The Fem Spot

My pretty girl

Posted in Personal Essays, Pop Culture by femspotter on May 1, 2010

May 1, 2010

With all of the well wishes and God’s blessings and good luck and wood knocks in the world, in about three months, I will give birth to a baby girl. And I’m not the least bit scared.

Okay, that second sentence isn’t really true. I’m not scared of delivery and all the pain it brings. I’m practicing yoga, eating well and working with an experienced doula. I only experienced an evanescent moment of terror when the nurse at the OB/GYN asked me during my last visit if I have a living will and then expressed shock when I told her that I did. (Women still do die in childbirth.) I’m not afraid to “be” a mother. I’ll make mistakes along the way, but I’ll also do a lot of things right. I anticipate being able to keep my writing job, which I love, and transition it to home as much as possible; so I don’t think I’ll lose myself or my mind to a sea of diapers and drool and doo doo, oh my! My husband and I are joining a wonderful church full of wonderful people who will love our Ellie (Bean). We have a wealth of friends and family who will love her too. And certainly there is no shortage of love to be found in our home, with two dogs and the world’s most affectionate kitty at play.

So everything is fine and I am not afraid of having this baby emerge and become a real, autonomous person. It’ll be great!

There’s just one thing: body image. As a woman who has always run toward heavy, one who was told at a very young age that I’m predisposed to obesity and would have to work harder than most to stay trim, one who found herself in Weight Watchers by the time she was 11 years old, and one who was teased by some really mean-spirited girls in elementary and middle school for my chubby physique; I have founded fears that Ellie too may have to wrestle with the question, “Is my body good enough?”

Gabourey Sidibe

Gabourey Sidibe

Kevin James

Kevin James

Were she a boy, it wouldn’t be the issue that it inevitably will be. (I’m trying to be realistic about this.) Boys and men have a much wider spectrum of socially acceptable appearance than do women. Think about the movie stars who have achieved a-list celebrity status: sure, there are your Brad Pitts and your George Clooneys out there, but you’ve also go a lot of famous male movie stars that don’t possess six-pack abs and GQ style. Funny man Kevin James headlines movies like Paul Blart: Mall Cop at well over 200 lbs., yet he doesn’t face nearly the scrutiny and ridicule of similarly obese female Oscar-nominated actress Gabourey Sidibe (Precious).

I hate to single out either of these two people because I think they’re both lovable, but the fact of the matter is, Sidibe has been slammed from all angles about her weight. She’s gotten support from some who challenge the suggested norm of Hollywood actresses. Casting Director Rachel Tenner (not affiliated with Precious) told CNN, “Obviously, there aren’t a million parts made for her. Do I read 50 movies a year that are for her physicality? No. But, there are a lot of directors who appreciate the work that she did, and that may help her get considered for roles that are not written for her.”

But outspoken radio personality Howard Stern – who claims to like Sidibe’s work in Precious – condemned the actress to a limited film career saying, “What movie could she play in? You feel bad because everyone pretends that she’s part of show business, and she’s never going to be in another movie.”

Further compounding the double standard facing Sidibe – and women in general, Columnist Jeffrey Wells emailed, “Gabby is a lovely person and a fine actress, but the hard fact is that she’s way, way too fat…I don’t want Gabby to not work, but the only roles she’ll have a shot at playing will be down-market moms and hard-luck girls working at Wal-Mart. No casting director would choose her to play anyone in the upscale executive world…because no one in the executive world looks like her.”

I don’t buy that “no one in the executive world” looks like Sidibe, or James for that matter, because obesity is a trend in the United States right now. I’ve worked with plenty of overweight executives throughout my career (granted, the higher-ups are usually male and white so you’re perhaps more likely to see James in a board room than Sidibe). Regarding the size of Sidibe, there seem to be three angles at work: 1. is she healthy, 2. is she representative to a portion of humanity, obese or otherwise, and 3. is she pretty?

Keira Knightly: too thin?

Too thin?

