It’s been two years since I’ve experienced symptoms of an eating disorder, such as skipping meals or over-exercising, but I’ve thought about the disease every day since then. In our world, it’s hard not to.
I’m reminded of it when I see my friends who have eating disorders post on Facebook about the challenges that their eating disorders continue to present. I think about it when I hear girls in the Stern College cafeteria debating which foods have the fewest calories. And, most of all, I see it all around me — the Photoshopped actresses on magazine covers, the half-naked model in car dealership commercials, the emaciated women on the product billboards that line the highway.
In Elissa Strauss’ recent Sisterhood post “Should we Lighten Up About Weight?” she posits that in a perfect world the topic of gaining or losing weight wouldn’t send everyone into a tizzy, and I agree. But until we reach that perfect state of living, I can’t imagine most women or young girls taking too kindly to someone calling them “a little fat,” no matter the critic’s intent.
For now, sensitivity is required.
That now-infamous Vogue essay in which mother Dara-Lynn Weiss writes about putting her 7-year-old daughter on a diet — Weiss resorts to such tactics as occasionally refusing the youngster dinner, and publicly shaming her when she wanted to go off of her diet — has gotten the author a book deal and some public shaming of her own.
Over at Slate’s Double X, Katy Waldman spoke to body image expert Dr. Robyn Silverman, who said that a mother should never speak with her daughter about weight. Ever. Waldman goes on to say that it saddens her that weight loss has become so fraught a topic, especially considering that obesity is considered a health risk.
I don’t doubt that Silverman’s advice is sound, and would benefit many mother-daughter relationships. But it doesn’t seem like it should be the end goal.
In a perfect world, the one I hope my daughter will get to live in, weight-gain would not be the loaded topic it is now. It would be something you can laugh about, a matter without much significance. I grew up in a house like this. It wasn’t my mother, but rather my Salvadorean housekeeper who offered me an alternative and, frankly, empowering, narrative about weight.
In recent months, there has been much ado over media smears, slights, and attacks on Jews, African-Americans, gays and other minorities. Journalistic careers have taken a hit in the wake of comments that have caused offense — Helen Thomas, Rick Sanchez, Juan Williams, etc. — and spirited arguments regarding the fine line between free speech and political correctness seem to be continually taking place.
But the most recent furor over hate speech is unique because it is involves a group that is regularly disdained, ignored, discriminated against and insulted, but rarely fights back: the obese.
A shameful admission from a proud feminist: I’ve been watching the latest season of the reality show competition “America’s Next Top Model.” I know, I know, I ought to be ashamed of myself, but there’s something about this show that is so far removed from day-to-day life that I just can’t help myself.
Of course I try to assuage my guilty conscience by providing a running feminist commentary as I’m watching, but I can’t deny the blatantly obvious: I’m still one of the consumers who’s caught up in this warped perception of feminine beauty.
And yet, there is a small feminist victory in all this — and it has nothing to do with the inclusion this season of a Modern Orthodox contestant.
My mother-in-law just sent me an article entitled “When is your chubby baby too chubby” I wouldn’t take it so personally if I wasn’t already a little worried about my four-month-old daughter.
When I took Mika in to the doctor for her most recent check-up, the nurse started chuckling when she looked down at the scale. “Sixteen pounds, eight ounces! Wooweee!” “Um, doesn’t that actually say ‘five ounces’” I asked demurely. The point five indicated half a pound, or eight ounces. And it was at that moment that I realized I had become totally crazy. I was worried about what my adorable baby weighed. I was worried that if she was too chubby now (she’s in the 95th percentile for weight), she would spend her life obsessing over her thighs and rear end.
Elizabeth Edwards’ appearance, specifically her zaftig figure, may have played into her saintly reputation, which is only now taking a beating in the wake of the publication of John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s “Game Change.” In this delicious excerpt, published in New York magazine, Heilemann and Halperin write:
Even before the cancer, she was among her husband’s greatest political assets. In one focus group conducted by Hickman in Edwards’s Senate race, voters trashed him as a pretty-boy shyster until they saw pictures of Elizabeth, four years his senior. “I like that he’s got a fat wife,” one woman said. “I thought he’d be married to a Barbie or a cheerleader.”
