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.