Two Fatosphere blogger extraordinaires — SP’s Kate and Fatshionista’s Lesley — are quoted in this New York Times story from Friday on the cultural voyeurism of celebrity weight battles. The gist of the story:
In addition to tracking celebrities’ tours of duty in rehab and fashion faux pas, the public has become the official weight watcher, checking the cellulite and food choices of the famous with a gotcha zeal. …How do heavy women — many of whom bluntly describe themselves as fat — respond to these sagas?
The article references University of California Professor Charlotte Biltekoff (for whom I an eternally grateful as it appears as if our research interests collide — read about her work and current project here), who says that much of the public gawking of celebrities is spurred by lingering Puritan ideas about body size (thin=hard work and discipline; fat=lazy and gluttonous) and that celebrities simply act as cultural surrogates for viewers. “…the pursuit of thinness may mean as much as thinness itself,” says Biltekoff. “Oprah and Kirstie are performing this for us.” Kate agreed. “Once you acknowledge that your body is not O.K., then people love you, because that’s what expected of fat people all the time,” she said.
Wendy McClure also has a related article out celebrity weight-voyeurism in this month’s Bust magazine cleverly titled “Girls Gone Wide” in which she extols tongue-in-cheek the blockbuster hit “Jessica’s Ass.” Body snarking is sexist, writes Wendy, but it’s also about what we make of it:
Jessica’s body, though, is real, and so are all the other famous bodies that are a little too conspicuously fat, or thin, or surgically altered, muscled, deeply tanned, pregnant, dressed badly, or not dressed at all. They’re visible truths that we can interpret anyway we want, truths that any magazine or Web site or news show or blog can claim along with the photo rights. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised when they take on lives of their own and become feature presentations.
The reasons for celebrity before-and-after stories may also be strategic. When tabloids and even mainstream news organizations reported on “porky” Jessica Simpson’s “new full-figured look,” many wondered how long it’d be before she too appeared on some national magazine sporting a thinner body and miracle diet plan. After all, the rumor mill already had it that Simpson’s weight gain was deliberately designed so that she could shill her weight-loss story right about the time of her new CD release, the former being of much greater interest than the latter. When rumors surfaced about which celebrity is “purposefully packing on the pudge so she can launch her own weight loss line,” the consensus at Big Fat Deal was that it was Simpson.
So, I was surprised to see that even though it appears as if she’s since lost the much-reviled weight, Simpson isn’t exactly gloating about it. In an interview for the June edition of Vanity Fair, writer Rock Cohen muses:
[Simpson] didn’t want to talk about her weight, so, of course, that’s all I could think of—it gilded each question in my mind: What are you working on now [that you’re fat]? Do you see yourself as part of a class, with Christina and Britney [or are you too fat]? Do you feel that your relationship with Tony Romo has affected his performance as a quarterback [because you are fat]? But there was really no reason to ask about her weight. Her extra pounds had gone back to wherever they came from, existing only in a few dated pictures on the Internet. Jessica was skinny again, in dark pants, velvety coat, and high heels.
(brackets in original) When Simpson did discuss her weight, reluctantly and after persistent prodding by Cohen, she said simply:
It comes with what I do and I know that every day the media’s going to challenge me, is going to want to bring me down. But I feel like I’m at such a place that I own myself, and it’s authentic. I own that authentic part of myself, and none of those words are harsh enough to make me believe them. I can’t imagine saying some of the things people have said about me about anybody else.
In retrospect, I was probably a little too harsh in my commentary on Simpson when the media first turned on her for her weight gain. I don’t wish body snarking on anyone and I don’t think that celebrities should be considered open game simply because they become public figures. But, I argued, when you base your entire career on your looks, as did Simpson, and invite the media in to congratulate and applaud those looks in order to further your career, you can’t really expect them to just stop once you get fat. The corollary to this is exactly why I called hypocrite on Jennifer Love Hewitt, who, when criticized for her body trotted out the “love your body!” battle cry to girls everywhere, and then victoriously emerged a month later on the cover of a Hollywood gossip magazine flaunting her 18-pound weight loss and “new body.”
A comment by Lesley (whose Outfitblogging series puts my meager fashion sense to shame) in the New York Times article also highlights why even the most smug and deluded of celebrities, ahem, Kirstie Alley, shouldn’t have their bodies scrutinized once the weight (inevitably) returns. “When you have famous people turning their weight tribulations into mass-media extravaganzas,” said Lesley, “they’re contributing to a culture where passing comments on strangers’ bodies is considered O.K.”
Celebrities and super-skinny models themselves have had very little influence on my developing an eating disorder. I never read glossy women’s magazines and my fashion sense bleeps so far under the radar it’s catatonic. But, in speaking to Lesley’s point, the media glorification of thinness and the attention given to the bodies of celebrities did indeed contribute to a disordered culture that led me to believe weight-loss to be the means to my salvation. Splashed on the pages of women’s and fashion magazines and seen in the phoographs of every angular hipbone is the persistent message that the body can be and should be overruled and conquered into thinness.
How about you? How have you been unduly affected by the attention gives to celebrities’ thighs? Have you ever tried a diet or exercise plan touted by a star? Has celebrity body snarking made you feel worse about your body in general or contributed to disordered eating behaviors? Share your experiences below.