The road to the answer to the first question is full of pitfalls. Ask a hundred people and you’ll inevitably get a hundred answers about what constitutes healthy; and if you ask somebody with a disability, they’ll probably tell you you’re being ableist for using the word “healthy” to begin with. Some would argue that one’s healthy weight is completely unique to his or her build. Perhaps, Sidibe’s doctor would recommend a maximum weight of 150 lbs., but does that account for her bone density and any other special considerations such as thyroid or heart disease that might make it difficult for her to achieve such a goal? Some would say that being “too fat” is better than being “too skinny” in the long run because being overly thin can cause people to suffer anemia, broken bones or fatigue, etc. What do I think? I think the “perfect weight” for me is something my doctor agrees to: between 135 and 155 lbs. for my 5′ 5″, bone-dense frame. In other words, I think weight is personal. Would I love to weigh less than 135 lbs. and re-assume the size 2 clothes I wore in college when I ate about 500 calories per day and smoked like a chimney to stay lean? Sure! That’s what beauty is in our culture isn’t it: skinny and nothing else? But I love myself more than beauty these days so I’ll stick to “everything in moderation” and a size 8.

The answer to whether or not Sidibe is representative to a portion of the population and whether or not they and others can relate to her in movies and television is a resounding “yes.” There are plenty of overweight people in this world, enough to fill a couple of thousand theaters on opening weekend, just as they and others did for Precious (domestic box office gross: $47,566,524). Ultimately, it will probably be box office numbers and not weight analysis that keeps Sidibe in or out of roles.

Finally, the question of Sidibe’s level of pretty is perhaps entirely subjective. I remember having lunch with a friend who said that, while he admired her work in Precious, he was disgusted by her defenders who call her a pretty girl. “Because, let’s face it,” he said. “She’s not pretty.”

Hmmm. I actually think Sidibe is quite pretty. She has beautiful skin, hair and teeth. I was mesmerized by her in the movie because she was such a new thing to see on screen, like a Na’vi Avatar. Director Lee Daniels found Sidibe at an open casting call because she couldn’t be found affiliated with a casting agency: she isn’t the norm for Hollywood. But not normal doesn’t mean not pretty, does it? Is there an objective science to female beauty that can prove Sidibe is or isn’t pretty?

According to Discover magazine, and others, there is:

Marilyn Monroe

The mathematically perfect face?

(Los Angeles Plastic Surgeon Dr. Stephen Marquardt) collected photographs of faces the world deemed beautiful and began measuring their dimensions. Whereupon something peculiar and thrilling presented itself: the golden ratio. Beautiful people’s mouths were 1.618 times wider than their noses, it seemed, their noses 1.618 times wider than the tip of their noses. As his data set expanded, Marquardt found indeed that the perfect face was lousy with golden ratios. Even the triangle formed by the nose and the mouth was a perfect acute golden triangle…Marquardt contends that the golden ratio can be detected in the iris, the colored part of the eye. Take 10 golden triangles, arrange them with their sharp points touching, and you have a golden decagon, fitting perfectly within the iris of the eye, vertices neatly touching the rim.

So, you see folks, you’re only as beautiful as your mouth to nose to eyes ratio.

That may be the way Pythagoras saw things and it may play a part in our subconscious urges to ogle and celebrate certain faces? The same thing goes for arm to hand to torso to leg to feet ratios and the “perfect body.” (I myself have a long torso and a short inseam, much to my dismay.) But I think that in America, our standard of beauty has to do with two things: economy and repetition. It’s more expensive and therefore elite to buy organic produce, diet aids, personal trainers and weight loss programs than it is to fill your kitchen cupboards with high fructose corn syrup-filled non-perishables and forget about the rest. And wouldn’t we all like to be members of the elite? Ergo, wouldn’t we rather buy fashion magazines with Keira Knightly on the cover than Gabby Sidibe, the former representing who we want to be and the latter perhaps who we are? And that brings me to repetition: we consume images of slender women on television, in movies and on the newsstand like we do peanuts at a baseball game – one sweaty fistful at a time in rapid succession. With so many images bombarding women with how we’re supposed to look – oh so many more than those that bombard men, it’s no wonder we’re weight-obsessed and full of self-loathing, regardless of our unique states of “health.” Why, just the other day, I was driving to work when I found myself stuck behind a New Jersey Transit bus wearing a vodka print ad with a bikini-clad female torso – just the torso, no face. Clearly this ad is aimed at heterosexual male consumers rather than my kind; I read it and did not think to myself, “Gee, I’ll get abs like those if I drink that brand of vodka.”

