What are our goals, anyway?

In yesterday’s post, I talked a lot about the media and how it portrays women’s bodies. Colin commented that as a transperson, he felt non-represented in the media; his body isn’t given a space or forum in the media. Often, that is the case for fat people as well. Another commenter pointed out that fat people are often used as headless torsos in the media to point out what is wrong with us: our midsections or asses are on display to point out the growing “obesity epidemic.”

I thought a lot about that last night. In my undergraduate work, I did a lot of postulating on the meaning of the media and its cultural implications.

In thinking about advertising and the media representations of people in general, I am really coming up with a quandary as to whether I even want to be represented in the media at all, the media in terms of how it exists currently. Take those women I was talking about yesterday. The headless, faceless, nameless arms, asses, legs that are used to hawk products. These are people who are purposefully put into a position so that the greater public will not think about the images it is consuming. It will look at the body, and think: Sexy. Hot. If I buy this product, I will be seen as Sexy and Hot. If a face is put with the body parts, it personalizes the product too much; at least that’s how the theory goes.

As of late, I have seen more advertising for Torrid, the trendy “plus size” women’s clothing store in mass consumer women’s magazines, like Glamour and Marie Claire. These ads feature women who are likely a Size 16, maybe a Size 18, dolled up and lounging around in sexy poses. They are airbrushed to the hilt; there is no cellulite, no exposed jiggles of flesh, no folds, no obvious rolls. They are as non-fat as a technically-fat person can be. And as thankful as I am for their finally being some mention of a real-sized woman in a magazine like Glamour in terms of advertising — because this means that Torrid is making enough money to actually purchase advertising in a high circulation, glossy monthly magazine, which is pricey — I can’t help but be disappointed that the women look, well, like fake fat people.

If you go to Torrid’s website and look at the clothing that is modeled, all the women there look, more or less, like fat people. The pants show legs that very obviously touch and rub together. The tank tops display arms that very obviously flap when raised. The t-shirts show bellies that are smooth and round. These are the fat people I recognize. They aren’t air brushed. They aren’t watered down, glossied-up, made-for-the-mass-public fat people. They are real and tangible and just-like-you-and-me fat people.

I know that I should be thankful for any breaking in to the mainstream fat people have. Because finally we are making progress, yes? Fat people in underwear in an ad in Glamour! Oh My God! I’m throwing a party! But I feel deflated nonetheless. Is the underwear model really without cellulite? Is she that perfect? Is she that beautiful  and smooth and undimpled? That’s alienating in and of itself. Or is she more like me? With spider veins and dimpled thighs and a belly fold and stretch marks? If she is, then the ad is degrading to the rest of fat people, because it says: Your bodies are so disgusting we can’t bear to show them as they actually appear.

It makes me think of a conversation I had with a social worker I know about a client I supported.  What I can say is we were having an intellectual debate about the nature of intervention and this person’s safety and ability to make appropriate choices. I was adamant that we intervene based on the circumstances, that we put a stop to it and completely change the course of the future. And she gave me a different perspective. She said there is my philosophy of social work, and there is the one that says people learn in their environment, that you work with what you’ve got, that you come up with imperfect responses in an imperfect environment, because that’s natural.

And I wonder, what do we do here — any of us with bodies outside of the designated “norm?” Do we continue to work within an imperfect system — this system being the media, the media that creates headless women to hawk products, the media that airbrushes fat bodies and shows fat women that don’t look real, shows fat men as a joke, only depicts light-skinned people of color, and doesn’t even represent transfolks as it stands,  — or do we reject it out right, intervene based on the circumstances, and demand that it show real people? What is our goal in FA regarding that? If the media shapes our perceptions of ourselves, and we shape the media by our consumption of it, we have a real power to change it.

