Saturday, November 15, 2008

Women Are Not Sausages

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

"The older I become, the more I exercise and the less I eat. And yet, the fatter I am," writes Michelle Slatella in an article entitled "I Can't Outrun My Weight Issues" in the November 12th issue of The New York Times. Slatella then proceeds to treat us to a jolly description of her ramped-up workout routines, as well as the combinations of fat-concealing undergarments that she has tried, with less and less success. My favorite was the "Slim Cognito Body Shaping Cami" (if James Bond wore a body shaping cami, it would be this one!), which the author finally conceded was not working.

"Before I knew it, I was wrapped so tightly that one night at dinner I warned my husband, 'If I pass out, call the ambulance and make sure they bring the Jaws of Life.'

'I’ll bet they can cut you out of that stuff in no time,' he said encouragingly.

'But stand back,' I warned. 'When the cami goes, it could take your eye out.'"

This could have been the article's turning point. It's a fairly universal story: young women fear the moment when their magical metabolism, which allows them to maintain the weight that society requires by only cutting out 500 calories a day and indulging in an hour of strenuous aerobic exercise (my women's studies professor lovingly refers to elliptical machines as "ovulators"), will go, and they will become chubby monsters, fighting an uphill battle against - God forbid - age. But Slatella instead succumbs to one of the most pernicious aspects of our beauty culture, buying completely into the notion that women's bodies, as they age, become ugly and unnatural. She is not happy about the amount of work that she needs to do to keep her body looking youthful.

"Great. I hate that stuff," she writes. "But I can see this is one of those situations — like when you’re in the late stages of labor and the delivery nurses start yelling “push, push” at a time when you’d really prefer not to — when you can’t ignore the problem until it goes away."

Comparing middle-aged weight loss to childbirth? Really? Why does our society hate women's bodies so much that when something like metabolism change, that we cannot help, that is completely natural, occurs, we consign women to forty years of exponentially increasing self-loathing and disgust? We gain weight as we get older, men and women. It's normal. We need to accept it. There is nothing wrong with wanting to stay healthy as we age, but we can't exercise to the point of obsession or collapse, or worse, stuff ourselves into absurd, constricting undergarments (and really, this is different from the corset how?). Slatella's flippant tone is equally disturbing. We criticize Islamic countries for controlling women's bodies with the burqa, but our society is just as blatant - we have no call to be self-righteous when articles like this are being published in the New York Times. We can't outrun our bodies. And we shouldn't try.


At November 15, 2008 at 3:11 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Might this be because our perceptions of beauty are hard-wired, and no feminist blank-slatism will change the fact that young, slim, nubile women are perceived as more sexually attractive as older women, and it is difficult for the latter to remain sexually attractive, *if that is what they want.* It is entirely possible for the woman in the article to forgo male attention and live a perfectly comfortable life, but she desires the various bonuses that men give to attractive women, despite being married. I can't work up much sympathy for her having to pay the price.

It is fortunate at least that she was smart enough to get married beforehand, rather than be deluded by the '60s era have-it-all ideal of feminists. Plenty of these women were misled to believe that they, like men, could pursue careers until well into their thirties and still attract the same level of male attention as they did in their prime.

At November 15, 2008 at 3:23 PM , Anonymous Chloe Angyal said...

@Anonymous (a reminder - we strongly encourage you to identify yourself in posting your comments):

Amelia's point is that as a society, our definition of beauty is incredibly narrow, and that while some aspects of that might be hardwired, biology doesn't explain everything.
What she's arguing is that our definition of beauty needs to be expanded beyond "young, slim and nubile." It also needs to be acknowledged that what you deem attractive is, again, allowing for some hardwiring, largely subjective. The fact that it's subjective means that it is susceptible to social construction, but also, thankfully, that it's possible to change.

At November 15, 2008 at 3:25 PM , Blogger Roscoe said...

Let's be honest though, these kinds of insecurities run much deeper than our society. The simple fact that women can have menopause leads me to believe that there is a certain biological aspect to all of this, something "that we cannot help, that is completely natural" about finding younger, fitter women more attractive. Of course, this doesn't mean that we should make everyone else feel bad, I agree with you on everything, and people should be more accepting and tolerant of theirs and others' bodies. My only problem with your comment, Chloe, is that you are forcing too much of this on society and corporations (which, don't get me wrong, I think they would exploit just about anything for profit).

Society and corporations only picked up on what was naturally already there. Older women like younger men, they are lovingly called cougars. Younger men like older women, this is called normal (and we could totally get into the whole unfairness of this, but that is another post). This is hardly something society imposes on us, it is self-imposed. Even if corporations didn't have advertisements, there would still be competition between members of the same sex to look better than each other and try to emulate the people seeming to have the most success with the other sex. That being said, we still need to focus on loving our bodies and not feeling pressured to be anybody but ourselves.

At November 15, 2008 at 4:13 PM , Blogger LSG said...

