KAMPALA – In case you don’t know, BBW stands for “Big Beautiful Women”, “big” being a substitute word for “fat”, which sounds a bit less demeaning. After all, it sounds better to say that someone is “big” or “over-sized” than “fat” or “obese”, although they often refer to the exact same size.
Now, after having written about how beauty standards are disproportionally used to define femininity and evaluate women as opposed to men, and how consumerism has fueled the obsession over beauty, I’d like to zoom in and write a case study. Let’s see where we end up.
Just now, I read Phoebe-Jayne Boyd’s article on the Guardian website about the comments of Jamelia, whom I have never heard of. This women, Jamelia, appears regularly on television in a show called Loose Women, which I have also never heard of. Anyway, Jamelia, who is a rather beautiful, slim lady made some comments about fat, -sorry, unhealthy people that the Guardian-based writer had some issues with.
Here’s what Jamelia apparently said:
A huge proportion of our teenagers are well over the weight they should be. I am all for celebrating people as they are … but I do not think it’s right to facilitate people living an unhealthy lifestyle. I really don’t.
I do think that you should feel uncomfortable if you are unhealthy.
Both are interesting comments, – and I agree more with the first than with the second. Some background: the topic at hand was whether stores should supply bigger sizes (for women) in their regular (chain) stores. Don’t worry, no one is actually arguing that overweight people should walk around in smaller sizes or turn nudist, – the argument was whether these sizes should be available in “normal” clothing stores as opposed to “special” clothing stores specifically geared towards those who happen to wear a bigger size. The comment section is, as I am writing this, filling up with people arguing that fat should not be celebrated.
The (feminist) counter-movement to oppressive body ideals and reducing women to their appearance has overreached slightly when obese people argue in favour of mainstreaming their medical condition (which obesity is) and classify it as “healthy”. Phoebe-Jayne Boyd argued pointing this out is “fat-shaming”.
This counter-movement promotes the promotion of “realistic body types” rather than the idealised beautiful, slim (sometimes too slim) bodies seen in advertisements and such. I have applauded these efforts considering the fact that bodies in most advertisements are a) of extremely beautiful people genetically endowed with said beauty and moreover, people who have a job that requires them to take care of their body whilst for the most of us doing that is a side activity next to our actual job, and b) well, – they’re photoshopped. They make you look at your own body and compare, and somehow that comparison never turns out in your favour.
Question is; who leads these efforts? I called it a “feminist counter-movement”, however, Dove seems to be leading the charge with their Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. With twitter tags (#choosebeautiful) and advertisements of older, balder, freckled, and wrinkled ladies with the tick box that essentially gives the viewer the choice between “hot” or “not”. Famous is their reaction to a Victoria’s Secret ad by having “real women” posing in lingerie as opposed to the fake ones in Victoria’s campaign (?).
First of all, Dove is a corporation and the main reason they launched this campaign is to make profit (=selling your their body lotion and shower gel). Instead of selling you beauty, they sell you self-love. Or both, because Dove still makes your skin baby-soft. Regardless, Dove’s campaign might be a step in the right direction. If only anyone else could launch a similar campaign that is not aimed at consumption but at social change…
What is then the difference between, say, Dove’s real beauties, and Phoebe-Jayne Boyd’s argument in favour of accepting fat? Dove promotes healthy body types, not realistic body types. The ladies in those advertisements are all quite beautiful, look healthy, and happy. They have to, because if Dove would portray a self-loathing teenage girl with body-issues they wouldn’t sell a thing. Ironically, their profit-based intentions prevent them from promoting unhealthy but realistic body types.
Unhealthy but realistic, you say? Yes. The definition of what constitutes a realistic body is changing. Almost one third (!) of the world’s population is overweight , and in the coming years that will only increase, especially among young people. Already, we have people like Phoebe-Jayne criticising “fat-shaming” (which is a term I never of before). “Plus size” model Tess Munster, who recently signed a major contract, is obese. I don’t exactly know what “plus size” means, but if I google it, the vast majority of women that turn up are rather beautiful, – just not as skinny as the average model (which is very skinny). Compared to these models, Tess Munster is most definitely not “plus sized” (fyi: she can be found posing at the top of this page).
Tess Munster is also a woman, and we have not seen any male “plus size” models attempting to break away from the sixpacks and the grizzled muscles in advertisements. Evidently and unsurprisingly, beauty standards affect women more than men. Fat is a feminist issue, just for different reasons than Susie Orbach pointed out in the 80s.
The issue I have with this line of argumentation (we should not make obesity, a medical condition, mainstream in the spirit of battling ideal body types and beauty ideals for women), is that obesity is not just an individual choice. Fat people are not just “lazy, greedy, and stupid” (lazy because they don’t work out; greedy because they consume too much; and stupid because some of them don’t seem to notice the causal link between their behaviour and their weight).
Obesity as a medical condition is often diagnosed (or just visible) in the lower socio-economical regiments of society. Explanations for this are e.g. the fact that having low income makes it harder to eat healthy (healthy food tends to be more expensive compared to unhealthy food, although some may disagree on that); having two jobs to support your family leaves you with little time to prepare healthy food; and education, in general and on lifestyle or food, is lacking in these families. Fat is not just an individual choice, – it is very unlikely that people in particular circumstances all make the same decision (to live unhealthy) individually without there being a structural factor contributing to that behaviour. This is changing, though, with people of all ways of life becoming obese.
After all, the food industry makes sure to provide cheap and readily available junk food wherever you go. Being judgmental of attempts to mainstream obesity (or of people’s attempts to proclaim their self-love and their self-acceptance of their obese bodies) seems hardly like an actual working strategy, however important it might be for our general health to make sure obesity does not become mainstream.
On a different and closing note: here we have a perfect example of how consumerism, feminism, and inequality on the basis of socio-economic status are closely interrelated.