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10 Comments

  1. Colin said,

    March 7, 2008 at 11:21 am

    I don’t know. That’s always the question, innit? We are just like you vs. we are not like you and THAT’S OKAY. I could talk about this for DAYS but don’t want to get carpal tunnel. I’m going through a more separatist phase right now, but that’s always prone to change.

    Right now, I say to hell with mainstream media. I’m really excited about YouTube, XTube, blogs, and all the rest, because it’s giving people the power to create their own media, their own truths. (I mean, taking into account class, access to technology, etc. Because nothing’s not affected by privilege/oppression).

    Of course, I will take all this back the day MTV makes a reality show about me. How about it, Viacom?

  2. Laura said,

    March 7, 2008 at 11:49 am

    I think that’s just the nature of advertising, and it’s probably going to be a long time before we see any change in that. They airbrush thin people too, so the message of “Your bodies are so disgusting we can’t bear to show them as they actually appear” doesn’t just apply to fatties. But the inclusion of ads for Torrid in something like Glamour is to me a good sign of size acceptance becoming more mainstream.

  3. thoughtracer said,

    March 7, 2008 at 11:52 am

    I have always been a fan of saying: Fuck you mainstream media! Of course, I have always been a fan of saying Fuck you to any sort of mainstream crap. Of course, I am saying that while using a Dell Computer, typing at a wordpress blog, using Internet Explorer, wearing an Old Navy sweater, a Target tank top, and Lane Bryant Jeans, as a white fat woman who is being educated in graduate school. Sometimes I am caught up in the conundrum of how separatist can I be when I am clearly not a separatist? I remember working for indymedia.org and going to DC in 2001 for the former IMF-turned-post Sept. 11 protests and trying to talk to the Infoshop/anarcho-punk-kids about what their take on what we should do about the impending Afghanistan invasion? I looked way more “separatist” then than I do now, and they wouldn’t give me the time of day.

    I know this much about myself: I have always wondered this about the women I see in the media: Do they have cellulite? Do they have stray hair? Do they have stretch marks? When you are taught all your life, via the images you see, that This Is The Body a Real Woman Has, and then you end up with a body like mine, or anyone else’s, you just end up confused. Where I am at these days, I’d like to see bodies with stretch marks and dimples and such. It’s a lot more real to me. It’s a lot more gratifying and healthy.

    I know I have a long way to go. Sometimes I watch specials about people with eating disorders, having struggled with them myself, and I’ll see a person with anorexia — usually a woman. Always someone woman-identified, actually. And I’ll be like: She looks normal. And then they will tell her weight: 90 pounds. And I am shocked. 90 pounds. Like logically, I know that’s not healthy or right. I know this is someone who is sick. But then you change the channel to E!, and there’s a celebrity who seriously is like 95 pounds who is being glorified. And that IS what is being sold as normal. It is such a cognitive dissonance, I cannot wrap my mind around it. And I realize how body dysmorphic I must be to see people who are at 90 pounds and think: Wow! They look good! For me, how can I, at 258 pounds ever be OK with myself if a) I am still thinking 90 pounds is a great weight to be and actually, literally, SEE these women as healthy and normal and OK, and b) don’t ever see women, let alone fat women, As They Actually Are, dimples, cellulite, flappy arms, and bellies? How do we move forward from that?

  4. Becky said,

    March 7, 2008 at 12:00 pm

    It’s not just the case for fat people with real bodies. It’s the case for thin people with real bodies too. Just like most fat people aren’t perfectly smooth size 16s, most thin people aren’t perfectly smooth size 2s. That’s how you end up with a woman who wears a size 6 thinking she’s “fat”, because unlike the women in magazines, she has cellulite on her thighs, a bit of a belly, stretch marks on her hips, breasts that sag a little instead of standing up perfectly firm. It’s all designed to make women feel bad about themselves. “You’re a failure because you don’t look like this. But if you buy our product, you could!”

