Edwin Salt saves his wife, who’s in danger,’ says Noyce. ‘And what we found was when Evelyn Salt saved her husband in the new script, it seemed to castrate his character a little. So we had to change the nature of that relationship.’ In the end, Salt’s husband, played by German actor August Diehl (Inglorious Basterds), was made tough enough that he didn’t need saving, thank you very much.

–Chris Nashawaty, writing in Entertainment Weekly on Phillip Noyce’s upcoming movie Salt

I just read about this charming episode at Big Fat Deal (in which a couple of male ballroom dancers on Dancing with the Stars criticized female dancers on the show for their weight), and I am incensed.  First of all, do NOT fucking presume to tell me why I watch or should watch a TV show. I don’t watch DwtS, but if I did it would be for the same reason I watch So You Think You Can Dance–for the dancing. Especially do not presume to tell me that, effectively, the reason I watch it “should” be to get inspired by stick-thin dancers. I may be inspired by their dance ability or someone else’s writing or artistic ability or accomplishments, but I am not “inspired” by images that encourage me to get on some kind of impossible hamster wheel so that someday–if my dreams come true–whatever man is making this kind of ludicrous pronouncement from on high might declare me worthy of being looked at as a sex object. I have more important things to do than make a career out of looking acceptable to men. Especially if “acceptable” means “thinner than women who are professionals in a field that is already well-known to be fraught with eating disorders and unhealthy weight standards.”

Also, I bet you a million dollars that whatever BMI is represented by these two dancers is at least 5 points below any level at which male dancers would start to get any grief about their unsuitability as role models. But, you know, these two guys are just concerned for our health. I’m not sure what’s worse–the sexism or the idea of two out-of-touch dudes riding up on a white horse to save stupid fatties (who might otherwise actually be fooled into thinking that these two women [link also via BFD] are plenty thin enough). Who will end the OBESITY EPIDEMIC if van Amstel and Chmerkovskiy are prevented from conveying the important, totally health-related message that although Burke and Schwimmer may look just fine to obese, ignorant hayseeds like ourselves, they are actually “heavy” (per van Amstel)?

All I can say is, thank god weight standards for women are so objective, beneficial, and completely unrelated to men’s sense of visual entitlement. I don’t know what I’d do without these guys looking out for me.

I know this won’t actually help, but since I never miss an opportunity to plug the show IRL, why not just cut your losses and start watching SYTYCD instead? Love. Well, except for some of Nigel’s more fatphobic and homophobic moments, but that’s another post.

ETA: I found out this morning (thanks, wriggles) that the men are claiming they were misquoted. I did skim past the comment on BFD that made that point last night, but I was typing this at about 4 a.m. and the comment didn’t really sink in for whatever reason. Anyway, here (van Amstel and Chmerkovskiy, respectively) are the links to their explanations so you can decide for yourself. FWIW, the claim of being “taken out of context” is not that compelling to me because I’m not sure in what context such comments would be appropriate… and therefore Chmerkovskiy’s post is not that convincing to me (and I don’t really like how he appears to pin the blame on van Amstel), but as I stated in comments, it’s possible a language barrier is making his “tone” read differently to me than what he intended, so just know that he did claim he was taken out of context, and draw your own conclusions from his words. van Amstel’s post is quite full-throated and I appreciate his clarifying the situation.

Even if the two men are the victims of misquoting or having their words twisted by the reporter, I think it’s really interesting and says something profound about our society that the reporter’s misquote took the form of totally ignoring the men’s main point (if they are to be believed)–that they personally had gained weight and were musing about their suitability as role models–and made it all about the women on the show. This is so typical and representative of the general view that women’s bodies are public property and women have a responsibility to meet the standards of the male gaze (no matter how stringent or unreasonable) at all times. Add in the fact that you can hide behind the Obesity Epidemic and “health” pretty much no matter what you say, and it’s like hatred soup (and although I don’t want to unfairly slam the dancers if they did not in fact say these things, in a larger sense it almost doesn’t matter whether they or the reporter said them… the thrust of the words is so predictable and telling). Mmmmm!