Georgi Print Ad

This ad was temporarily banned in New York City.

If I can’t escape the world of female body shaming even in the privacy of my own car with the windows rolled up and the Back Street Boys blaring on the radio just mildly drowning out my singing along – and I’m a confident 30 year-old mother-to-be, than what is in store for Ellie? However she comes out, she’ll be beautiful to her parents, even if others squeamishly nod at her in approval and then lament her less-than-attractive looks behind our backs. I thought I’d found a solution to this fear that I’ll raise a daughter who’ll hate her body when I came across an article in The New York Times Magazine on April 18, 2010: “The Fat Trap.” It asks the question: Can a mother simultaneously encourage her daughter to watch what she eats and to accept her body?

Oh joy! Somebody did all of the legwork for me! Well, not the case: this article provides no answers to this query except to say that conversations about food and fat and body image cannot be entirely avoided. What?! That’s all we well-intentioned mothers-of-daughters-to-be get for reading this essay! For shame!

But the truth of the matter is that there probably is no answer to this question – or rather the answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no; not just because every mother-daughter relationship is unique, but because self-esteem is something that’s fluid: it comes and goes with the tide. I love my body until I read a report that Jennifer Aniston just lost 7 lbs. in 7 days…and then I feel guilty for that 2 oz. bag of trail mix I just scarfed. And if I tell Ellie she’s pretty, she will probably love her body until Suri Cruise turns out to be anorexic or has cosmetic surgery to fix her flaws, or a mean little girl on the playground makes fun of Ellie’s nose to mouth ratio (only she probably won’t be that scientific, read: nice, about it).

Turn to page 22 of that same magazine and you’ll find “The Anatomy of Desire,” which asks the question: What is a man’s ideal female form? A study of the blind tries to find out. What the fuck?! This is the “health” issue, right…not the drive women to anxiety, depression and eventual suicide issue? So now women not only have to worry about what seeing men think of our bodies, we have to worry about what blind men think too? That’s preposterous…yet it proves my point: women and our bodies are at war with the standards of beauty – many of them rooted is misogyny – that our society upholds to be perfection, and nothing less will do.

Okay, I’ll definitely be revisiting this topic in the future. I have years before I’ll have to worry about having the talk with Ellie about health and beauty. In the meantime, we’ll just refer to my Weight Watchers meeting as “the meeting” I attend with Aunt A** and Aunt N*****. And fruits and vegetables will be just as fun to eat as candy because they can come with a dollop of peanut butter on the side. And we’ll dance our afternoons away to groovy Sesame Street tunes on CD. And, unless the next Hannah Montana has an eating disorder, Ellie probably won’t notice the difference between her looks and Montana’s. And we’ll tell her every day how beautiful she is and how much we love her.

I’ll try to be brave.

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8 Responses

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  1. Mom said, on May 3, 2010 at 6:12 am

    Way to go! Live your life the way YOU want to live it and the much expected and much loved Ellie will too.

  2. big little brother said, on May 3, 2010 at 10:48 am

    hey,

    A few things…as a member of the opposite sex and a well large individual, I have made some observations of my own…

    First, being large and being in pop culture is rare truly, that is unless you are willing to be the comic relief or do self depricating things like fall through coffee tables or behaving like a complete idiot. But that is just my observation of large men and large women in pop culture.

