Friday, November 5, 2010

Vicious Circle: A Rant

I was watching The Big Bang Theory last night – which, by the way, is one of the funniest shows on television and if you haven’t seen it, you should remedy that posthaste – and a young woman appeared who looked familiar. I frowned, wondering where I’d seen her before. For about five minutes, it drove me crazy because I just couldn’t figure out who she was. Suddenly, it hit me. That’s Eliza Dushku! I thought. Then I thought, Oh my god, she’s dying of cancer.

I remember Eliza being a little more plump, curvier, more voluptuous. Dawn said I was mistaken, but I wasn’t. I quickly Googled her and found pictures of a much softer Eliza. But the Eliza on The Big Bang Theory was not soft. She was ... well ... rather unsettling. “You’re just remembering her babyfat,” Dawn said. No, I’m sorry, that’s not true. I’m remembering a healthier looking Eliza, that’s what I’m remembering. I’m remembering an Eliza whose bones were not vividly apparent. The Eliza I saw last night had a jaw that could cut glass. I could play pool with one of her legs. And win.

If your jaw can cut glass? I’m sorry, but you’re not hot. If I can play pool with one of your legs? You’re a woman in crisis and you need to eat some goddamned sandwiches.

What in the hell has happened to us? I’m going to be 48 soon, and in my lifetime, I have watched as the popular image of the female form has gone from one of voluptuous curves to ... well, to Keira Knightley. I was channel surfing not long ago and I came across a movie in which a scary skeleton was flailing about. For a moment, I thought it was the Nicolas Cage movie Ghost Rider. But no. It was a Keira Knightley movie. I’m not even sure which one. All I know is that as soon as I realized what I was watching, I wanted to make that poor girl a plate of spaghetti. Don’t get me wrong – Keira Knightley is a beautiful young woman. It’s just that she’s not a whole beautiful young woman. She looks like she’s been animated by Ray Harryhausen and should be crossing swords with Jason and the Argonauts.

Back in the 1980s, a handful of Alfred Hitchock movies that had been out of circulation for decades were finally rereleased to theaters. One of them was Vertigo starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak. I saw it in the Liberty Theater in St. Helena, California. Back then, the Liberty was an art house that showed foreign films and old black-and-white movies that featured genuine movie stars from another time. It had a snack bar that offered bagels and unusual coffees with the usual theater snacks. I had never seen Vertigo – or Rear Window or The Man Who Knew Too Much or Rope or The Trouble with Harry, which were also rereleased around that time – and I was giddy with excitement. Kim Novak was a jaw-slackening, eye-popping goddess with an hourglass figure, an image of soft, strokable femininity. There were no rigid tendons in her neck, no angular bones poking out, none of the things that had become the norm by the mid-‘80s. This was 1958, just a few years before I was born, a different world, when women in movies had curvy, definable shapes. I remember thinking as I sat in the theater, She probably would be considered overweight today. Sure enough, a few minutes later, someone a couple of rows behind me said, “My god, she’s such a cow.” I nearly tossed my popcorn.

Kim Novak? A cow? What the fuck?

It’s happened to so many women in movies and television – gorgeous, voluptuous women who apparently begin listening to all the wrong people and suddenly show up looking like they should have little numbers tattooed on their forearms. Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Connely, Minnie Driver, Christina Ricci – the list is too long.

What is the purpose of this unrealistic, unhealthy female image that the media has been bludgeoning us with for so long? All you have to do is look around to see that most women simply do not look like that – which is fortunate for all of us. What’s unfortunate is that so many women have been made to feel that they should look like that. Why? Who benefits? Doctors? Eating disorder clinics? Jenny Craig? Morticians?

I’ve known so many women throughout my life who are beautiful, desirable, but who are ashamed of their bodies because they’ve been made to feel that their asses are too big or their thighs are too thick or their belly isn’t flat enough or their breasts aren’t big enough. At the same time, most of the men I’ve known have been put off by the media’s malnourished, skeletal female ideal. Bones are not sexy. Women who look like they puke on a regular basis are not a turn on.

