Looking at Women

There’s a scene from Shallow Hal (before the place where I walked out of a friend’s home because I found the movie so appalling I couldn’t sit through it) where Hal goes into a restaurant with an absurdly fat girl whom he sees as traditional heroin-chic skinny due to some magical maneovering earlier in the movie.  They sit down and she orders an ordinary or perhaps over large meal – cheeseburgers or some such.  His eyes grow approvingly wide, and he congratulates her for eating like a normal person.

But the movie makes it clear that if he could see her for what she looks like outwardly – instead of seeing her ‘beautiful personality’ portrayed in the flesh as he prefers to see beauty – he would never have spoken to her, much less considered sleeping with her or spending time with her or falling in love with her.

Shallow Hal may be intended as a caricature of piggish chauvenism, but he isn’t the only one who expects women to be thin and eat like there’s no tomorrow.  A Cinderella Story, an overall cute rags-to-riches/coming of age story, has a similar motif.  Popular cheerleading girlfriends order ’something with no carbs, no fat, and no sugar’ and are sarcastically offered tap water.  Naturally, the heroine diner waitress, we are to understand from her disgusted response to the request, eats like a ‘normal person’ – and yet Hillary Duff is just as skinny as the rest of them.  It is a defining moment in the film; the nasty controlling girlfriends vs. the derided but better than them true love interest – and it revolves around food.  :eyeroll:

And a movie I recently reviewed positively betrays strokes from the same paintbrush.  In one of the bachelorette party sequences of Grey Matters, Charlie and Grey are sharing a bubble bath in the posh hotel tub, and Charlie glibly shares that her spectacularly cellulite free body is ‘good genetics’ – she eats whatever she wants.  Which is, of course, her fiance’s number one requirement – he must have a girl who knows how to enjoy a chocolate sundae.  But naturally that girl is able to do so without ever dieting and while still meeting the (under) weight requirements of modern society.

It is in fact annoying when everyone is constantly on diets (although, in my experience, dieters are just as likely to be male as female, and when was the last time a man was on a diet on TV?  without a woman making him do it?) and complains about it to everyone around them.  It is a part of my personal doubts about a diet culture that it makes society focus so very much time and attention on food and spend so much time on feeling hungry and deprived.  So I can empathize that perhaps men (as much as myself) can be annoyed with women who constantly fixate on food and fat.

However, in my humble opinion, it is scenes like these detailed above that inform an attitude that women should be able to be unheathily, unsexily*, impossibly thin while still eating like, well, like a guy.  That is a contradiction in terms.  Very few people can be a size 0 or 2 and eat fast food and ice cream like there is no tomorrow.  And such people are not necessarily lucky or healthy, and cannot be held up as the standard for everyone else.

On a happier note, when I think of movie stars and heroin-chic thinness, I always think of that lovely scene from Notting Hill, where Julia Roberts’ character (a movie star within the story) says that her stardom equates to constant dieting, which basically means that she has been hungry for 10 years.  I remind myself of that when I compare my appearance to her or Gwyneth Paltrow or any of a hundred other starving rich actresses, and decide that I come out somewhere happier if heavier, and hope that maybe someday TV will find a wardrobe for actresses between size 40 (for comedic value) and size 0 (for sex value).

*Being a woman at least some of the time attracted to women, I find the look decidedly unsexy, even as I feel guilty for not looking like that myself.  A more muscular frame (e.g. Starbuck from TV’s Battlestar Gallactica series) or a more curvy one…e.g. no one on TV iI can readily think of but several women I know – is entirely more pleasing, IMO.


  1. scarlett says

    I wasn’t a huge fan of Notting Hill (don’t like JR, don’t like romcoms) but her speech about the downsides of fame really stood out for me – the loneliness, the insecurity, and especially the constant need to diet. I would love for Hollywood to show that very few women can eat all the crap they want and still remain slim, and those just have super-fast metabolisms. (Which is not necessarily ‘healthy’ – my family is full of tall, slim women with heart disease and diabetes from a lifetime of eating crap.)

