Saturday, October 13, 2007

Yes, Fat Lady, You Too Can Be Objectified: Examining the Objectification of Fat Women Through the Lenses of Feminism and Fat Rights

I haven't been blogging much, but here's my latest contribution to Alas, a Blog. It doesn't have to do with science fiction, but it's got a hefty dose of feminism.

On October 3 (oy, I take a long time to write posts), Shakespeare's Sister wrote a post about an offensive ad for playtex, which uses the bodies of fat women and women of color to create an impression of being woman-friendly while in fact marketing what Melissa MacEwan calls "the new misogyny."

Here, take a gander at the ad itself:

Here's an excerpted transcript of the salient bit (taken from Melissa):

"What do I call them?"

"Boobs, breasts, knockers…"

"Are you asking me if I have a nickname for them?"

"It's a guy thing to name parts of your body!"

"Betty and Jane."

"Titties! Boobies!"


"I've been asked to shake the moneymakers on the subway a few times."

"Back up for a second," writes Melissa. "I've been asked to shake the moneymakers on the subway a few times?! Giggle giggle ha ha. And that's exactly how smoothly and coolly the new misogyny can minimize the seriousness of sexual harassment."

In this ad, Playtex is expecting fat women and women of color to be so awed by their inclusion that they don't notice the misogyny inherent in the way that they are included. Melissa's not falling for it. She writes:

Of course I want to see more images of fat women and women of color (and disabled women and dwarf women and birthmarked women and tattooed women and women of every shape, size, color, age, and circumstance). But I'll be damned if I want their presence used as a diversionary tactic while my skull is pounded with messages like "Breasts are toys!" and "Sexual harassment is flattering!" by companies who then expect me to genuflect in desperate gratitude because this something is ostensibly better than the nothing of the status quo.

This reminds me of another item that recently showed up in the feminist blogosphere, a photograph of recording artist Beth Ditto posing naked for the cover of a magazine. The Feministe article on this photograph seemed relatively uncritical, although they noted some assinine questions that a reporter, trying to pit one woman against another, asked Beth Ditto about Kate Moss. Twisty of I Blame the Patriarchy, on the other hand, was more critical. She laughs at the idea that sexy pictures of fat women are transgressive.

1. Porn isn’t transgressive; it’s de rigueur. No one in Western culture has drawn a porn-free breath in decades. This means it’s the norm.

2. Pictures of naked women empower nobody but the men who pimp’em out and the voyeurs who consume’em. A woman may elect to reap the benefits of her capitulation to her oppressor, and she can even call it “empowerment” when she does it, but that doesn’t mean she’s not full of shit, and it certainly doesn’t mean that it’s doing any other women the least bit of good.

3. Dude Nation is already well aware that fat women exist. And I guaran-fucking-tee that they’ll continue to hate fat women just as much as they hate skinny ones, no matter which pop star shows up weighing how much on what magazine cover.

Girls, the dominant pornsick culture is crapping on you. Get hip to this: the ability to titillate men is not a high moral purpose. Being sexually manipulative is not a high moral purpose. Posing naked on the cover of NME isn’t empowering, its emposeuring.

I agree with both Twisty and Melissa on this. We as feminists should be deeply skeptical of a culture that offers absolution to fat women by granting them a shadow of the objectification which plagues skinny women.

Fat women and skinny women are played agaisnt each other abominably in this debate. It's a hideous catch 22, which I realized several months ago when chatting with a gorgeous friend of mine who is routinely trailed by cars when she walks down the street, misogynists leaning out the window to hoot at her body and offer propositions. When she told me this, half my brain went, "Assholes." The other half went, "That never happens to me and this is a sign of my failure and inferiority."

Either way, women lose. We lose when we're harrassed. We lose when we're not harrassed. We're objects of sex, or we're objects of disgust. Either way, our sexuality is framed around the imagined desires of a "default" male. Allowing fat women to be sexually objectified is far from ideal -- it is not a radical movement that will lead toward women's equality.

