04 January, 2010

The New Body Facism

"Real women have curves!" "Men prefer curves!" "Curvy is in, skinny is out!"

How many times have we all heard those phrases in the past 12 months or so? Facebook is awash with groups titled "Curves are beautiful, size zero should be illegal", "Real Women Have Curves", "F**K Size Zero, I love my curves". Channel 4's documentary series, Battlefront, has even commissioned a campaign against size zero (http://battlefront.co.uk/campaign/who-wants-to-be-a-size-zero-anyway/) From the national press, Cosmopolitan to the blogosphere, the seachange in public opinion is clear to see - skinny is out and a more attainable, more "womanly" figure is in. Great - right?

Wrong. Indulge me, if you will, fellow feminazis, and I shall explain why the rise of "curves" is just as pernicious as so-called "skinny culture".

First off, this new culture of curves is NOT about celebrating fuller figures, it is about denigrating slender women. How many more screaming "So Skinny She Looks Like She'll Break!!!" headlines on the frontpage of Heat Magazine, how many more paparazzi shots of "Worryingly thin Lindsay" in the Dail Fail, how many more scare-mongering ITV documentaries on the "dangers of size zero" before people realise that there is no new culture? The culture is exactly the same, it's just that the target has changed. We've swopped fat-bashing for skinny-bashing and exchanging one prejudice for another isn't an advancement in women's rights, it's a step sideways.

Secondly, to the "more attainable, more womanly" part. Who is to say what is "womanly"? Women come in all different shapes and sizes and only a fool would try to attribute a higher level of feminity to one over the other. Really this argument belongs to the first point I made - it's not about celebrating so-called "womanly" figures, it's about taking a dig at slimmer women, saying they're "manly", less "real". Who cares which women we're picking on, as long as we can still pick on women, hey?

As for "more attainable", let's investigate this, shall we? In the last week two websites; MSN Lifestyle and the Daily Fail have run articles on the "most desirable" body shapes, with an emphasis on "curvy" woman such as Kate Winslet, Halle Berry and eponymous Kelly Brook. The Fail, in particular claims this as a great victory for women, because such figures are supposedly more realistic a goal for the average woman. Really? Neither Winslet, Berry nor Brook can be more than a size 10 at most, and with the average dress size in the UK now up to a 16, that's quite a gap. More pertinently though, "curves" of the type that these women have are not something you can ever achieve. They have big breasts, and wide-set hips, set off by tiny waists. No matter how much you diet you can't change the width of your pelvis, you can't grow your breasts without implants - you're either born an hourglass shape or you're not. Don't get me wrong, I think Winslet, Brook et al have fantastic figures (as do Kate Moss, Cheryl Cole and Victoria Beckham) but promoting them as "better" role models than your average supermodel because their figures are "more attainable" is ludicrious because a girl with a straight-up-and-down body type has as much chance as naturally growing a second head as she has of ever looking like Kelly Brook.

What I'm trying to say, in my tired, rambling way, is that despite the rhetoric, we are still being sold an unachievable dream. All this adds up to is a continuation of the body facism we all know and hate, which tells women they should look a certain way and chastises those who fail. All switching the hatred from large women to thin women achieves is to alienate one group of women, to make one lot of women feel good at another lot's expense - in short, it is turning women against each other. I've said it before on this blog and I'll say it again: divide and conquer is a tool to keep women down - we'll never beat sexism if we're too busy being at each other's throats.

The moral of this story is, body facism is alive and well, and women, more than ever before are encouraging it. The aforementioned Facebook groups are almost all founded by women, and boast an almost all-female membership. Women have grabbed onto this trend with both hands. Your mission, should you choose to accept it? Stop it. Revoke your membership to "Real women have curves", write to Heat and ask them to stop demonising women who happen to naturally be less than a size 10 and even more so the ones who are unnaturally thin, because last time I checked, laughing at women with eating disorders wasn't helpful, just cruel. If you're a man, write to women's magazines and tell them that actually men don't "prefer curves" but that different people have wildly differing tastes. If you're a woman, write to women's magazines and tell them to stop insulting your intelligence, and that implying slim women are unnattractive to men is no friendlier than shouting "you're going to die alone, fatty!", and no better for the female pysche as a whole. Hug a skinny girl.