I have recently been thinking quite a bit about the nature of attraction and attractiveness–when Kate blogged awesomely about the subject a few weeks back in response to a dumbass troll’s comment, it so happened that I had been mulling the same topic over myself, and then more recently I’ve had a couple brief discussions/arguments with an acquaintance on the nature of attractiveness. Here is part of my comment from Kate’s entry (and yes, this is only about a third of the comment so you should all be very afraid of my capacity to spew verbiage if you are not already):

I feel like there are two worlds operating in parallel here: one where nobody would ever consider laying a hand on me and that’s a self-evident truth because attractiveness is some kind of universal, predictable, objective continuum from attractive to ugly, and the one where I am happily married and my husband finds me really hot, whereas I’m sure our friend the troll would puke if he saw me naked, and as Kate said, both of those things can be true at the same time. I believe that there are a lot of people who really and truly dwell in that first world, and they and I have a complete inability to understand or relate to each other. It’s not really a question of what their aesthetic preferences are or how important physical attributes are to that equation, either; it’s whether they can understand that those preferences are anything but the same for everyone. I once had an argument online with someone who never could be made to understand how my husband could be attracted to me without having a so-called “fat fetish.” Of course there’s no reason I couldn’t have been married to a man who prefers fat women, it just so happens that there actually isn’t much pattern to the sizes of the women my husband finds attractive. And the person I was arguing with could not for the life of him understand how weight–be it preferring fat women or thin women–might be a central part of attraction for some but not for others, and that’s fine.

Essentially, my acquaintance believes (if I am interpreting him correctly) that there really is some kind of objective continuum of attractiveness, and that it 1) can be elucidated by considering what “the average person” would find attractive, and 2) may be based on attributes that can be identified and quantified scientifically, such as symmetry, size and spacing of facial features, body size and proportion, etc.

Now, do I agree with him that there are almost certainly patterns that would emerge if you did a large, well-designed study intended to determine which faces and bodies Americans (for example) tend to find the most attractive, and I’m sure I have heard of people doing such studies–although I’m not finding much just via search engine, so I can’t link to any of the results. I also think this is an intriguing research question, and I can see why a scientist would ask it and would then go on to ask “OK, now that we know which subjects are considered the most attractive, can we determine what it is about them that causes this perception of attractiveness?” So I can totally see why my acquaintance finds this question interesting. It’s just that I think the question’s utility is pretty much limited to the academic.

First, sure, there are probably one or a few “types” of face and body that are going to be statistically preferred by the study participants, but the “less preferred” categories in terms of attractiveness are going to be so large that they too are significant. Even if only 0.1% of respondents thought a certain face was attractive, that still means (if the results hold true) that there are 300,000 people just in this country who would agree. It seems like that should be plenty to keep those “unattractive” genes in the gene pool. And just the fact that one sees people walking around every day (just in the U.S.) ranging from very thin to very fat, very traditionally “masculine” to very traditionally “feminine” (regardless of whether the person is male, female, or transgendered), very short to very tall, very small to very large breasts, etc. tells me that a variety of genes are certainly being perpetuated, and widely. I don’t think, to put it another way, that such a study would have any value in terms of predictiveness. And therefore I don’t think it would really make sense in the real world, where real people are living and befriending and loving and hating and being repulsed by and marrying and fucking and breeding with various other people.

So the kind of question I have been wrangling with my acquaintance about–essentially, I think he was arguing that the way you rank people’s attractiveness is with an eye not just for what I think but for what I think everyone else thinks–is, I believe, sort of misleading and beside the point. It’s easy to make the (IMO logically incorrect) leap from “this is the popular/media perception of beauty” to “this is what the average man or woman finds most attractive” to “this is what I expect you, as an individual, will find attractive.” As I said, you can probably find the strict numerical answer to “what the average man or woman finds most attractive,” but that does not mean that you could walk up to me on the street, present me with 10 photos, and predict in what order I would rank their attractiveness. Nor could you get the most widely-agreed-upon-as-attractive man in the world to sneak into my bed and be able to guarantee that I would necessarily want to have sex with him when I found him there. So, this is the kind of topic where you constantly end up conflating academic tendencies with individual preferences, which I think the following conversation is evidence of.

Acquaintance says “Guy X is more attractive than Guy Y, right?” I say “No, Guy X is a little too Abercrombie for my taste.” Acquaintance argues that “on the most basic level,” I would have to agree that Guy X is objectively more attractive than Guy Y. I disagree–in my opinion the “most basic level” is who I am more drawn to or, I suppose, who my brain tells me I would rather have sex with. I suppose the one thing I would concede is that Guy X did look a little more like the type of image I would usually see in the media, held up as “attractive,” than Guy Y. But that piece of information just doesn’t seem relevant, or to make any sense, to me. (Furthermore, I am highly suspicious that media representations actually get at the truth of what is considered attractive even by “the average person,” never mind all the other people.) Actually, all I think this does is to set up a circular self-fulfilling prophecy. Somehow, through forces that I’m sure are way too complicated for me to understand, we have arrived at the current belief that the faces we see in People or Us are the ones that are beautiful.