    So, yeah… I’m not sure showing unrealistically airbrushed slightly-larger-than the-average-model models is progress either. I mean, in a way it is, because it gets people used to the idea that it is possible to be attractive while being larger than a size 2. But in another way, it’s still part of the whole fucked up system. But what’s the answer?

  5. Laura said,

    March 7, 2008 at 12:35 pm

    If the advertising didn’t sell things, that would send the message to them to stop airbrushing people, thin or fat. But it sells because people want to believe they can buy their way to happiness, and happiness is looking like those airbrushed fantasies. You’d pretty much have to change the bedrock of America’s philosophy to change that. But it is a step, because maybe if people start to realize they can be happy even at a size 16, maybe next they’ll realize they can be happy even with stretch marks and saggy boobs and potbellies.

  6. Louis James said,

    March 7, 2008 at 12:57 pm

    Not to defend the media per se, but when you see those shots of headless overweight people on the street in a news clips, they are headless to not show the person’s face to avoid any image use rights issues. Even thought it’s the news, news directors still don’t want to show people on tv without a release, especially when it’s the general public shown in an unflattering way. In fact, often all b-roll of any people walking down the street are shown as faceless and often out of focus to avoid any legal issues arising from using someone’s image without their consent.

  7. thoughtracer said,

    March 7, 2008 at 1:14 pm

    Yes, you are right, Louis James — I forgot about that part of it. That’s always really bothered me too. Like what happens if my fat ass gets shown on Channel 27 someday? That’s really annoying. I mean, if you are going to co-opt my ass for your obesity epidemic story, at least have the decency to come up to my ass and talk to it. Thank you.

  8. Godless Heathen said,

    March 7, 2008 at 2:03 pm

    I always say “the revolution will not be televised”, basically that you can’t look to any of the mainstream media to portray any group of people without screwing it up. I’m not that excited that Torrid uses sizes 14 and 16 models because well, size 14 and 16 women are fairly close to what we consider traditionally attractive. I’d be a lot happier if they used size 20 and 24 models in their ads, to really showcase how cute their clothing is on large women. (Though, bad Torrid, bad! for having the size cutoff before size 30! Don’t you want my money?) Even in our fat-phobic culture, size 16 is a “safe” choice for advertising.

    Cellulite and stretch marks are a pipe dream to me, I’d be happy to see freckles and variations in skin tone in the media, maybe some wrinkles. Airbrushed pictures of women don’t look real to me, which is one of the most insidious things about retouching. Real women disappear into this mannequin like “ideal” used to sell everything. Identity and personality get erased along with the subtle differences that the advertising industry views as “flaws”.

  9. thoughtracer said,

    March 7, 2008 at 2:17 pm

    Confession. When I have been a member at some gym, in the women’s changing rooms, I find myself looking at other women just to see what their bodies look like. I am always shocked when I see the size 6’s with the cellulite. I am like, What! A skinny person with textured skin? Wha …? And then I look at the fat women and compare myself and think, Hmph. They look good. I must not look so bad. I think in the naked locker rooms, all women compare each other. I do it just to see what other people look like. Because I have no fucking clue. I fully expect people to unzip, unbutton, step out of their clothes and look plastic, smooth, waxed, pert, coiffed, shaved, and taut. I like when bodies become unfettered from their clothing and I see unexpected flesh and hair and dimples and cellulite. Not only because I identify, but because I revel in the realness. It’s like: Yes! We are here!

  10. Raft Tree said,

    March 10, 2008 at 8:32 am

    I watched a show called ‘Find Me a Face’ which basically shows two model scouts going to the streets to find people who could be models. This was their plus-size episode and they were out to find size 14-18(UK) women. They were emphatically not finding fat people- they wanted perfectly toned and smooth women who happened to be aparger size. Out of context, they could easily be as thin as any smalled model with some curves. It was really depressing to hear the people say, ‘Well she looks great now, but what if we get her to the shoot and she’s got flabby arms?’

    What we’re going to do about it is hard, but something needs to happen.


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