Who Wants To Be A Size Zero Anyway? I do, actually, because that's the way I was born, and it's impossible for me to be anything else.


  1. Odd. I've never, ever, ever, in all my born days heard someone explain what a "real man"'s body looks like. I suppose it's because being a real woman is about being pretty and sexy and being a real man mostly involves punching stuff.

  2. Brilliant post V :) As someone who prob looks more like Brook/Winslet than Cole/Beckham the "real woman" thing REALLY gets on my nerves!! We're all real women. And as Alex rightly points out, whoever asked what a real man looks like??

  3. Fat women still recieve a significant amount of hate for being fat women, and thinness is still rewarded in society.

    I don't think that you're saying that either of these things are not true, but I don't think you're saying them outright, either. I think that the post above is a problematic rhetorical/cultural shift worth noting, but dominant culture still hates fat women and still rewards thin women. That needs to be stated and remembered clearly and specifically when analyzing comparative attitudes towards thin and fat women.

  4. I don't think it's that productive to see it in terms of 'fat' and 'thin'. Society does vilify fat, and has a patronising, voyeuristic concern for anyone thin enough to be deemed 'anorexic'. But what we're really looking at here is something in the middle, and the tabloids have just changed their mind about what precise mid-point between Nicole Richie and Daniel Lambert is socially and morally acceptable.

    Also, food for thought, what are you if you're not a 'real' woman? Like I remember the lass in 'Terminator 3' was fairly svelte.

  5. RMJ.
    I see what you're saying, but...

    It's important to highlight the fact that some group of girls, whatever the size or shape they may be, are increasingly designating themselves as the "true female form". what they're doing is saying that another group of females, who happen to be different, are not as good, or not as "real",(which is what these women from these various campaigns are kinda promoting)Causing a further rift between "fat" and "thin".

    "dominant culture still hates fat women and still rewards thin women"................................at this moment in time, but it can change. In Rubens time plump women were revered. Now it's thin, i'm sure the pendulum shall swing back, but how far back should it go?

  6. RMJ, I see your point. The reason I didn't mention it is because I didn't set out to analyse differing attitudes towards "fat" and "thin". As Alex rightly said, what I'm interested in here is the murky middle area in which we find the defintition of what women are "supposed" to look like, and how the way the goalposts appear to be shifting does not represent the progress we are told it does.

    Insofar as the wider connotations of this, it is worth pointing out, since we're on the topic, that attitudes *are* shifting. It is still not socially acceptable to be fat, but it is also not socially acceptable to bully and demean fat women. That is not to say it doesn't happen, bullies don't care about what is acceptable behaviour. But it causes widespread offence. If it's done in the media, people complain.

    Whereas with thin women, although it's still socially acceptable to *be* thin, it's also acceptable, for example, for perfect strangers, to approach me in the street and call me anorexic, or, as on one occasion, throw food at me.

    What this means is not that roles are reversing, but that the field of what it is "acceptable" to look like is narrowing all the time, until one day literally no one will be good enough.

  7. There does seem to be a shift towards villifying thin women *as much as* fat women are villified; suddenly it's no longer ok to be underweight or naturally thin, than it is to be large - though I do think the direction has changed; newspaper/popular media "zomg too skinny" perhaps because people are now so very aware of weight issues of either direction. And because it's not about encouraging people to take care of themselves, it's about making women feel neurotic about their appearance.

    V's not denying that large/fat/overweight women come in for their fair share of abuse. I would argue that, while I as a size 16 will never know what it's like to have food thrown at me, V has never been told she was too fat for someone to want to acknowledge their relationship. It does go both ways, but it is just as important to acknowledge that "thin" women get as much flak as "fat" women. Not because of their weight, but because they're *women* - the really important issue is to not take any of it.