It seems to be changing a little here and there, but not without resistance. In April of 2010, ABC and Fox balked at airing a commercial for Lane Bryant lingerie. The commercial featured a drop-dead gorgeous full-figured model in lingerie. ABC and Fox said it was just too hot for primetime. Fox refused to show it during American Idol and ABC wouldn’t show it during Dancing with the Stars until the very end. There was too much skin in this ad, too much cleavage, they claimed. As we all know, American television networks do all they can to avoid showing things like bare skin or cleavage during the primetime hours. No one ever wears anything revealing on American Idol. You never, ever see any exposed skin on Dancing with the Stars, where all the dancers are always completely covered from head to toe. Right? So that must be the reason Fox demanded some serious editing on this commercial and ABC refused to show it during one of its most popular shows. Right? It probably had nothing to do with the model’s size, which didn’t exactly fall within network television’s norm. Or maybe the networks thought they were doing their viewers a service. I can imagine some network suit saying, “Nobody wants to see that!” Or, “We certainly don’t want to give women the impression that it’s okay to look like that!”

It seems a big part of the media’s job is to make us unhappy with our lot. We need this car, that gadget, this TV, that video game system, and if we don’t get them, we are somehow failures as human beings. It’s one thing to do that with material goods. But it’s quite another to set an unrealistic standard for the human body and hold it up as the ideal so that those who do not meet that standard are made to feel inadequate.

According to the website of the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, about eight million Americans suffer from eating disorders. That in itself is alarming, but what’s more alarming is the breakdown – one million men ... and seven million women. Alarming, yes, but not too surprising, if you ask me. One in 200 American women are anorexic. Two to three in every 100 American women suffer from bulimia. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. According to research by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 5% to 10% of anorexics die within 10 years of the onset of the disease and 18% to 20% of anorexics will die after 20 years. Only 30% to 40% ever recover fully from these diseases. reports that Americans spend $40 billion a year on weight loss programs and products. Of course, obesity is a growing problem in America and I’m not trying to suggest that being fat is a healthy lifestyle choice. It’s not. Take a trip to Walmart on any given day and you’ll see an abundance of people who are not only morbidly obese but who, judging by their wardrobe choices, seem to be unaware of this fact. Yes, that’s a problem, too. But how much of that yearly $40 billion is being spent by people -- let's face it, by women -- who really don’t need those programs or products but spend the money on them out of a desire to meet that unrealistic standard?

Of all the women I’ve known throughout my life, not one – not a single one, not ever – has said, “I’m too skinny.” And there have been some who were too skinny. Instead, they talk about the parts of their bodies that are too big, too flabby, too round. These are not fat women I’m talking about. These are perfectly lovely women who feel inadequate because they are the targets of cultural demands that are not only unrealistic but are unhealthy and even dangerous.

I was saddened to see what Eliza Dushku has done to herself. I used to think Angelina Jolie was the most beautiful actress to come along in years until she wasted away to a pale, hollow-eyed stick figure. It’s said that the camera puts ten pounds on the human body. If that’s the case, holy crap, what do these women look like in person? These are gorgeous women who are damaging themselves because they think they’re ... what? Too fat? Seriously? And the skinnier they get, the more pressure they put on the millions of women who watch them, who see them as some kind of ideal – an ideal they will never attain. This is a vicious circle of emotional and physical damage that we seem to be aware of but, for some reason, cannot step out of, even though we all know we should.


  1. I haven't seen Dushku since Dollhouse was on the air. That'd be a shame if she's succumb to an eating disorder.

  2. With the press and Health organizations spouting the 42% of Americans are obese, that number will likely grow... seems anorexic and bulimic women are among the very few that are taking those statistics to task.

    My morbidly obese neighbor sure isnt'... I just wish she'd stop throwing her empty soda cans and snack wrappers by my porch.

  3. Thank you, Meester Garton.

    As a (now semi-curvy) anorexic (like addicts, once an anorexic, always an anorexic... :::sigh:::), who at one point in my late 20s weighed in at 80 pounds, and was ambulanced to the ER because my heart stopped beating, it is beyond heartening to read your words and realize that not everyone (male or female), believes that women should be just skin and bones....

    I think I just fell in love with you a wee bit.

  4. You've done an important service today, Ray. Eating patterns and practices that cause unhealthy thinness (bulemia, anorexia) can be from a very serious illness. The causes for the clinical syndrome are mysterious and complex, but more is being learned all the time and help is available.

