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Body Image is a Furphy

Posted: May 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: fat politics, media | Tags: , | 11 Comments »

ETA: Even though it was prompted by last week’s events, this post isn’t about Mia Freedman so much as it is about the position she represents.  And while I think she was a little disingenuous in some of her comments, I’m inclined to believe that she didn’t see fat hate on her blog – not because it wasn’t there, but because it’s so naturalised as to be invisible.

This post is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time now, and the recent Mamamia furore has prompted me to finally post about it.  My argument in a nutshell is this: Positive body image has never been for fat girls.  It’s true that a lot of FA discourse focusses on body image and self-esteem – I think these things are valuable, and I’m not dismissing them when I say that positive body image has never been for fat girls.

The definition of ‘fat’ I’m talking about here is a bit contentious.  For the sake of clarifying what I’m talking about when I talk about fat, here’s a definition from a paper I gave last year:

The fat bodies I seek to address are those that are ‘fat enough’ to be visibly marked as ‘different’, and that are consequently routinely excluded in ways thinner bodies aren’t.  An arbitrary measure would be those bodies which are ‘too fat’ to find clothes in straight-size stores.  I’ve used this measure because fashion and shopping are closely aligned with normative femininity in consumerist culture, and because this provides a clear material example of the ways in which fat bodies are excluded from particular spaces, practices, and modes of being.  This definition is not intended to ‘police the boundaries’ of fat identity, but to insist on the centrality of the corpulent body which is otherwise marginalised.  I also use this measure to differentiate between the normative idea that ‘all women think they’re fat’ and those whose bodies mark them as always already ‘abnormal’.

That’s what I mean when I talk about fat.  And when I talk about body image, I’m talking about the mainstream discourse on body image (for which Mia Freedman is a prominent spokesperson).

Mainstream body image discourse has never had a place for fat girls.  While it may claim to empower women of ‘all shapes and sizes,’ in reality, it only includes bodies which fit into straight-sized fashion.  Freedman’s famous ‘Body Love Policy’ at Cosmo featured bodies ‘sized 6-16′.  The Dove ‘real beauty’ adds are similarly limited in the size (and shape and age and skin tone and ability and other ‘deviations’ from beauty norms) of the women they feature.  And The Proposed National Strategy on Body Image report which Freedman co-authored specifically excludes fat bodies:

When seeking to demonstrate good practice in their choice of models, organisations are encouraged to use models that are a healthy weight and shape (p40).

On p41, the report suggests that ‘for guidance on what is a healthy weight, organisations are encouraged to refer to the guidelines put forward by the National Health and Medical Research Council’ and provides two links (now broken, but I checked when the report was first published and can confirm that the documents referred to can now be found here) to the Australian Government ‘Obesity Guidelines’.  The document to which the report refers is Part 3 – Measuring Overweight and Obesity (PDF), which opens with this sentence:

Obesity, or even overweight, in a person is generally not difficult to recognise.

So, we can tell which bodies are a healthy weight just by looking?  It then goes on to detail different ways of measuring obesity, including BMI.  The discussion of the problems in using BMI as a measure of someone’s body fat is actually quite good, but nevertheless, the purpose of the paper is to classify bodies as ‘healthy and good’ or ‘unhealthy and bad’ on the basis of size alone.  The bodies which fall into the ‘healthy weight’ range by these measures are even less diverse than Cosmo’s 6-16.  The recommendation to use ‘healthy weight’ models according to these guidelines hardly constitutes a call for true diversity in representation.

I remember being a size 20 Cosmo-reading teenager, and being so hopeful whenever the ‘perfect jeans for every size’ features came out.  I desperately wanted a perfect pair of jeans to fit my body, and there were none to be found in my small country town.  I was so hopeful, then so disappointed – and then so ashamed – that bodies like mine were still too big to be included.  ‘Every size’ was never my size.  I lived a body that was too fat even for recuperative ‘every body deserves self esteem’.

The body image discourse also serves to reify the exclusion of certain types of (even straight-sized) bodies from ideas of glamour and desire.  To quote Rachael Kendrick (another scholar who is looking at fat, albeit in a very different way to me):

Rather than bring more varied bodies into the aspirational economy, through the ‘real woman’ tactic ladymags assume that the reader must be educated in how to read texts, specifically how to read images of slim women as ‘unreal,’ and that the reader must be taught how to apply good, prophylactic doses of self-acceptance to their own arse and thighs.  ‘Real woman’ is a nasty sort of consolation prize; the ‘real woman’ isn’t fashionable or desirable, she’s just morally upright, emotionally hygienic.

While I’ve no doubt that positive body image discourses and concomitant representational strategies do, in fact, assist some women in some ways, they also actively exclude other bodies, and in a way that can be more marginalising than standard representational practices.  We all know that images of models are idealised and unattainable (even for models themselves), but when your body is excluded from ‘inclusive’ representation, what then?

Mainstream body image discourse seeks to redress (but at the same time, serves to reinforce) the normative idea that ‘all women think they’re fat’.   To quote myself again:

I am explicitly not interested in discussions of “body image” which focus on how the idealisation of an unattainable standard produces a dysmorphic self-image – the tragedy of thin girls thinking they’re fat – but has nothing to say about those whose fat self-image is not delusional.  In these discussions, actual fat bodies cease to exist.

Except we do exist, and we continue to exist, and to work towards much greater goals than a compensatory ‘positive body image’.