  2. says

    To be fair to Shallow Hal, when I saw it I felt like they were highlighting exactly the problem you are ranting about — and labelling it as a problem.

    For whatever other flaws the movie had, Hal was supposed to be seen as a symbol of what’s wrong with the way that men are taught to look at women. Hal was the classic “nice guy (TM)” who was a mass of contradictions, and that scene highlighted the one where he wanted a woman who could eat “normally” but only if she came in a package that is typically only attained through dieting.

    In essence, I believe that the viewer was supposed to understand the impossible standard that is put to these women, and to think about what it meant that other movies often use the trope unironically.

    But, then, I could be giving the movie too much credit 😉

  3. Jennifer Kesler says

    Tekanji, it could also be that you’re correct, but that a lot of studios watching Hal did not get the irony, and thought the audience liked the idea of a woman who eats all but stays thin. And then made a whole lot of movies about unrealistic women who could do just that.

    And if so, Firebird’s feelings about Hal may be informed by later movies she saw first. I’m speculating, but she’s written on the topic of movies in which it’s supposedly sexy to watch women eat junk food.

  4. scarlett says

    Maybe I should watch the movie again… if I can stand it. I just remember Jason Alexander’s character picking at the slightest flaws in otherwise DDG women even though he himself wasn’t going to be on the cover of GQ anytime soon.

  5. says

    Great article. Obviously genetics plays some role in a woman being fat or skinny or somewhere in between, but it is irritating how we mere mortals are made to feel inadequate because when we eat anything we want, we certainly are nowhere near a size 0. We also see celebrities frequently scarfing down Big Macs and fries, but we don’t see the behind the scenes stuff like their 5-hour workouts with personal trainers and the weekly colonics they get. I agree that it would be refreshing if more actors admitted the lengths they go to to look the way they do.

    And I totally agree that Starbuck is way sexier than all of those waif-ish starlets. I’d hope that most people find women with muscular, powerful bodies more attractive than women with the figures of 12-year old boys!

  6. sbg says

    The Gilmore Girls always had this quirk where Lorelai and Rory were shown to put down enormous amounts of usually really unhealthy food, and while neither of the actresses or characters were skin and bones they were slender.

    I just can’t imagine there wouldn’t be some kind of health ramifications to eating that poorly, high metabolism or not. I also find it suspect that we’re to believe nearly every thin woman in Hollywood possesses this amazing metabolism. Honey, please.

  7. Thal says

    Aww, sbg beat me to it!

    The Gilmore Girls always had this quirk where Lorelai and Rory were shown to put down enormous amounts of usually really unhealthy food, and while neither of the actresses or characters were skin and bones they were slender.

    That irritated me for a long time, not right from the get-go. I had to think about it for a couple of seconds.

    And aside from that, both Lorelai and Rory were always talking about how physically lazy they were, just sitting around (like all those laid-back TV guys), not worrying about exercising, when you could see Lauren Graham’s muscles.

  8. Jennifer Kesler says

    Responding to Scarlett and SBG, thin definitely does not equal healthy. Unfortunately, even a lot of doctors forget that, so that slim people don’t get monitored for developing issues like they should, and people who aren’t slim get told to “lose a few pounds” when that’s really not going to address the whole issue.

    Re: the topic of eating much crap yet being slim. Aside from the minority of women who have high metabolisms and women who have five hours a day to work out, there is one other group who can eat anything and stay slim: bulimics. Now there’s a scary meta-message.

  9. firebird says

    Tekanji: I do realize Shallow Hal was intended as a caricature – to overstate and poke fun at its subject, and, we assume, intending to instigate change as well as laughs. I certainly hope that some viewers took it that way – Hollywood, as Beta said, definitely seems not to have.

    Thanks, Beta. I had completely forgotten about that post…I had to click through and reread it just to see what I had said!