    Second, the mathematically perfect face…so sad and unfortunately true to a degree. Plastic surgeons I’m sure can attest to the frequency of desire of their patients to have the ideal face but there is a basis for it in anthropology and evolutionary and social psychologies. There have been a number of studies done, albeit mostly on college freshmen psychology students who are probably not an accurate representation of humanity at large. Then again their results are similar to the results found when truly representative samples are used. Picture of real people all set against blank backgrounds are rated using 10 point lickert scales, each face is shown for only a few seconds forcing the rater to utilize his or her first impressions. Then each of the subjects is usually asked to explain their ratings during a second cycling of the faces. Interestingly enough when all of the data is compiled a perfect female and a perfect male face can be created using all of the information generated by all of the participants. Social psychology suggested that it is likely a cultural phenomenon that is passed on from generation to generation without any conscious awareness while evolutionary psychology suggests that the defintion of the perfect facial structure and body image, by extension, as beautiful is purely innate, instinctual, and biological. Anthropology suggests that it is both and that both men and women do it…ie your Brad Pitt’s, Tom Cruise’s, Johnny Depp’s, and every underwear model on the planet…I hear they all stuff. Men are supposed to be wide a the shoulders with good muscle tone and definition, with squared jaws, evenly spaced eyes, a straight bridged nose, and a thin waist…again see every male model and superstar on the planet or the cultural ideal for men…the action star/superhero. Superman being the worst offender and it pains me to say that…

    Now the question is why? As far as anyone can tell it is search and decision protocol for selecting and drawing competition in herd towards the best genetic partner to create the strongest offspring. Not sure if I buy that but it does seem to make sense and there is evidence that it goes beyond sight and is relevant to the other senses as well, particularly smell. It has been noted by some of my colleagues, that some of the pediatricians they work with will often times use the notation FLK…which means Funny Looking Kid. Now when asked they report that they do this not to be mean but because there is something about the child that does not look right which more times than not they have found is related to some kind of genetic anomaly.

    Now there has been cultural perversion, ideal women 5 and 6 hundred years ago were not the skinny ones…that is if art is believed to be a reflection of the culture and the pendulum appears to have swung to the opposite side now. It will swing back the other way and eventually come to a state of rest as all pendulums do…somewhere in the middle…I hope. Now I read somewhere and I cant remember where, that only about 8 percent of the worlds population, male and female, fits loosely into what would be described as the ideal or perfect and even they have to be air brushed when put into movies and magazines! In any case our quest for the perfect face or perfect body is not a new game…Platonic Idealism was all about the notion of Universal Truth and one ideal form to which all earthly incarnations aspire to be. Personally, I think Plato was barking up the wrong tree but his Idealism has become foundation for much of Western Culture and Thought.

    Third, I was always the big kid in school. I was bullied every day for being too tall or too fat or too quiet. I was beat up quite frequently and not just by the guys but often times picked on and even one or two times beat up by a group of girls when I was in the first grade. Heck I was even picked on by members of our own family even members with their own weight struggles. Of course they never thought they were hurting my feelings and most of the time felt they were being helpful. I dont hold it against them, I dont really care anymore which is probably because I discovered that I would rather own myself then live a life as part of the herd, a lonely journey sometimes but the rewards far exceed the risks at least right now. The worst part though was that when you are big and I cant really speak to girls, but when you are a big boy or big guy, and everyone gives you that as a nickname…as if you didn’t know you were big, people seem to think you are slow mentally and impervious to physical/emotional pain. It hurts, it always hurts, we bleed just like everyone else and we are just as intelligent as thin people and average people.

    Anyway, Fourth, I totally agree with you that health and wellbeing is personal and individual. We have it in our cultural mind set that all people and all things are normative to which I would say true but only to a certain extent. There are so many things going on inside each of us each day that it would be impossible for any of us to be within 1 standard deviation of the mean. The BMI is a farce particularly because it does not take things like bone density, metabolism, genetics, and environmental factors into account. I stand 6 foot 3 inches tall and according to the BMI I should weigh somewhere between 185lbs and 200lbs…I would have to starve myself to look like that and I would look gaunt and sick, probably because I would be sick.