(As an aside, when did Star turn into like a fucking feminism/FA textbook? Every issue seems to feature both “stars who are too skinny” and “stars who are too fat”–almost always women, and often with a “diets of the stars” feature thrown in for good measure, and gee, I wonder why stars would ever starve themselves or gain weight under this kind of scrutiny–but I guess that’s another entry.)

Anyway, then, I feel that the circular part comes in because what my acquaintance is asking me to do is to codify the cues that I get from external sources like the media and to agree that these cues truly do define “beauty” or “attractiveness.” So what is attractive is attractive because the media says it’s attractive because it’s attractive. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think he believes that he is asking me to essentially act as a media aggregator–he thinks he is asking me to express my understanding of what human beings innately find attractive. But I don’t see how that is possible to do without being told by someone (and the only “someone” I can think of is “the media and other social forces in current U.S. society”) what the answer should be. All I can know is what I find attractive, and if I wanted to know what another individual person found attractive, I guess I would ask him. Guesswork about what such a person is likely to find attractive–regardless of how “set in stone” current beauty ideals may appear to be–seems clumsy and useless to me.

If my acquaintance is truly asking me “what do you believe studies would show as to whether Guy X is widely perceived as more attractive than Guy Y?”–and don’t get me wrong, I still think it’s less rigorous than that and he’s just trying to get me to validate what “everybody knows”–then I guess I find that a profoundly uninteresting conversation to have over a beer. And furthermore, I am not really qualified to comment because I don’t exactly do research in this area. I could offer an opinion, but we all know what they say about assuming. Going even further, I believe that offering my completely unsupported opinion could actually be damaging because we already make way too many hackneyed assumptions about attractiveness vis-à-vis biology (e.g. “people prefer thin mates because thinness represents health, it’s just BIOLOGY”), and I would just as soon not feed into that. So in some ways it’s just shooting the shit, but I think that I find the conversation sort of more profound and potentially dangerous than he does.

Maybe one of the big sticking points here is that I am way less convinced than my acquaintance of the likelihood that the average person on the street actually, deep down, prefers the current beauty ideal. Many truly do have that preference, some probably express that preference despite not feeling it strongly because of social pressure (e.g. to have a “trophy” wife or husband), and I suspect that there are very, very many who have other preferences ranging from a little outside the norm to WAY outside the norm. Jacob of Television Without Pity once wrote a recap that I wish I could find and link to (but I can’t even remember what show it was for, grrr), where he essentially said that people should stop making the mistake of assuming any given person fits a “type.” I think one awesome hypothetical he gave is that your coworker who you always thought of as a stereotypical, perfect sorority girl might actually have something like a drawer full of fingernail clippings that she saves compulsively. Similarly, reducing the “type” that people might prefer to an academic question just makes the world so much less interesting in my opinion. Or as Sarah succinctly commented to Kate’s post, “Do they [commenters like Kate’s troll, or those to another post arguing that fat people are essentially universally considered unattractive] live in the real world? I see ALL TYPES of people paired up on a DAILY basis.” Isn’t that amazingly varied reality so much cooler than trying to figure out if Guy X would be considered attractive by more women out of a hundred than Guy Y?

Few will believe this because I am fat and we don’t really get the benefit of the doubt in this arena, but I didn’t type up this entire post just to convince the world that I personally deserve more hot ass because I am a good person, or to cry about how nobody thinks I’m pretty. (If I were single, I wouldn’t exactly be jumping at the chance to screw somebody who found me disgusting, so the idea that fat people just want to FORCE everyone to date us whether they are attracted to us or not is pretty funny, by which I mean stupid.) Also, perhaps more importantly, I am married, so I can afford to look at this whole thing a little detachedly.

Growing up, I got vast quantities of crap for being fat (and being shy and smart and for crying easily and dressing weird… so who knows how much of it was actually the fat), but every so often a guy would come along who seemed to not only find me attractive, but to think it self-evident that I was attractive. My husband was one of those guys, which was fortunate for me and also a real-life data point that has served to illustrate to me how individual attraction really is. I didn’t do some PR job on my husband to show him that sure I was fat, but I had other characteristics that “made up” for it or that hey, maybe he should give fat girls a try because we’re really not so bad, and wouldn’t it be the sensitive nice guy thing to do for him to “get past” my appearance. He was attracted to me to start with, despite that he does not, on the whole, prefer fat women over thin women. In the same way, physically I would have said before we met that he wasn’t really my “type,” but when I heard his voice and learned how smart he was and had several great, easy conversations with him, he was very attractive to me–and we’ve been together so long now that what I thought was my type seems kind of silly and simplistic, and he is pretty much the definition of my “type” at this point.

