[Paleopsych] Slate: Navel Gazing - Why even feminists are obsessed with fat. By Laura Kipnis

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Navel Gazing - Why even feminists are obsessed with fat. By Laura Kipnis
    Posted Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2005, at 5:35 AM PT

    America's obsession with fat is increasingly colonizing the cultural
    imagination, and not just on sadistic reality-TV diet shows like The
    Biggest Loser. There's also been a lot of fat on the New York stage
    lately. Neil LaBute's devastating new play, Fat Pig, offers thwarted
    love between a fat woman and a thin man with really mean friends; in
    The Good Body, Eve Ensler's one-woman show, the audience is treated to
    the self-loathing feminist equivalent of a money shot: Ensler yanks
    her blouse up and waistband down, and there in all its naked shame is
    her dirty little secret, a small pot belly. Ensler and LaBute couldn't
    be more different in sensibility, except that for both, fat spells
    abjection. For anyone in quest of another angle, a new collection of
    essays, [22]Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession, edited by Don
    Kulick and Anne Meneley, takes on the same terrain from a
    cross-cultural perspective, providing a welcome departure from both
    fat-as-sideshow or Ensler-style navel gazing.

    Can you be a fat female and also an object of desire? This is the
    question posed in different ways by both new plays. It's no surprise
    that for LaBute's characters, the answer is a brutal "No." But Ensler,
    a self-declared radical feminist, works herself into intellectual
    knots trying to come to terms with her own bodily obsessions. (For
    her, it's more about feeling fat than being fat.) The therapeutic mode
    doesn't make for gripping theater; here it also makes for a lot of
    wheel-spinning, particularly because there's a hard truth that Ensler
    can't bring herself to acknowledge about women's situations today,
    including her own: There's simply an irreconcilable contradiction
    between feminism and femininity, two largely incompatible strategies
    women have adopted over the years to try to level the playing field
    with men.

    The reason they're incompatible is simple. Femininity is a system that
    tries to secure advantages for women, primarily by enhancing their
    sexual attractiveness to men. It also shores up masculinity through
    displays of feminine helplessness or deference. But femininity depends
    on a sense of female inadequacy to perpetuate itself. Completely
    successful femininity can never be entirely attained, which is
    precisely why women engage in so much laboring, agonizing, and
    self-loathing, because whatever you do, there's always that straggly
    inch-long chin hair or pot belly or just the inexorable march of time.
    (Even the dewiest ingénue is a Norma Desmond waiting to happen.)

    Feminism, on the other hand, is dedicated to abolishing the myth of
    female inadequacy. It strives to smash beauty norms, it demands female
    equality in all spheres, it rejects sexual market value as the measure
    of female worth. Or that was the plan. Yet for all feminism's social
    achievements, what it never managed to accomplish was the eradication
    of the heterosexual beauty culture, meaning the time-consuming and
    expensive potions and procedures--the pedicures, highlights, wax jobs
    on sensitive areas, "aesthetic surgery," and so on. For some reason,
    the majority of women simply would not give up the pursuit of
    beautification, even those armed with feminist theory. (And even those
    clearly destined to fail.)

    Why is this women's continuing plight? (Even minus financial
    imperatives, as women increasingly achieve economic independence from
    men.) Ensler trots out the usual suspects: unrealistic media images,
    capitalism, mothers. She also spent six years globe-trotting to 40
    countries to interview other women on the subject. Lo and behold,
    everywhere she went, she found foreign counterparts of herself, women
    who loathe some part of their bodies. Much of the play consists of
    Ensler impersonating this Olympic village of self-abnegating women.

    One problem with this brand of global feminism is how closely it
    resembles narcissism on a global scale: Women everywhere mirror me.
    Instead, Ensler should have interviewed a few anthropologists since
    according to Kulick and Meneley's Fat, bodily attributes like pot
    bellies actually have entirely different cross-cultural meanings. Fat
    connotes very different things in different cultures or in subcultures
    like fat activism, gay male chubby-chasers, and hip hop. Fat may be a
    worldwide phenomenon--and increasingly so--but not everyone is
    neurotic about it, or they're not neurotic in the same way.