    My orthopedic surgeon took one look at my bone structure and density and said “yeah, your ideal weight given family history, bone density, and lack of heart, respitory, and diabetic symptoms suggest that your healthly weight is probably 260 to 275.” Of course I’m a little ways off that mark right now but working on it, well really just working out to feel good don’t much care what the scales says and I havent weighed myself in over a year or what anyones else says, their judgments of me are really a measure of their own insecuries with themselves and with my willingness to be who I want to be…Great movie for that and most of these issues is Angus…Kathy Bates and George C Scott.

    Fifth, I love my niece now and I will love her more when I meet her I’m sure…not ever changing her diapers though, EVER! I love her parents and I think I know them pretty well too and they will be the best parents they can be and they will be honest with her and protect her and teach her to think for herself so she can grow up to be as cool as her Uncle, HEHE! I have no doubt that in this family she will grow up to be who she wants to be, I think we all have.

    “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”
    Friedrich Nietzsche

    • femspotter said, on May 4, 2010 at 8:41 am

      blb – Thank you for loving your niece now the way we do! I think it only gets more interesting from here.

      Your personal comments remind me of an essay by Elizabeth Berg called “The Day I Ate Whatever I wanted.” She reminisces about her father who was a rather large man and how people would tease him about being fat and how he would laugh along but how she could always tell that he was hurting inside. It made me cry.

      You’re right about the pendulum of beauty swinging to extremes, but it just proves that economy and repetition are its propellers: women of antiquity were fleshy to demonstrate wealth…and I bet peasants who saw depictions of them felt ugly in their bony bodies.

      • big little brother said, on May 4, 2010 at 11:59 am

        you never have to thank me for loving my family…as nutty as we are all sometimes, I know I would be nothing without any of you…

        all pendulums stop at some point and I have found that the purpose of extremism is to move the masses towards a middle, usually through frustration with the constant push pull…I hope I am alive to see that happen but something tells me that the destination of this journey is not one our generation will reach but maybe if we try hard enough maybe the next one will…

  3. Mom said, on May 3, 2010 at 6:46 pm

    Way to go child number two. Altho as a parent I made many of my own mistakes during your formative years, you guys are clearly reflecting, despite my errors, that many, many things went right!
    Here’s to Ellie’s turn.

    • femspotter said, on May 4, 2010 at 8:35 am

      Well, if you read the magazine article, you’ll see that even Michelle Obama struggles with how to deal with the healthy/pretty talk with her daughters. I think, in this culture, it’s something every mother faces.

  4. faemom said, on May 8, 2010 at 9:33 am

    First off, your article makes me feel better about having boys. While I know boys have body issues, those issues are not as strong as the ones girls face; I’m going to have a harder time curbing dangerous behaviors because boys think they’re invincible.

    When reading about body issues and girls, I always think of Madonna said when asked what she was planning to teach her daughter. She said she wanted to teach her daughter to have self-esteemed because that’s all she needed.

    As parents, we try to give our children the best possible future. We try to be the best parents, but we are thwarted by outside forces. We’ll give them fruits and vegetables, but our children may (and probably will) refuse most of them. We’ll try tp put them in sports, and they may decide they prefer chess or piano to running around outside. We’ll tell them how beautiful they are and that looks are skin deep, but they will be bombarded with images of famous beautiful people as well as commercials for fast food and sugary cereals. Parenting is hard, and we just have to do the best we can. For what it’s worth, I think you’ll make a great mom.

    As for the scientific study, I always find it fascinating what our beauty prefrences say about us. But remember we are beyond our genes. Or else we’d be cheating on our spouses for those perfect genes to pass on. ;-)

    • femspotter said, on May 8, 2010 at 5:03 pm

      Whenever I think about the science of beauty or the idea that there’s one perfect type of female beauty, I think about my husband and how he thinks I’m beautiful…and so I am, to him at least. I AM beautiful…to somebody…as are we all. :)

      Thank you for telling me I’ll make a great mom, Fae.


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