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?”
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?
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:
(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.”
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.
October 11, 2008
What strikes me about the lukewarm critical reaction to The Duchess – starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes – is neither the objection to the acting, of which there is some and with which I disagree, nor the disappointment with the filmmakers’ methods of storytelling; but instead the lack of sympathy for the unhappy central figure. For whether the Duchess of Devonshire was a man or a woman living in any era, she was a very unhappy person. And whatever time and place you, the onlookers, live in, you should be able to appreciate the value of personal satisfaction. Shouldn’t you?
Manohla Dargis, film critic for The New York Times, called the film “an overstuffed, intellectually underbaked portrait of a poor little rich girl.” She went on to say:
Like most costume dramas of this distaff sort, The Duchess wants you to pity Georgiana while also indulging in every luscious detail of her captivity. She may have a pimp for a mother and a bore for a husband, but just look at those verdant landscapes dotted with grazing sheep (no grubbing peasants), the fabulously ornamented gowns, leaning towers of wigs, palatial digs and troops of silent servants. (It’s period-lifestyle pornography.)
For me, the real triumph of the movie is its ability to master both the elements of taste (landscapes, costumes, etc.) as well as the elements of distaste (rape, infidelity, uncomfortable sexuality). Because the former aspects are balanced with the latter, I find myself saying, “Gee, I’d love to wear those beautiful dresses, but I wouldn’t trade places with Georgiana Spencer for the world.”
Kyle Smith, New York Post critic, wrote that “Knightley is a paper doll around whom the movie wraps hoop skirts and 21st century victimology.” He’s right. Our 21st century perspective views Georgiana’s situation as pathetic. She marries an unloving, violent man unwittingly, thinking she’s gaining power, prestige and happiness too. She understands that in exchange, all she need do is conceive and birth a male heir. When she does so, she’ll be rewarded with a cash bonus. This type of marriage was perfectly commonplace in 1777 England, certainly less so today. Naturally, we see this as somewhat queer.
But just as we are naive about what lies in store for the heroine behind the sepulchral gates of her new estate, so too was Georgiana. (We expect a little hanky-panky behind closed doors right from the start of the film, for instance, but we don’t expect violence and inhumanity.) She didn’t know that she’d be obliged to raise her husband’s illegitimate child as her own. She didn’t understand that she’d have absolutely no control over the natural sex of her offspring. How could she have predicted that her best friend would become her husband’s live-in mistress and that the three would function normally as a menage a trois? And when she agreed to accept the interloper without complaint in exchange for similar extramarital immunity, how could she have suspected that her husband, the great and powerful Duke, would rape her and then threaten to take away her children if she continued her affair with the man she truly, passionately loved?
These circumstances may have been perfectly ordinary in the 1770’s, but hopefully have been eradicated through suffrage and subsequent women’s liberation movements. For Dargis – A WOMAN – to sarcastically call the Duchess a “poor little rich girl,” it means that Dargis is ignoring her 21st century feminism in favor of contempt or worse: indifference.
Maybe she isn’t a feminist. What bothers me about her review of the film is her unsympathetic assessment of this intelligent, passionate and ultimately compassionate woman of an earlier era. Dargis is perfectly within her right to critique the film – I found it entertaining and compelling myself, as evidenced by my laughter and tears – but I find it thoroughly unacceptable that her disdain for the film should hinder her sympathy for the Duchess. You can’t judge a woman by today’s standards when she doesn’t have today’s rights and privileges. Is she a poor little rich girl? In other words, is she receiving pity while basking in luxury? Certainly NOT! We don’t mourn her ups; only her downs.
The film is shot with a 21st century lens for a 21st century audience. An 18th century perspective would not be sympathetic and an 18th century audience probably wouldn’t care. Today, we get to look this woman square in the face and lament all of the great things she might have done but didn’t, with her political prowess and her humor were she blessed with a set of hairy balls…or a different birthday (say, 250 years in the future).
“(N)ot enough of (the film) is about how transgressive a character Georgiana must have been, holding forth at her husband’s dinner table on politics, going alone to political rallies,” wrote Newark, New Jersey’s Star-Ledger critic Stephen Whitty. “(T)here’s none of the messiness of life. And that’s a shame.”
I agree wholeheartedly with this assessment. Reportedly, Georgiana Spencer – who died young like her ancestor Lady Diana Spencer, at the age of 48 from what has been perceived to be a liver disease – drank excessively and gambled all of her money away. She died in debt. It’s possible that these actions were the result of her mismatched union. What’s tragic is that the film gives us a glimpse of these side-effects of unhappiness rather than an whole picture of them. Perhaps the filmmakers were afraid that our 21st century sympathy and esteem would be lost on a woman who decays rather than flourishes after accepting her fate.
Film and literature are full of unhappy male characters who gamble and drink…and remain sympathetic and simultaneously heroic: Paul Newman’s Frank Galvin in The Verdict (another great film starring the luminous Charlotte Rampling) is one such character. He occasionally climbs out of a bottle of Scotch long enough to punish a hospital and its smug lawyer for a doctor’s negligent involvement in the death of patient. We adore Galvin. But if Frank had been Frances, she probably would have been pitiable and loathsome rather than sympathetic and heroic.
I would have liked more nudity in The Duchess, not only for the guilty pleasure of watching an authentic bodice-ripper but also for the vicarious, visceral experience of dry vaginal intercourse (as the newlyweds’ first carnal encounter is depicted) contrasted with the sensual, orgasmic lovemaking of Georgiana’s extramarital affair with Charles Grey. My husband, who galantly agreed to accompany me to this “women’s movie” – and disliked almost every minute of it, told me that he was disgusted more by the coldness of Georgiana’s wedding night than he was disturbed by her subsequent rape. As Whitty noted, the film is afraid to let us see the mess in lives lived by the Duke’s design. Let us see (experience) uncomfortable sexuality in all its tainted glory.
When we consider some of the morally compromised female characters of film and literature – the ones who lie, cheat, steal and even kill to escape unhappiness in life and marriage – we must judge them by the standards of their day. A woman in 1850, for instance, had few opportunities to earn a living (governess, retail worker, prostitute) other than marriage. And in that period, in England, there were twice as many women seeking marriage as there were men offering it. Women sometimes had to resort to foul measures to survive.
What’s so wonderful about the Duchess is that she doesn’t resort to much of anything that damages people other than herself. In the end, she sacrifices any glimmer of happiness she might have once beheld for the sanctity of her awful marriage and the vitality of her children. I admire her. Clearly, Dargis does not.
That’s okay. But where is the sympathy?
“She wasn’t scrubbing chamber pots for her keep, but she did have to endure her husband’s dalliances,” Dargis wrote, belying the more severe elements of torture inflicted upon this wife and mother of four.
As I said before, the film is successful because viewers know that they wouldn’t trade places with the Duchess even if they could. A life spent scrubbing chamber pots probably was a life spent with more integrity.