But there's another analysis I want to bring into this, and that's a fat rights analysis. As a fat woman, I can say that the damage done to my psyche through years of being told I'm revolting is really, really bad. In a fatphobic society, a society that's more afraid of women's fat than men's, I, as a fat woman, suffer more than a thin woman who is otherwise situated like I am.

I share most of the disadvantages that thin women have in this society. Like thin women, I still need to fear for my safety late at night. I am still a potential target of hate and violence. Simultaneously, I am culturally denied the ability to view myself in one of the primary (and problematic, and limiting) roles of acceptable, western-constructed female sexuality and identity.

Twisty suggests that access to sexual objectification for fat women and women of color is no benefit at all, but only an admission into a club full of misogyny and problems. This is true, on one level, but I think that it's important to look at the ways in which the axis of being fat affects women's lives.

One thing that's missing from Twisty's analysis (or perhaps is implied in point 3, but not expanded on as much as I'd like) is that fat women are *already* objectified. We are objectified as objects of revulsion or disinterest. We are taught to view ourselves as repellant. Others are taught to view us this way, too.

Being treated like an object for collection, an object for consumption -- something beautiful and desirable -- sucks, because it involves being treated like an object. However, being treated like a treasured object is still better than being treated like an object to be thrown away.

Melissa's position is closer to mine, and I think her emphasis is right on. We shouldn't allow the fat woman's or brown woman's body to distract us from seeing how despicable a naturalization of sexual harrassment is. Still, if fat women and brown women growingly have access to being able to move out of the molds in which patriarchy has placed them, that will make our lives more liveable in some (limited) ways, even if that change is expressed in reprehensible and misogynist ways.

Ideally, everyone would be treated as fully human. However, while fat women are more oppressed than thin women, changes which alter our status will benefit us -- even while they play into the misogyny that oppresses all women, fat and thin.

1 comment:

Nancy Jane Moore said...

I must admit that my first reaction to the Playtex ad had nothing to do with the diversity of the models or the other issues you raise. Instead I thought, "Nobody I know talks about her boobs like that."

I think about my breasts when I'm scheduling a mammogram or doing a self exam. Or when I'm deciding if I have to wear a bra with the clothes I'm putting on (I hate to wear a bra and I don't need one for support). Otherwise, they're not an important subject of conversation.

I recall some discussions in the dojo womne's dressing room about the right bra for working out and the training difficulties faced by large-breasted women -- sometimes your partner will kneel on your boob when doing a pin, which hurts. And it can be tricky when a guy accidentally brushes your breast when training (non-accidental touching is an entirely different problem, but fortunately not a common one). But those conversations wouldn't work for a commercial, I suppose.

And certainly no one I know would joke about being asked to shake her "moneymakers." If they had such an experience, they might report on it in outrage, but they wouldn't find it funny.

So the ad offends me on several levels before we even get to fat. Having seen it, I would go out of my way to avoid buying a Playtex bra. (Of course, I'm not their target audience, seeing as how I only wear bras when I absolutely have to.)

Interestingly, the image that is burned in my brain about male contempt for fat women does not involve nudity at all. Sometime in the 70s I was in a movie theatre and there was a short feature before the show starring a Flamenco dancer. The woman came on the screen and I knew before I heard a sound that the men in the theatre were going to laugh at her. She was not especially fat; she was, in fact, very curvy and rather Rubenesque -- someone who would have been considered quite sexy in some times and places, just not in 1970s USA.

The men did laugh and I wanted to crawl under the seats. For me the key is that I immediately knew they would view her with contempt. I didn't need their laughter to remind me. I knew their standards. I knew neither she nor I measured up. I knew that virtually no woman measures up.

One other thing I've noticed in my dojo -- a place where you can assume that most people get a reasonable amount of exercise -- is how diverse human bodytypes really are and how few of us, male or female, live up to the magical ideal of beauty. That is, most people who are in good shape still don't measure up to the ideal.

But women are still expected to aim for that perfection at all times. It's just too damn exhausting to contemplate.