“There is a difference”: Goalpost-moving and naming the acceptable body

By | May 13, 2010

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I rarely go out to see movies anymore. So many of them are disappointments, and leave me resentful of having wasted my money and two hours (or more!) of my life.* Instead I read a great many reviews, even of films I have no interest in, and thus I can limit myself to only watching the films that really appeal to me, while still keeping some small awareness of that aspect of popular culture.

All of this is a roundabout way of getting to the part where I was reading Roger Ebert’s review of the romantic comedy Just Wright, starring Queen Latifah, and I unexpectedly stumbled upon a paragraph on Latifah’s body that gave me pause:

Latifah has never been fat. She has always been plus-size. There is a difference. She is healthy, fit, carries herself with confidence, and looks terrific in “Just Wright” in the kind of clothing a physical therapist might feel comfortable wearing. If you’re dragging around feeling low about yourself, you want to know her secret.

I read this through two or three times, and thought to myself, “Self, something about this paragraph is sitting badly with me. I think I should work through it, using my words, and maybe something blogworthy will result.”

Ebert’s commentary above is certainly indicative of a persistent shift in how we talk about bodies and size. I won’t debate his first point: I’ve never considered Latifah fat myself, but standards of fatness are wildly subjective**, and so there are, no doubt, as many folk out there who think of Latifah as a whale of unfathomable proportions as there are folk who think of her as, euphemistically, “plus size” in an okey-dokey way. So I won’t debate his second point either. However, I would like to dwell for a moment on the third.

“There is a difference.”

Longtime readers know there are few intellectual exercises I enjoy more than unpacking language and, to borrow from Charles Augustus Milverton***, boggling at terms. Indeed, “plus size” and “fat” are distinct concepts, but not exclusive. Fat people are uniformly plus size by necessity, but not all plus size people are fat. You can be both, neither, or plus size, but not fat alone. “Plus size” is a matter of accessibility; fat is a matter of substance. The difference Ebert mentions here is rather one of personal appreciation and semantics. One could read the above as suggesting that Latifah isn’t fat because fat people are not “healthy, fit,” they do not carry themselves “with confidence”, nor do they look terrific. (Pish-tush, dear fats, for the moment let us set aside our objections though we know these assertions to be far from universally true.) These are, after all, the examples Ebert uses to identify Latifah’s lack of fatness. Fat is still bad. Plus size is… almost good?

“Plus size,” like its sister euphemism “curvy”, is typically deployed as code for a few distinguishing characteristics that separate the body in question from the more negative connotations of “fat”. Primarily, “plus size” implies “proportional”, usually a standard hourglass figure, but scaled up. It’s an attractive body that mostly looks like the idealized thinner version — the distinct waist, the wider hips, the bustline in balance with both — but… thicker. The problem with this is that there are millions of women of all sizes sharing in this culture who do not fit that description, and who are thus led down the garden path to believing that their salvation lies in either Machiavellian attempts to remake their shapes (through surgery, deprivation, or abuse) or, if and when they meet with failure, resenting or even hating their natural bodies. There are fat women without narrow waists; there are slender women who lack rounded hips; there are women of all sizes whose breasts fail to comform to a size aesthetically in step with the rest of their bodies. Both my inbox and the comments on this very site are rife with the struggles of women trying to pull themselves from the self-loathing pit while impossible beauty standards (helped along by the fashion industry and the media) repeatedly push them back down again.

Any culturally-imposed standard of “acceptable” body size and shape is going to be exclusive and harmful. This is not to suggest that people aren’t entitled to individual concepts of beauty. Absolutely we are. All of us. You may like what you like, and as I’ve had recent cause to explain, I am fine with you not finding me or my shape attractive. But the imposition by culture of universalizing standards of acceptable appearance is damaging to women. The elevation of whiteness is damaging to women of color. The elevation of “proportionality” is damaging to the majority of women born without a body that naturally adheres to that shape (for an historic example, see centuries of corsetry; thank heaven for the miracle of surgical intervention today!). The elevation of thinness is damaging to fat women, certainly, but also to fat men, and also to people of all sizes who needs must spend their lives worrying about the alleged risks of becoming fat: a sudden loss of “fitness” (which only thin people possess and all thin people have), a lack of confidence (link very NSFW), and a failure to look terrific (get back in your muumuus, you fatasses!).

I suspect Ebert’s effort here is not to cast aspersions, but to note that Latifah is an attractive woman who manages to be successful in spite of having a body outside the established norms of Hollywood, and to quietly point out how silly those norms are. Indeed, my inveterate optimism insists that his comments are well-intentioned. Unfortunately, their context only serves to underscore a rising sentiment that while “plus size” may someday be all right, “fat” is still bad. Good intentions be damned, that still creates an arbitrary standard of acceptability, albeit one that is slightly larger than the current one.

Some would argue, I’m sure, that Ebert should restrain himself from mentioning Latifah’s size at all — what does it have to do with the film? But I’m on board with bringing the subject up. Changing our body-culture begins by changing our discourse, and our discourse only changes when we’re willing to talk. But first we need to dispense with euphemisms and moving the goalposts and recognize that universalizing standards of acceptable bodies are not only inaccurate and unjust, but limiting and harmful. Then the success of a plus size actor like Queen Latifah could be a sign that, Howard Stern’s loathsome objections aside, the success of a fat actor like Gabourey Sidibe may not be such an impossibility after all, and that it may someday be talent and screen presence alone that result in an actor’s stellar career — not her ability to be thin.

* I am seeing A Matter of Size this weekend, courtesy of the film’s distributors, and I have high hopes for it, so watch for a review here next week.
** Often, amongst size-positive activists, “fat” translates into “as fat or fatter than me”.
*** Anyone who catches this reference without googling has my love and respect for the ages.

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