    Take the chapter by anthropologist [25]Rebecca Popenoe, based on her
    fieldwork among desert Arabs in Niger. This is a society with no media
    influences or beauty industries, where women strive to be as fat as
    possible. Girls are force-fed to achieve this ideal; stretch marks are
    regarded as beautiful. Yet somehow this beauty norm doesn't create the
    same sense of anguish that afflicts Western women striving for
    thinness, leading Popenoe to suggest that it's the Western obsession
    with individualism and achievement that bears the blame--not media
    images, not a top-down backlash against feminism, as Naomi Wolf's The
    Beauty Myth has it. In Niger, failing to achieve the prevailing beauty
    standard isn't a personal failure; it just means someone has bewitched
    you, or you have a thin constitution.

    But reading Popenoe won't reassure anyone seeking an exit route from
    female body anxieties. Where the Nigerois fatties and the
    dieting-obsessed Ensler find common ground is that all are striving
    for sexual attractiveness in the context of heterosexuality. The
    Nigerois women fatten themselves to be more desirable to Nigerois men.
    Women here may pant, "I'm doing it for myself" while strapped to their
    treadmills, but the fact is that the beauty culture is a heterosexual
    institution, and to the extent that women participate in its rituals,
    they, too, are propping up a heterosexual society and its norms. The
    problem for a feminist is that historically speaking such norms have
    worked out far less advantageously for women than for men.

    The disadvantages can take rather subtle forms, though, as The Good
    Body itself unwittingly demonstrates, once a recurring character known
    as "My Partner" is introduced. As described by Ensler--rather
    reverently--this is the perfect man. He cooks, he adores her stomach,
    and he's so enlightened that when they get in a fight while on
    vacation (she accuses him of calling her fat), he tells her he can't
    compete with her stomach and leaves. In other words, the Partner's
    dramatic function is to articulate the feminist position--which he
    does far more adequately than Ensler herself, turning The Good Body
    into a feminist play that somehow props up the most traditional of
    sexual positions: man on top.

    If even feminist theater ends up reinforcing masculine prowess,
    perhaps it's because heterosexuality requires asymmetry between the
    sexes. Heterosexuality always was the Achilles heel of feminism
    because the asymmetries involved usually took the form of adequacy for
    one sex, inadequacy for the other. And so things seem to remain: You
    may hear a lot of tough talk about empowerment and independence in
    women's culture today, except you hear it from women shopping for
    baby-doll outfits or getting Brazilian bikini waxes and double-D cup
    breast implants. ("I'm doing it for myself.")

    Of course, masculinity has always been afflicted with its own bodily
    anxieties; it just compensates for them differently (or
    overcompensates). Check out Viagra sales if in doubt. Or those
    penis-extender spam ads. Only feminism-for-dummies defines body
    pathologies as a female franchise alone, especially since that just
    buttresses the illusion of masculine invulnerability all over
    again--traditional femininity via the back door.

    Will femininity continue to beat down the feminist challenge? It's
    been remarkably tenacious to date. Or will women keep trying to
    reconcile the two through conflicted enterprises such as empowerment
    plastic surgery and bestowing men with feminist prowess? If only
    internal gymnastics burned calories! Then we could all achieve flatter
    stomachs with far fewer hours at the gym.

    Laura Kipnis is a professor of media studies at Northwestern. Her last
    book was [26]Against Love: A Polemic.