Also to anonymous --
It's telling that the second half of your comment congratulates the woman to have had the foresight to get married before she was out of her "prime." While your intent seems to be to suggest that marriage is desirable and that women (especially college-age women) who resist the idea of marriage at a young age are deluded, you in fact reveal how empty your conception of marriage actually is. If we went only by your comment, marriage would be desirable for a woman as a way to trap a man into paying attention for her, and only desirable for a man insofar as it gives him unlimited access to a young, attractive, nubile woman -- until, of course, she grows old and ugly. Marriage for grown-up reasons, like companionship, shared values, compatible future plans, (gasp) sexual compatibility and (GASP) being in love is reduced to a very basic formula: marriage is based solely on a woman's physical attractions, by which she can ensnare a man into caring for her when her physical attractiveness runs out.

That formulation of marriage, quite frankly, makes it deeply undesirable to me and, I would think, to any other thinking man or woman. It just sounds like a bad deal all the way around. Unless, of course, you're a woman who's happy to think she gave up a chance at a career in order to force a man who's only interested in her because she's slim and nubile to be with her when those charms have faded -- or if you're a man content to know that you're promising your life to a woman who will quickly cease to enthrall you in any way once she gains a few pounds.

At November 15, 2008 at 5:50 PM , Anonymous jkis said...

I'd also like to take a moment to challenge the statement that the "have it all" mentality (read: have a marriage/family and a career) so derisively attributed to "60s feminists" is a delusion. This seems to come up a lot from our anonymous anti-feminist commentators, and I think it needs addressing.

The call for women to find fulfillment in and out of the home, which did gain popular attention in the 1960s, has proven to be a huge boon for women (and, incidentally, for the American workforce.) The feasibility of this vision is well documented and, frankly, obvious: millions of American women now succeed in the workplace while enjoying fruitful marriages and raising happy children. This is not a 60s feminist delusion, this is modern American reality. Get used to it.

At November 15, 2008 at 6:02 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...


Please explain what you would demarcate as the line between culture and biology. In other words, what kind of criteria of beauty would you be willing to accept as biological without reaching for the old "socially constructed" chestnut, and what makes that point so special?

Undoubtedly social conventions do account for some variation in the ideal of beauty (for example, the faddish waffling between blondes and brunettes, and the between women with more feminine or more masculine appearances). However, the problem with the culture argument, widely used to explain all sorts of group differences and social attitudes, is that the man behind the curtain is never unmasked. There is never any proof of a force trying to warp social views beyond the dictates of biology - all that the culture-arguers do is say "it's culture," and they're done.

At November 15, 2008 at 6:11 PM , Anonymous Jordan Bubin '09 said...

Anonymous, our perceptions of beauty are not, in fact, hard-wired. Nor, Roscoe, did society pick up on what was already there.

Unless, of course, you think that racial differences are hard-wired too, therefore explaining the different conceptions of beauty in different societies. Is that why long necks are beautiful to Maori tribesmen, or tiny feet in other cultures?

Except, um, no--because not even our culture has a single hard-wired definition of beauty, historically. Sure, there were corsets to make sure women strapped down to a tiny waist, but they also had massive butt umbrellas back in the day. Go even further back historically, and obesity was once a sign of beauty, as it meant you had enough money to eat, and to eat well.

The only way to make the argument that beauty is hard-wired is to indulge in complete historical solipsism.

P.s., anonymous, do you think women capable of giving bonuses to men, or only men to attractive women?

At November 15, 2008 at 6:15 PM , Anonymous Jordan Bubin '09 said...

Ah, anonymous, you just posted again. We cross-posted, but I'm curious--do you consider the difference between being attracted to slim waists and to artificially extended necks merely "some variation in the ideal of beauty" equitable to "the faddish waffling between blondes and brunettes," or do you just write such differences off as the disingenuous chestnuts of feminists out to mislead women?

At November 15, 2008 at 9:18 PM , Blogger Roscoe said...

As for my comment, what I meant to say is even further proven by your examples Jordan. Corporations have picked up on these norms, at least in this society and have just exploited them. I'm sure if capitalism bustled in New Zealand's tribal areas, the Maori would be judging themselves based on whatever tribeswoman that had the long enough neck to be photographed. You are battling a force much larger than advertising companies and chauvinist CEO's. Ultimately biology dictates much of what our tastes are and who we are going to be mimicking or comparing ourselves to. The only way to truly battle the biological aspect is with some rational reason why long term is better than men trying to spread their seed into the most capable host (viewing women as hosts of their semen I suppose). LSG highlights much of what this would entail.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, no doubt, but to that beholder, there will always be some ideal, someone that has more or better of whatever it is he likes, that is the doubt of men and women, and so is the mantra of advertising. That is what corporations exploit.

At November 16, 2008 at 12:03 PM , Anonymous Jordan Bubin '09 said...

Roscoe, honestly, you're now the one talking about some phantom force. So corporations are exploiting these norms--where did they come from? Chloe and Amelia's point is that they're socially constructed, including by corporations. You talk about biology again. Are you telling me that different groups have different conceptions of biology genetically programmed in?

Are you aware that attempts to prove fundamental genetic differences between races is now really only in vogue for those trying to justify the fact that minorities get railroaded in public education?


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