The tyranny of the fat-free body

Editor’s Note: Susan Bordo is a cultural historian and the author of many books and articles on cultural imagery, including “Unbearable Weight” and “The Creation of Anne Boleyn.” She blogs at Huffington Post, and is currently writing a book about Hillary Clinton. The views expressed are her own.

Story highlights

Transport for London says it will ban advertisements that "conform to unhealthy or unrealistic body images"

Susan Bordo: Even the slenderest bodies nowadays are digitally shaved of any unsightly "excess"

CNN  — 

When I was 14, I wanted to look like Annette Funicello. That was back in 1961. (And if you are going “Who?” right now, think Sandra Dee – but Italian.) I stuffed my bras with Kleenex, cinched my waist as tight as I could make it, and tried to be as perky as was possible for a poetry-writing Jewish girl from Newark who had never attended a beach party.

Back then, beauty culture was still in the grip of the curvy, I-was-born-to-have-babies ideals of the post-War period. But not for long. Within a few years, “swinging London” had given us a new, decidedly non-domestic ideal. Skinny, leggy, and flat-chested had always been a high-fashion look. But we knew there was a difference between a Vogue model and what was expected from us ordinary girls. In the mid-60s, all that changed. Being a mini-version of one’s mom was not cool; our imaginations were caught by the unencumbered, boyish, slightly awkward allure of Twiggy, Penelope Tree, Edie Sedgwick.

Susan Bordo

That was the 60s. We dieted, sure, but most of us were still connected enough to our ethnic and racial roots (immigrant and black cultures don’t tend to favor starvation beauty) or too focused on our blossoming politics to make the shrinking of our bodies into a way of life. But that coltish body and all it signified caught on big time, and by the time I started teaching college in the 1980s, my female students were writing in their journals of despising their “thunder thighs,” being afraid of food (“If I eat one cookie, I won’t be able to stop”) and measuring their worth by the numbers on their scales.

Fast forward to today, though, and is London leading the way again?

Beginning in August, London’s transport authority will ban advertisements that “conform to unhealthy or unrealistic body images.” The move will affect around 12,000 advertising spaces across the city.

It won’t be the first protest of its kind. But back in the 1990s, the fashion industry – taken to task by feminists for fostering anorexia and bulimia – scoffed. “No one gets sick just from looking at a picture.” Well, maybe not just. But today, few clinicians would deny that the images have been fertile ground for the kudzu-like spread of eating problems and body dysmorphias, from the most damaging to garden-variety “poor self-image.” So when London’s new mayor, Sadiq Khan, announced the ban on “fat-shaming” ads on the Tube and bus, it was no surprise that the Women’s Equality Party tweeted it was “a great start for London’s ‘feminist Mayor.’”

Protein World, whose “Are You Beach Body Ready?” ads for dietary supplements had generated the wave of protests (defaced posters, angry Facebook posts, a petition calling for the ad to be removed) that inspired Khan’s ban, was not so pleased.

“We are a nation of sympathizers for fatties,” a spokesperson tweeted, while Protein World’s chief executive Arjun Seth called the online critics “terrorists.” Ian Twinn of the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers sneered that if “fat is the new normal, we don’t want that to be the reason to censor people who are not fat.”

Fat as “the new normal”? What world does he live in? Even the slenderest bodies nowadays are digitally shaved of any unsightly “excess” – which is to say, pretty much anything a real body, save the absolutely skeletal, invariably exhibits. And although the development director for London’s transportation network argued that passengers on public transport are a particularly “captive audience,” that’s true only in the narrowest sense. Culturally speaking, we are all captive – and often captivated – by the (seemingly) fat-free bodies that surround us daily no matter the medium. You’d have to live in a cave to escape them.

Of course, we can’t ban every ad, fashion spread, video, or magazine cover. But we can challenge the monopoly on beauty that’s been held – for a startlingly short period of historical time – by the fat-free body.

This past month, CurvyCon’s New York meeting featured panels in which so-called “plus-size” women told major retailers a thing or two. Barbie, who had become virtually a symbol of early training in body unreality, is now sold in in tall, petite, and curvy versions. Meanwhile, Ebony magazine, in March, had African-American recording stars and actress lead a “body brigade” conversation about body image, black women, and self-acceptance.

Meghan Trainor and other curvaceous stars have protested against the digital alteration of their bodies on magazine covers and in videos. (Trainor had her single “Me Too” taken offline because “they photoshopped the crap out of me”.) And perhaps most provocatively, the famous Pirelli calendar, until this year typically devoted to willowy super-model types, included the powerful thighs of Serena Williams and Amy Schumer’s – gasp! – stomach rolls.

Amy Schumer is hardly what I would call fat. Some in the fat acceptance movement might object to Annie Leibovitz’s photo of her as a strike against what Kim Chernin called “the tyranny of slenderness.” For me, however, those tummy rolls are nothing short of culturally subversive – a hand grenade thrown at our outlandish expectations, fostered by years of training by Beach Body ads, of what a “normal” body looks like.

Portrait of American actor and Mickey Mouseketeer Annette Funicello, circa 1955.

It’s the Beach Body ad, I would argue, that is guilty of censorship. Schumer’s soft folds of flesh, in contrast, are a reminder that behind every manufactured image – from the hourglass of Annette Funicello to the emaciated glamor of Keira Knightley – is a real human being.

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