    Remarks from the Fray:
    Using two solipsistic New York plays to help define the modern
    attitude toward fat women cannot be a helpful tool. For one thing
    "solipsistic New York play" is an oxymoron. For another, it's just too
    small a slice of our culture. What people feel and believe about each
    other, especially in male/female relationships, is far more complex
    and subtle than the kind of intellectual Kabuki of LaBute and Ensler.
    Worse, though is to stumble into this conclusion:
    There's simply an irreconcilable contradiction between feminism and
    femininity, two largely incompatible strategies women have adopted
    over the years to try to level the playing field with men.
    Well, no, there's not. Read some Gloria Steinem or Naomi Wolfe. The
    author's definition of femininity doesn't work with the author's
    definition of feminism. The rest of us needn't fall into that neurotic
    trap. You can too wear lipstick and be taken seriously in what you do.
    Just like men can wear ties, their own nonsensical cultural symbol of
    In fact the author herself attempts to demolish the entire existence
    of femininity by pointing out that people grow old. Well, yeah, they
    do. But that doesn't mean a woman (or a man, for that matter) can't
    still be feminine. The author conflates femininity with youth, beauty
    and artifice, when none are necessary components. Neither, I would
    argue, is weakness. Kipnis defines femininity in relationship to men.
    However there are millions of lesbians who would find that ridiculous.
    Heck, so would Van Morrison, who noted decades ago that all the girls
    go out/dressed up for each other.
    Kipnis's definition of feminism is equally shrill and monochromatic.
    If power means you must reject the notion of working to attract the
    opposite sex, what are all those middle aged male execs doing in my
    gym? And is Kipnis saying that fat women aren't feminine? Or that you
    have to be fat to be a feminist? Ensler, and Kipnis obsess on the body
    weight, the externals, without truly understanding the meaning of
    attraction. It's the person, ladies, not the meat wrapping...

    I take exception to the assertion that femininity and feminism are
    mutually exclusive. While Kipnis' summary of feminism as an attempt to
    level the playing field between men and women is accurate, saying that
    femininity is its opposite--a system of power and control that works
    by maximizing gender differences--is too simplistic.
    Femininity has never been solely about women's helplessness and need
    for men. It is a sexist mindset that causes society to speak of
    traditionally "feminine" attributes pejoratively. What is inherently
    bad about nurturing, being more emotional, being peaceful and gentle,
    and other such traits except for their association with women? Our
    society values "masculine" traits such as aggressiveness and strength
    not because these are inherently better, but because it still values
    men more.
    Imagine a society of only heterosexual women (don't worry about
    propagation for the moment). Sure, some of the flirtatious behaviors
    might be gone, the feigned helplessness and eye-batting flattery...but
    that isn't femininity. A lot of the women in this society would still
    be gentle, loving, peaceful, etc (and, just as now, some would also be
    ambitious and competitive). The thing that Kipnis doesn't allow for is
    that women can be soft AND strong at the same time. We are not the
    caricatures movies like Spanglish and the Stepford Wives make us out
    to be. The smart ones among us know you can be equal to a man without
    becoming a man, and that sometimes gender roles can be separate AND

    I find myself inclined to agree with the more radical version of
    Kipnis' argument that femininity as norm is at odds with feminism as a
    political agenda. Part of the reason for this inclination on my part
    has to do with the fact that feminism today is often attacked in the
    name of returning to traditional sex/gender beliefs that never lost
    their dominance in the first place. People sometimes suggest that they
    are sympathetic to feminism but don't want to be extremist about it.
    They defend this hesitancy on the grounds of being reasonable, but
    often what really motivates their anxiety is not reasonableness but
    rather a need to protect ideals to which their desires (and ultimately
    their security) is wed. If it needs to be said, this can describe men
    and women.
    There is, however, a single nagging question that I have about
    Kipnis's piece: is it femininity per se that is the problem, or is it
    a masculinist culture in which femininity is persistently linked to
    weakness. Kipnis's argument seems to place too much of the blame on
    women, even on feminist women. Is it possible though to imagine a
    femininity that is independent of male privilege? Kipnis I suspect
    would say that the question is moot, because femininity has always
    only existed as inferiority. On a broad cultural level absolutely, but
    on a private level? What then of lesbian desire for the feminine? Is
    this only perversion?


   22. http://search.barnesandnoble.com/booksearch/isbnInquiry.asp?userid=Yf7Zi6v9J8&isbn=1585423866&itm=1
   25. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0415280966/ref=lpr_g_1/104-6711922-4547130?v=glance&s=books
   26. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0375421890/qid=1063512445/sr=2-1/ref=sr_2_1/102-6498786-7148962

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