Saturday, September 10, 2016

Tyranny and Intolerance

Review: The Obsession by Kim Chermin


This is a profoundly disturbing treatise, superficially about the fashion of women’s bodies—but at its base, the obsession about which Chernin writes is for power over the minds of women and men.
…I recalled the faces of women who had recently lost weight. The haggard look, the lines of strain around the mouth, the neck too lean, the tendons visible, the head too large for the emaciated body. I began to reason… There must be, I said, for every woman a correct weight, which cannot be discovered with reference to a chart or to any statistical norm…

Chernin’s approach to this obsession is feminist, to be sure, because she is discussing the seizure of power underlying the focus on size. On the way, however, she uncovers some truths that are equally applicable to diet-obsessed modern men.
  • 90% to 98% of dieters eventually gain back all the weight they lost—and more
  • This recidivism leads to feelings of depression and self-loathing over loss of control—both of which are emotional states conducive to weight gain, creating a feedback loop
  • Samoan women, accepted by their society as beautiful at heavy weights and large sizes, rarely exhibit the hypertension “caused” by lower levels of obesity in women whose societies reject them for being fat

Wonder Womannot Wonder Girl-Child!
Along the way, Chernin speculates about a number of things that may be related to the current obsession over weight. Chinese foot-binding, for instance, is reeled into the discussion, along with 19th-century corsetry and modern-day plastic surgery. And if there is a vast conspiracy to make women unhappy with their natural bodies, it is one willingly entered into by women themselves: if hundreds of thousands of women have their breasts enlarged, more will have their breasts reduced, their thighs sucked slimmer and tummies tucked in the endless battle with fat.

Why would women conspire against their own natures? Chernin lays this issue firmly in the woman’s own desire to meet a shifting ideal, and in the urge to retain youth. Pre-pubescent lack of body fat and slender shape is the current fashion. In other words, women are trying to be girls at an age when they were non-sexual. (It is in reasoning about why men would want girlish women that Chernin is most feminist; she believes men are subtly jealous of the woman’s generative ability, her womb, and thus seek to keep women in a physical state that belies this power.)

Certainly a man is allowed a greater latitude of size by society than are women, as long as that mass is well distributed. Let his belly sag, though, or breasts form, and he will become an object of ridicule no less than the oversize woman. For men, the ideal also seems to be the adolescent formbut for the zenith of male sexuality, post-puberty, when hormones are at their peak. Men are meant to respond to their lustful impulses, says this cultural norm, while women are meant to show their purity by being physically unable to respond to them.

There are, in addition, puritanical impulses that support the fashion for slenderness. Lust and gluttony are both loss-of-control sins. Despite the fashion for prepubescence, the curvaceous, obviously-fertile woman is secretly an occasion of sin for the lusty; her even fatter sister is presumed to be a walking sign of her own gluttony. And even darker sins are concealed by this puritanical reaction:
I don’t think even I could exaggerate the pain these women suffer because they are large. In the face of their obesity our normal standards of humanity vanish and we are possessed by a form of racist revulsion for the bodies of these women. [Emphasis mine.]

Again and again, Chernin asks us to look at the fat woman, with her “rounded cheeks, plump arms…, broad shoulders,… full thighs, rounded ass… of a woman made that way according to her nature, walking with head high in pride of her body, however it happened to be shaped.” We need, she insists, to see each woman as she is meant to be, ripe and full of promise, not cut her down to some Procrustean ideal.

I believe we also need to get rid of this last "tolerated intolerance." We would not condone discrimination on the basis of skin color or any of the other physical expressions of someone's life-style or innate characteristics. Why is it socially acceptable when based on size or body shape?