So I believe that you are attracted to whomever you’re attracted to. I just think that people need the space to work out for themselves the degree to which that attraction is based on various physical characteristics, various personality and intelligence traits, etc., and don’t deserve to be made to feel guilty whatever the outcome of that self-analysis, “shallow” or otherwise. And then my one “should” on this topic is that people SHOULD, then, understand and honor the fact that attraction is a different mix of factors for everyone. Take fat–for some people, a partner has to be thin or they can’t be attracted to her. For others, she has to be fat. For others, they prefer fat or thin but other factors can override that. For others, weight truly doesn’t matter. And everything in between.

So anyway, I think the only utility my acquaintance’s question might have in the real world would be to further obscure the importance of personal preference in questions of attraction and shift the emphasis to what “normal people” like or what you “should” like, which I think we get enough of in modern society as it is. And since I am basically Pollyanna and want everyone to be happy and all marriages to work out and everyone to be having awesome fulfilling dirty sex with people they are truly attracted to, not just people they feel they should be attracted to–not to mention that I enjoy irritating my acquaintance–I think I’ll just keep refusing to answer.

So, before I start here, I need to disclose that I don’t really know much about Lily Allen, other than what I read in the fatosphere last year when she posted a MySpace blog entry during a moment when she was feeling a lot of pain about her weight and her body. At the time, of course I thought it was very sad both that she personally should feel that way and that the pressures on young female celebrities to reach size 0 are so strong that you pretty much can’t avoid giving in to them eventually (see America Ferrara, Sara Rue, and of course the list goes on) but she quickly posted a follow-up indicating that the worst of the despair had passed and she was feeling better about her body. So I pretty much forgot about it from there.

So I was unpleasantly surprised when I opened the January 2008 issue of Harper’s Bazaar while I waited for my car at the dealership yesterday. I mean, unpleasantly in general; after reading HB for the first time, I was sure glad that I hadn’t before. I hadn’t read a women’s magazine in a while, so I had forgotten exactly how inane (I mean, I’m all for inane, but I prefer my inanity in a form that doesn’t attempt to make me hate myself) and body-negativity-saturated the copy would be.

But as I paged through it I also came across an article entitled “The Skinny on Lily,” which described Allen’s “transformation” from a UK size 12 to a UK 8 (US 4). Before I start in, I should point out that since reading the article I’ve discovered that Allen apparently became pregnant, suffered a miscarriage, and went through a breakup with her boyfriend, all in the last few months. So even if I had a problem with Allen’s own viewpoints, perhaps now would not be the time to pile on.

In addition, I do not necessarily expect a 22-year-old singer to have her life ironed out to an extent that she is capable of acting as the ideal body-acceptance role model, especially while trying to make it in the music world. A recent episode of the Style program How Do I Look (in which an anorexic but normal-weight musician is ultimately told she can still lose weight as long as she does it “the healthy way,” advice which is completely inappropriate for an anorexic person of any weight and only goes to show that, in the music business, even a potentially deadly eating disorder is considered preferable to being of normal BMI) illustrated exactly how difficult this must be in tragic, infuriating detail.

And really, Allen seems, in the article, relatively self-aware and body-accepting, which is a small miracle given the circumstances.

My main quarrel here is with the article itself and the way that, even as a celebrity piece in a fashion magazine, it seems to encapsulate some of the problems with the current state of weight loss/obesity “journalism.” You might hope that the author’s approach would be something less than completely unquestioning, or if you were especially optimistic you might even hope for a touch of criticism for the forces pushing yet another talented young person to succumb to arbitrary Hollywood standards that are totally unrelated to her ability as an artist. As you might imagine, however, this did not happen in Harper’s Bazaar. So the article contained numerous details ranging from mildly irritating me to making me want to throw the magazine across the room, except we were stacked in the waiting room like sardines and I might have injured someone with the 10 pounds of ads contained in the issue.