Which makes me wonder: If Elizabeth Edwards looked more like a trophy wife, would it have taken so long for what the “Game Change” authors call the “lie of Saint Elizabeth” to be exposed? And would reports that she is arrogant, selfish and prone to angry outbursts be so surprising? Does a Barbie look-alike or a former cheerleader or a size-0 beer heiress — even one who, like Elizabeth, has experienced great loss and is facing a terminal illness — make a more believable villain than a chubby woman who looks most of her 60 years?
“My name is Heli Buzaglo, I’m 24 years-old from Afula, a fat girl, FAAAAAAAAT but beautiful (or at least that’s what everyone says, including the mirror on the wall.” Thus opens the blog of one of the contestants in the 2009 Fat Beauty Pageant in Israel — or, what I have come to think of as the best and the worst of women’s body culture.
The pageant, held last week in Beersheva, was open for women weighing 176 pounds or more. In advance of the voting, the Internet was swamped with homemade videos of self-described beautiful fat girls posing in heavy make-up, sexy lingerie and suggestive poses. In yet another “American Idol” transposition, young women beg their viewers to “SMS Yarin, number995! I love you all!”
When I first saw the full-page advertisement for the pageant in the local newspaper, I was excited. After all, “fat” and “beauty” do not often occupy space in the same sentence in Western culture.
Susie Orbach is known for being the first to say, loudly and in print, “stop hating your bodies and start listening to them.”
The London-based psychotherapist’s 1978 book, “Fat is a Feminist Issue: The Anti-Diet Guide for Women” broke new ground with the message that women were subjected to tremendous cultural pressures about their bodies and are better off trying to listen to their bodies instead of hating them. In her eleventh and latest book, “Bodies,” Orbach looks at the current cultural expectations about appearances imposed on women and men, and the way self-loathing manifests itself through the things we do to our bodies, such as plastic surgery or, in extreme cases, even wanting to amputate perfectly healthy limbs.
Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert recently commented on the culture around women and weight perfectly when he had Orbach, 62, on “The Colbert Report.” He told her, faux-seriously, that she looks great, but that if weighed five pounds less, she would have been talking about the book on “The Daily Show.”
The Sisterhood recently spoke with Orbach about her new book, and the relationship between Judaism and body image:
Debra Nussbaum Cohen: Do you think you’ve been successful in changing cultural discourse around body image?
Susie Orbach: When I wrote “Fifi” [“Fat is a Feminist Issue”], it was to share a whole bunch of ideas arising in women’s groups about food and its relation to the body. I thought that was it, but the situation developed and got worse, got more intense, which is why I got back to that now in “Bodies.” In terms of opening up a conversation, perhaps it has made a difference.
What’s your Jewish background?
I grew up in a very secular Jewish household in London, but my mother was a New Yorker. My family … didn’t keep kosher or go to synagogue, but was clear we were Jewish. At the same time, I was encouraged to pass for a nice little English girl — not to speak with my hands. When I came to New York in the late 1960s it was a Jewish, Italian, Irish, black culture, and kind of noisy. I understood it.
How do you think about being Jewish now?
It’s a completely central part of my identity, but what the hell that means is another question. Do I have a mezuzah at the door? No. Do I light the candles at Chanukah? Yes. I always either go or have a Seder. But that’s it —those are the two festivals. My children wouldn’t want to go to shul for Yom Kippur, but if they wanted to stay home from school they were encouraged to consider what they needed to forgive themselves for. It was done at that level.
Do we Jews internalize any of the prevalent stereotypes of women and Jewishness?
Yes, I think we do. It has to be rethought in terms of other ethnicities being represented these days and the fact that there are plenty of Jewish women who have refashioned themselves in the mode of the non-Jew. We have internalized it.
Are Jewish women more prone than others to the body anxiety you write about?
No. I thought that was true when I wrote “FiFi,” but was disabused of that by readers. It had become a universal currency. Part of the argument of “Bodies” is that we are exporting body hatred across the world. It’s one of the West’s hidden exports. Whatever kind of marker this anxiety might have been at one moment for a group like the Jews because of issues of visibility and invisibility, I think that’s no longer the case.
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