    Re: Bulimia – I know. As I wrote this post I found myself surprised more women weren’t bulimic. It really does seem to be the message that’s going out.

  10. sbg says

    Incidentally, when you apparently look as though you eat, as Firebird said, like a guy and you really don’t, the reactions people give you are astounding and a bit insulting. I can’t tell you how surprised some people have been to discover I don’t, generally speaking, eat as much as my body shape and size would have them believe.

    Think, “I don’t know why you’re not thinner than you are!” This, to me, translates as, “I don’t know why you’re so fat!”


  11. Jennifer Kesler says

    SBG, more than a few slim people have, after getting to know me enough to truly have some idea what I eat on a daily basis, expressed shock that I’m not rail-thin. I didn’t take it as you did, only because I was raised to talk about how super-fat I am to let people know I’m properly ashamed or something. (Don’t ask me – it’s a weird thing the women in my family do.)

    The reason I was always pudgy was that when I was slim, I had muscle people took for fat. Two of these people were doctors, who advised me to “lose a few pounds”. I weighed 114. I worked my ass off to lose the weight, with no information about exercise (girls simply did NOT touch weight machines back then) and little about healthy diets. When you starve yourself to lose muscle, your metabolism gets so bad you can gain weight on 1,000 calories a day.

    Sorry, I know I tell this a lot, but I have this nagging feeling I might not be the only woman who’s suffered through it, and every time I share it is a chance someone else might not go through it.

  12. Roxane says

    Hello. I haven’t commented on a post before, but this one kind of reminded me of my sophomore year of high school.

    I’ve always had a high metabolism; my dad was skinny and short when he was younger, and I look just like him. It was incredibly difficult to gain weight, which doesn’t sound particularly tragic because of the “Skinny=Happy” myth. But to a 15 year old girl whose friends all looked like women, while she still looked like a 12 year old boy, it’s frustrating. Furthermore, because of my low weight my friends and teachers assumed I had an eating disorder; they would try to convince me to eat more or to get off of whatever starving diet I was on, even if they had just witnessed me eat an entire meal right in front of them. And on top of that, they would say how lucky I was that I could eat whatever I wanted to and still stay the “perfect” shape.

    Eventually, I took those comments to heart. I would eat large portions of foods that weren’t particularly healthy for me. I mostly ate carbs and fats: “unsafe foods” that I loved and didn’t fit the anorexic mold. This just made my friends think I was bulimic, and they would often follow me into public washrooms to make sure I was “ok”. I understand that they were worried, but I just felt insulted and degraded, like I had no control over my body. My friends trying to “save me from myself” actually led me to an eating disorder, although it wasn’t the one they expected.

    I developed binge eating disorder, and I guess they were kind of right in saying that I could eat whatever I wanted to because I didn’t gain any weight. I lost weight because I wouldn’t eat enough protein or nutrients, and I wouldn’t exercise, so I didn’t have any muscle mass. Internally, I fell apart. I had stomach problems, felt faint, had frequent head aches, depression, cold flashes, loss of appetite, trouble breathing, etc. Eventually, I realized that my behavior was unhealthy and that I shouldn’t eat to prove people wrong. I am now happy and healthy, no matter my weight.

    Still, I get slightly upset at the whole “Can eat whatever they want to and still be healthy/happy” stereotype because it’s impossible, unhealthy, and hurtful.

    I kinda wrote a lot, sorry.

  13. says

    Roxane, don’t apologize for writing that much – it’s a great story, and of the type we don’t hear as often. It’s so crazy how much everyone from regular people to doctors reads into a person’s weight. As if weight is solely controlled by behavior and therefore only indicates behavioral issues, when in fact genes and other factors play a huge role.

  14. says

    Again, really old post, but just in case you never got around to seeing the end of it, Hal sees her for the first time in all her fat glory, (after worrying that he won’t find her beautiful anymore after realising he was under a spell) and he instantly proclaims her completely beautiful, genuinely.

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