Comments on a recent post spurred a debate about how this site handles weight stereotypes. If you read us often, you’ll know we’re against the underweight beauty standard for women, and I hope it’s obvious we don’t believe in judging people by their weight. It’s my opinion that being 20 pounds underweight (a minimum for models and actresses) is probably just as damaging as being 40-50 pounds overweight, but even our medical establishment chooses to emphasize the health risks of the weight issue that makes the most money for the most businesses. Go, free market!
The recent post in question addressed a familiar US sitcom meme, but failed to rebutt the stereotypes in which the meme germinated. The meme was “fat, boorish husband somehow has slim, saintly wife”. The stereotypes, however, were “fat = bad personality”, “skinny = beautiful” and “beautiful = good personality”. Beyond that was a looming meta-message: that women should make more effort for their appearance than men.
The question was raised in the comments: do we think there’s something wrong with more attractive women being with less attractive men? Is it all about looks? No – although we question why none of us can name a show that’s aired in the US that reverses the paradigm (“overweight boorish wife somehow has slim, saintly husband”). What we’re really looking at here is the meta-message that’s visually coded into the show. Audiences who might never apply weight stereotypes in real life know from experience that TV producers only see overweight men as one of three personality types: (1) actually called “the heavy” years ago, overweight male actors are often cast to play villains or antagonists for our slimmer, svelter heroes, (2) the jolly sidekick, who happily accepts that he can’t be a hero or win the Fair Damsel at the end (the hero’s reward in myth, fable and many modern stories), and (3) the Everyman character who dreams of being the hero but never will, who somehow has a Fair Damsel anyway; but he isn’t satisfied with the prize alone, so he constantly cooks up schemes to make himself rich or successful – a hero – usually at the expense of his ever-patient wife. It’s #3 that we see in sitcoms from The Honeymooners to the King of Queens. The man who already has it all (in the form of Fair Damsel), but doesn’t get that he has it all, and has to relearn every half hour what a fortunate soul he is.
This character is designed to appeal to men who feel un-heroic and want to fantasize about having the prize without winning the quest. It offends me because it shows a woman as nothing but a prize for a man. An unappreciated one, at that. Of course she has to be more beautiful than him to show that he doesn’t deserve her – because even if we don’t think of beauty this way, we know from experience that’s what the TV show means with its visual code. Furthermore, he has to be overweight so that even if the actor is nice-looking otherwise, the audience will understand clearly the TV show means him to be plain-looking (glasses and braces are another shorthand for “plain” or “ugly”, as has been discussed in numerous “Ugly Betty” articles here and elsewhere). The wife has to be skinny because”¦ well, let’s face it. The lovely woman in this picture here is TV’s idea of a woman who is overweight according to doctors (from House episode “Heavy”).
Now that I’ve hopefully unpacked the three-ring circus of troubling meta-messages and stereotypes invoked by this single TV meme, the challenge is more clear: we have to find a way to talk about these things and acknowledge the stereotypes needed to decipher the meta-messages without endorsing the stereotypes. To achieve this, I suggest three steps to the authors here (including myself) and, for that matter, commenters on posts:
- Make sure you actually do not endorse the stereotype. In the case of weight, I’m hearing even progressive PC-types echo the idea that the only way to become fat is by being lazy and undisciplined. Not true at all. Being very disciplined and hard-working at a desk job with long hours can make you overweight. Hormone imbalances and other physical disorders (often undiagnosed, or not even properly tested by bigoted doctors who buy into the stereotypes) can make it so that simply cutting calories and exercising more will not get you all the way down to a healthy weight. And keep in mind that it is possible to be athletic and in excellent physical health, but still appear “heavy” or even be technically overweight. Assuming laziness or a lack of discipline in someone with extra pounds is no more sensible than assuming a slim person eats well and exercises regularly. Um, sorry, no. Some of them just have genes that let them get away with ice cream lunches and three-Snickers snack breaks.
- Consider your wording. “Fat” is loaded with bad connotations. Avoid it, except in quotes. “Overweight” and “obese” are health terms, but they can also be tricky because most of us have very poor judgment about what truly constitutes being overweight. “Overweight” is no cause for health concern; “obeseity” is. Don’t mistake curvy bodies for overweight ones. Make it clear whether you’re talking about weight in health terms, in beauty terms, or whether you’re discussing someone else’s assumptions about weight. Keep in mind at all times that Marilyn Monroe was a “big fat cow” by today’s standards. Remember that beauty standards are always bullshit. There is no standard: there is only taste. (ETA on 12/18/08: we later had a revelation and realized “overweight” implies a value judgment whereas “fat” is a descriptive term worth reclaiming from those who have turned it into an insult. We now use the term “fat”, but carefully, so as to avoid negative connotations.)
- Remember that extra weight doesn’t render a person unattractive to everyone, nor should it. Camryn Manheim is gorgeous. Greg Grundberg is, too. Don’t let fashion dictators and TV producers blind you to the beauty of people who aren’t slim. They haven’t blinded you to the beauty of the grossly underweight, have they?
It’s also important to remember that you can’t possibly predict the issues others may have with their own weight, so you need to roll with their responses and be ready to retract when they hit you with something you’ve never considered. Example: naturally very slim women, envied by female friends, often complain on the net that they can’t get a date because men prefer curves. Almost any assumptions you make about weight have the potential to hurt someone’s feelings, so try to bring your posts and comments around to the problem of media’s obsession with weight, of judging people by weight, etc., so it’s clear your remarks aren’t intended as judgment.