Some will contest that the fixation on thin and toned in mass media has to do with escapism. We don’t watch a movie or TV show to see a repeat of what we already encounter on a daily basis, they might say. We do it to get away from all that, into a magical parallel universe that’s similar to ours, but the colors are brighter, the people are prettier, and the unpleasant bits can be montaged through if necessary.
(This article is Part II in a series, read Part I here.)
Fine. But if we can shed our expectations about Gerard Butler Falcon-kicking people into bottomless pits or John Cusack holding up a boom box outside our window, why can’t we do the same with the expectation that all valuable and interesting women should look like Olivia Wilde or Jessica Alba? Our ability to decipher between fantasy and reality is inconsistent, and seems to be impeded further by repeated exposure to this thin ideal.
This level of immersion has adverse effects on men, too. No doubt Ryan Gosling’s apparently drool-worthy physique (“Seriously? It’s like you’re photoshopped!” cries Emma Stone’s character when Gosling’s removes his shirt in the movie Crazy, Stupid Love) is not realistically attainable for most guys.
Men who don’t possess or who have trouble gaining muscle mass (indicative of strength, which seems to be the conventional top characteristic for defining what ‘male’ is) are apt be teased or mocked or made to feel less manly. And though it’s unfortunately not so socially acceptable for men to show it, that judgment can hurt. It’s no more warranted than any of the body-consciousness manipulation that happens to women.
More relevant here, however, is the damage the skinny standard mindset does to male perceptions of women. Regrettably, I used to frequent a site called 9Gag. It’s similar to reddit, but with less variation in topics. Basically, users submit funny pictures or videos, and the ones with the most upvotes get featured on the main page. (Its slogan in your tab reads: “9Gag: Forever Alone No More!”) Often there are girls in the pictures. If the girls are models or actresses or have those sorts of figures, the comments are, to sugar-coat the vulgarity a bit, laudatory. A quick visit to the home page shows us this post and the second-highest-voted comment is “would bed both.” (Um, no one asked you, dude.) Sometimes, though, less-thin figures are shown or discussed. The tone of the comments shifts. (TRIGGER WARNING) For instance: this post titled “Keep this in mind when dressing for the summer,” with 12,800 and counting upvotes: “Dress for the body you have, not the body you want.” The top comment calls out the original poster, but users such as creepystallker contributes his support of the message: “Ugggh, fatties wearing bikinis Q_Q” So does 7yme: “and what am I supposed to do when there is also a whale in hotpants or worse in the other direction?”
Now, I realize the frequenters of this website don’t represent all guys. But it represents enough of them to be a problem. This is a blatant version of a mindset that has been drilled into us since we were old enough to understand television and movies and advertisements. As the famous author/Youtuber John Green says, the truth resists simplicity. But media images and websites like 9Gag tend to resist complexity thanks to the fleeting nature of flipping past a magazine ad, catching a glimpse of a TV commercial, and scrolling down a webpage. Even if you consciously oppose something, if you see it or hear it frequently enough, even in small doses, your brain has a tendency to retain it.
Case in point: You’ve caught yourself humming “Baby” by Justin Bieber at least once, haven’t you? And you’re singing the chorus in your head now, aren’t you? (I’m so sorry.) Despite the inane lyrics and the general dislike of Bieber’s music aside from tween girls, that video is the second-most watched clip on YouTube. Over 1.03 billion people have viewed it (as of May 27, 2014.) It’s safe to say that that song has had a lot of exposure, so there’s a reason why I know the entire first verse and chorus despite having never sat down and watched the entire video, and never wanted to. So… how many people per day see a billboard featuring a thin girl in Times Square? How many people per day see similar ads featuring similar girls all over the place? Music videos? TV shows? Movies? Websites? It’s basically inescapable. (The documentary Miss Representation does an excellent job showing the dangerous scope of media reach on this and other topics, and it’s streaming on Netflix.)
Some mature, intelligent guys will resist this brainwashing, realizing not only how shallow it is to judge people on looks alone, but also that, hey, Not Skinny girls can be hot too. Sometimes hotter. But many guys won’t even try to fathom any other concept of beauty besides Skinny, or any other purpose for women besides Being Attractive. And others will fall somewhere in the middle. That’s just it: you have to try to break this mindset. The default setting is accepting it. To me, that’s unacceptable. To subject statistically average women to shame and self-doubt because of some cellulite or a stomach pooch is unacceptable. To mock Rebel Wilson and have her mock herself onstage because she is fat is unacceptable.
I won’t say that physical appearance is entirely unimportant. When you think you look good on the outside, it can help make you feel incredible inside. And when someone else compliments you on how you look, it puts a smile on your face, maybe a strut in your step. There’s nothing wrong with this; I think people should get some pride and enjoyment out of how they look, if they choose to. The problem happens when only one, very rare body type is considered by society to be beautiful, and when we are repeatedly told, directly and indirectly, that we are defined by our compliance or non-compliance with this body type.
I would like to say something to every girl who has ever felt “fat” or who has ever been fat and been ashamed of it, and I hope that everyone who has ever dismissed or derided someone because of this gets the message too: You are a complex and unique person, of which your physical appearance is only one part, and you deserve to be treated that way. You are allowed to be deep and interesting and smart and funny, as well as sexy and confident and attractive and proud. You have the right to be. And our society seems hell-bent on making you forget that.
Obviously this doesn’t only apply to those who are Not Skinny or who feel they’re not. This applies to all women, all people. It’s just that Not Skinny girls often need to hear it the most.
I have a sickening feeling that as long as the industries and corporations who profit from this set-up continue to profit, little will change. As long as people are conditioned to laugh at fat actresses whose only character trait is “fat,” there will be an up-and-comer looking for her big break willing to put herself through that. To change the system in any significant way, there has to be a deliberate and determined effort by a lot of people over a long period of time. And the most substantial way we can let these movie and TV studios and clothing labels and ad agencies know that we don’t like what they’re doing is by withdrawing our financial support from them. Obviously this is much easier said than done, and I don’t pretend to have a complete battle plan at the ready.
But isn’t it time that people as talented and funny as Rebel Wilson were treated as actual human beings instead of as jokes, or forever alone sidekicks? Isn’t it time that women saw more people in the media who they could actually relate to, who could reinforce the idea that they are awesome the way they are, a few jiggles be damned? Isn’t it time that men were offered images of women that were actually realistic, conditioning an attitude of acceptance and depth above judgment and superficiality? Won’t a society of confident, happy, fulfilled people be more valuable in the long-term than one of insecure, self-doubting, petty people?
I’d like to think so. How do we get there?
Well, we can start by putting Rebel Wilson onstage in a dress.
Written by Melanie Stangl