  8. "Whereas with thin women, although it's still socially acceptable to *be* thin, it's also acceptable, for example, for perfect strangers, to approach me in the street and call me anorexic, or, as on one occasion, throw food at me."
    This is what's always creeped me out about the whole tabloid backlash against "anorexic" women. The idea that someone's life-threatening mental illness is somehow anyone else's business, in the public interest to know, or even entertainment is pretty wrong in every way. Worse still, once a woman is deemed anorexic, you sort of lose the right to claim otherwise and be believed, like with Keira Knightley a while back. Speaking of which, how does this fit in with real women having curves?

    Also, without wanting to downplay the shite that gets heaped on any woman with the audacity to be larger than average, is "too fat" perhaps less of a gender issue than "too thin"? Though not to the same extent maybe, men do also get bullied and vilified for being overweight, whereas I've not come across much criticism of overly skinny men. Just wondering, anyway.

  9. Spot on - this is why this 'debate' in the media never goes anywhere. Because at the end of the day, it always comes down to one of two things:

    - A wide range of body shapes and sizes is never acceptable
    - 'What men find attractive' seems to be the most important thing

    You see it in nasty tabloid columns written by females where they lampoon women who are smaller than size 14, ending with something like 'no man wants a woman who looks like a little boy!'. You see it when famous women snipe at each other. And so it goes round in circles.

    And you're quite right - it's ridiculous to suggest that a wide range of sizes is now 'in' just because the media has suddenly decided that tall, slim women with a perfectly proportioned hourglass shape and larger than average breasts are 'in'. Obviously we can see it in terms of being a backlash against 'skinny' being considered the only desirable body type. But it really doesn't include many more women, does it?

  10. Alex - I suspect the airbrushed Keira Knightly poster represents what the media-types behind the "real women have curves" campaigns represents what they REALLY think is acceptable: tall and slender with improbably large breasts. Which is packaged up for mass consumptino as "curvy". Keira's actually proof that it's impossible to acheive so-called perfection; even in times when thin was in, large breasts were fetishised. Being around the same build as Keira but a bit taller, I can tell you from experience that someone shaped like that is never going to have breasts any bigger than in the original picture. You can't have it both ways! Women. Can't. Win.

    I have heard criticism of skinny men myself, and I think that, and the backlash against slim women as well are both gender issues in that we enrage traditionalists by not fitting gender stereotypes. Slimmer men have "failed" by not being big, strong, protectors; slimmer women have failed by not having large breasts and child-bearing hips, thus not immediately looking like the walking incubators they expect as to be.

    You are completely right about magazines as well. It makes me sick the way they run endless photo stories on endless women, harping on about how they are obviously anorexic, or starving themselves because of some "heartbreak" or other and package it as motherly concern. They're not "worried" about these women, regardless of what the headlines scream, they're exploiting them for all they're worth because really, people like gossip, and that's all this is. Nine out of ten of the women featured probably ahve nothing wrong with them whatsoever and have never been on a diet in their lives, but the one or two that do have genuine issues, are they helping but putting them on the front cover of a magazine or is all the attention making the problem 100 times worse? My money's on the latter.

    In general, it only serves to make all women look weak and pathetic, especially the ludicrous stories that ran after Ashley Cole supposedly cheated on Cheryl, claiming that she - despite clearly being the same weight as she had been for some time and the same weight she still is now - was starving herself because of her apparent heartbreak. I mean for fuck's sake. They weren't accusing him of pining for her while they were seperated were they? There's never any goulsih concern for men's weight when they go through a high-profile break up, or, indeed, ever. Because they're too strong for that; it's women who society at large apparently still thinks go around fainting it minor social indiscretions.


  11. Thank you so much for this! I'm really skinny too, and with that comes, well, no womanly curves. And when I was growing up, I was deeply insecure about looking like a girl. Sure, I was skinny, and people were jealous of me for THAT, but I was also convinced that I wasn't feminine enough. REAL WOMEN COME IN ALL SHAPES AND SIZES. Anyone who identifies as a woman is a "real" woman, it's that simple.

  12. It's a shame we're told our role models should be women with an 'ideal' figure. Rather than people with a brilliant mind, determination, great skill in their field etc..


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