1. The perennial fat-person descriptor “jolly” (or actually “jollier”) is contained in the third paragraph of the article, immediately following a characterization of Allen’s former body-positive attitude that, to my eye, portrays the idea of loving yourself as you are as almost amusingly quaint and naive.

2. Later in the article, Allen admits that she still smokes. (No judgment for that here, I frequently thank god that I never took up smoking because I can’t even imagine how hard it must be to quit.) But she goes on to say that her weight loss is “not about losing weight, just being fit,” which would not seem to be compatible with smoking, but…wait for it… oh, there it is, as the article continues: “while conceding a not-so-secret pleasure in being able to fit into sample-size frocks at photo shoots.” There we go. Allen herself comments “Now that I do fit into those things, it makes me feel better, but actually it shouldn’t, really.” A good point. Kind of sad, right? But the author doesn’t have a whole lot to say about this except to perkily cheerlead Allen’s new shape at various points in the article as “slinky,” “sculpted,” and “Audrey-esque,” and sums up Allen herself as “The 24-hour party person who decided to get fit and healthy.” Yeah, because clearly that’s totally what this is all about.

3. The author takes pains to point out how much Allen eats (noting that she orders a beef sandwich during the interview, and insisting that she has “little interest in eliminating food groups,” instead favoring her mom’s homemade mac and cheese), contributing to the illusion that everyone in Hollywood is either totally healthy or “just lucky” and able to scarf cheeseburgers while staying thin. This attempt to deflect suspicion that celebrities might be starving themselves seems to surface pretty frequently. I don’t doubt that there are some celebrities who eat a sparse diet that happens to be appropriate for their personal needs, a moderate and nourishing diet, or even a hearty diet, and have no trouble maintaining a size-0, 2, or 4 figure via their natural metabolism. But for the majority, I suspect the reality is much more grueling, and pretending otherwise only serves to minimize the superhuman effort required for most people to achieve Hollywood size standards, which is harmful for everyone.

4. Again, I don’t really blame Allen here, but I do sort of blame the author for describing Allen’s following take on body image as “more sophisticated than you might expect”: “As much as we worry about the size 0 problem, we have to worry about the obesity problem. People get so depressed at not achieving what they are sold as the idea of perfection, they just eat themselves into oblivion. It’s really sad.” I think Allen deserves a lot of credit for recognizing that unrealistic ideals and diet culture are probably exacerbating, not reducing, any increase in average weight that may be occurring in US and UK society. There is also something about this comment that is much more empathetic with and humanizing of fat people than what you typically see in the media. However, Allen’s belief about the origins of the so-called obesity epidemic is by no means established fact; there is evidence that fat people don’t on average eat more than thin people, that fat people do not on a large scale suffer from psychological disorders that contribute to overeating (see Rethinking Thin by Gina Kolata for more information about these points), and that it may be dieting that actually makes people fatter in the end. In any case, misguided or not, is it really “sophisticated” to introduce the idea that there may be larger social and psychological forces that contribute to obesity beyond fat people just being gluttonous and lazy? Or to show even the smallest modicum of sympathy for fat people as human beings? Give Lily a little credit here. I’m sure she has thoughts about body image that are even more “sophisticated” than these, cray-zee though even this sound bite may appear to someone immersed both in the fashion industry and in typical blame-the-fatty “obesity epidemic” media coverage.

5. The assertion that Allen “has too much going on these days to succumb to a major meltdown” seems pretty questionable. Aren’t most young celebrities most vulnerable to a “major meltdown” exactly when their careers really take off and they’re trying to handle all kinds of new career and social pressures at once?

6. This one I don’t know anything about, but it seems mighty interesting to me that her older (now ex-) boyfriend hit the scene just as the new, Hollywood-thin Lily replaced the “old” average-sized Lily.

On the whole, the unquestioning rah-rah coverage of any celebrity who loses any amount of weight by any means (Kirstie Alley, Ricki Lake, Carnie Wilson, etc.) is, and I know this isn’t news to anyone, getting really irritating. It just mirrors society’s larger attitude that weight loss is always the “healthiest” option for a fat or average-sized person, or really even for pretty much any thin person except at the thinnest extremes. (And of course Lily Allen was not particularly fat to start with, but she was fat in her environment and reality, which I suppose is another post). This type of coverage carries the allure not only of the subject looking “better” (which is of course what it’s actually all about) but also the false, morally loaded weight of “health,” making its claims even more difficult to question in the midst of the obesity panic. So the few journalists who currently actually are daring to question the relentless weight-loss cheerleading in the media could sure use some additional company.