    The case you make with this blog, Ray, is that there is a behavior outside of that illness that is unhealthy and entirely voluntary--unless we want to theorize that becoming a Hollywood star causes eating disorders (a proposition quickly defeated by adequate counterexamples). A powerful element of this tendency in otherwise healthy people is driven by a combination of faddishness and poor self-image or self-esteem. Unless you had an idyllic childhood (and even then) nearly all humans, as they grow up, acquire a voice inside them that is not their friend. The inner voice can originate in hectoring parents, bullying classmates or unkind siblings whom we have internalized and made our own. For a woman, looking at glamorized images of thin women in certain magazines or on TV and in the movies can give ammunition to such self-hating inner narratives.

    The important thing first is to recognize this voice as being an unhealthy part of your own psyche. When it says, "You're so fat," if another part of you knows that's normatively false (you're less than ten percent overweight) tell that voice to shut up and sit down. Even if you're more than ten percent overweight, that voice, if it says anything other than "my dear, you're a terrific person no matter what, but you'd be healthier and breathe easier if you lost some weight" is never going to make you thin; only miserable. When the voice is punitive or self-mocking, you need to beat it down whenever it pipes up. For those who will stay alert for the voice and tell it to shut up over and over again whenever necessary, that can be enough in many cases. When you dispute the voice inside you that is not your friend, it gets weaker, but you have to stay on it, do it every time that part of yourself that doesn't like you jumps on you until the self-hating refrain gets too weak to hear.

    If "the voice" is always talking about your weight, and telling it to shut up each time you hear it doesn't work, and you're getting thinner and thinner and friends or parents are worried, please get professional help, because it could save your life.

  5. I remember when Sir Mixalot came out with "Baby Got Back." A fresh faced middle-school girl at the time, I looked at that video praising the glory of full figures buttucks and thought, "Damn straight."

    I actually did end up anorexic in High School. Despite loving my ass, I was easily convinced that looking like a walking lollypop was ragingly sexy. WTF?

  6. Here's a little speculation to ponder. Because a girls' libido is fixed before puberty, perhaps the "skinny" trend is influenced by dissatisfaction of their bodies because they have changed from their pre-pubescent state. They subconsciously want to return to the shape they had as pre-teens. I think the obsession many women have about breast size could also be traced to this stage. Most pre-teen girls seem to envy the larger breasts of older girls and women. Thus, they get fixated on large breasts. As adults, they like to pretend they are enlarging them because men like them, but I think that is just a smoke screen for their hidden fixation.

  7. That insight about wishing to escape to the safety of a presexual state makes sense to me, Tenore Primo. As great as sex is, it can also be a mine field for both men and women. But the cultural pressures around sex are somewhat different for men and women. Women don't have to be particularly perceptive to observe the connection between men's eyeballs and their, uhm, other round body parts. (Not all men are that way, of course, and love can change a man's perceptions about what is sexy, just as it does for women). To the extent that society puts such a high premium on changing fads of "perfection in the female form," how a woman looks becomes important whether she does or does not want a lot of sexual attention. Whereas, most men have figured out their great good luck in women not necessarily holding them to such a strict standard physically. This cultural double standard would surely help account for why there are far fewer men with excessive thinness due either to a physiological eating disorder or a social one.

  8. Thank you, Ray - for loving women because they do not look like boys.

    I think another rant could be produced for men who feel they must look like Atlas. I have always been creep-ed out by men who have way to much testosterone for them to be sane.

  9. I have written about this a few times and it is very important. My day job as a school teacher puts me at the front line of a whole bunch of children who have no clue what it means to be healthy. We must keep the message out there or this is a problem which will only get worse.

  10. Well said Ray... as the father of a daughter making her way into puberty things like this have me effing terrified.

    And did you ever notice the cycle of things with these actresses?

    First the tabloids start making catty remarks that the actress is putting on weight.

    Then she loses the weight and they have headlines about her secret diet plan.

    Then she she gets too skinny they start talking about her tragic anorexia.

    Great article sir.

  11. And this is just another reason you always have a place in my heart. ;)

    At one point in my life, I actually weighed what the health chart says someone my height should weigh. My doctor threatened to put me in the hospital because I looked awful, and my blood pressure, blood counts and everything were way off. But according to the charts, I should have been perfect.

    Two years and 80 pounds later, he pronounced me much healthier (and again, according to the chart, I was now morbidly obese...go figure).

    You know who was hot, but found Jenny Craig and now looks all kinds of wrong? Sara Rue. She used to be adorable. Now she's sharp and pointy. :-/

  12. Curves FTW!
    Sad about Eliza and Angelina. Very sad. :(

  13. Fine blog.I like The Big Bang Theory.The show's initial pilot, developed for the television season, was substantially different from its current form.