It’s that time again: a new season of The Biggest Loser is on the air in Australia. That means that even for those of us who would never willingly watch an episode of this heinous circus of self-loathing, the adverts are everywhere. I saw one at the train station yesterday. It is awful.
I don’t want to talk about the ways in which the show is dangerous for its participants, some of whom end up urinating blood. I don’t need to tell you it peddles damaging misinformation about health and weight, in a manner so disingenuous that even other anti-fat fitness professionals condemn it. I don’t even need to tell you how suspicious it is that the show doesn’t rigorously follow up with the participants afterwards, yet their trainers feel completely comfortable declaring “mission accomplished” – which they do so prematurely it would make George W. Bush do a double-take. You know all that. I want to talk about the social impact of a show like The Biggest Loser.
The Biggest Loser contributes to the primacy of diet culture. Diet culture is a system of thought in which food is an issue of public morality, where eating whatever you want is a grave sin and abstaining from “bad” food – which could be fatty food, sweet food, or carby food, depending on the month – is seen as virtuous. In this culture, bodies are rated as healthy or unhealthy based on their degree of “fatness”, and health becomes a saintly attribute while ill health becomes a serious personal failing. This is a culture in which thinner is better until the person is literally hospitalised (then of course we’re going to wring our hands about anorexia, but like, not too much in case the fat people get confused and think starvation is bad for them too!). This is a culture in which guilt is the primary emotion associated with food. A culture that has declared war on fat bodies.
The Biggest Loser is mired so deep in this ideology that it might as well be the official propaganda arm of the anti-fat movement. Indeed, since the show blatantly disregards the long-term health of its participants, it would seem that its true purpose is to spread an aggressive, rigid, guilt-centic mode of relating to ourselves and our bodies.
Diet culture is awful for everyone. It can take the average, mentally healthy adult human and totally fuck up how that human decides how to feed themself. I have seen otherwise-mentally-healthy adults exhibit genuine fear when confronted with potatoes or full-fat milk. And that’s just people who start off mentally healthy and who are considered mentally healthy. Diet culture is even more toxic for people who struggle with mental illnesses, in particular eating disorders, depression, anxiety and OCD, and/or are generally predisposed to disordered behaviour around food.
I’m not sure how to describe what it’s like to live in diet culture as a person in recovery for an eating disorder. Every day, we all see images and messages telling us that we should be thin, should not eat anything except magic food X and super food Y, and that frankly the only way for you to love yourself is to go hungry until you are thin. The Biggest Loser, in fact, endorses this last message explicitly. But in many cases a person with an eating disorder has a voice in their head that tells them that in much harsher terms, constantly, relentlessly, without pity and without mercy. That voice does not need any encouragement. But in our culture, encouragement is exactly what it finds in abundance.
A room in which The Biggest Loser is playing on the television is a room that is not safe for many people with eating disorders. A train station or a bus stop with advertisements for Diet Shakes, Diet Cereals, The Biggest Loser, Jenny Craig, and other weight loss paraphernalia on it is not safe for many people with eating disorders. A highway with a billboard for a weight loss show is not safe for many people with eating disorders. A menu with large, obtrusive calorie counts is not safe for many people with eating disorders. A magazine with a column by Michelle Bridges that laments the existence of fat people who don’t diet is not safe for many people with eating disorders.
If you feel safe in the presence of these images, that is your privilege. Virtually no public spaces, and a large proportion of private spaces, in the western world are even remotely safe for people with eating disorders.
The other thing that diet culture does is make eating disorders completely effortless to hide. I had an eating disorder for years and the first person who realised there was something wrong was me – because the excuses for not eating very much, or not eating certain things, are everywhere. “I just feel better when I am thinner”, “I’m losing weight for me”, “I want to feel good about myself”, “I’m happier at this weight”…these are things sick people say to hide their sickness. Other people swallow it because their default reaction to weight loss is “good” and it takes work for them to be convinced otherwise. Now, I’m sure these things have been said by mentally healthy people too and I’m not suggesting everyone who ever diets has an ED. But I’m also sure the average listener doesn’t know the difference. The hold of diet culture can be so strong that sometimes even the speaker doesn’t know the difference.
This all adds up to one simple message: our culture couldn’t give a fuck about your mental health. Clearly when people “just worry about your health” – even if they do genuinely mean health and not just thinness – they only mean the health of your body without any consideration for the brain. On a biological level this is completely ludicrous because you simply can’t separate the brain and the rest of the body. They’re one whole and can’t be considered in isolation. Here’s a rudimentary example: a chronically anxious brain will pump the body full of cortisol and adrenalin, which both contribute to all sorts of adverse physical outcomes including a weakened immune system and reduced mortality. Oh noes, did your mental health just affect your physical health – you know, the one we pretend we care about? Say it ain’t so! But in all seriousness, the truth is, they can’t really be separated. It’s all health. Mental health is health.
A culture that is willing to throw people with serious mental health problems under the bus in an endless quest for everyone on earth to be thin is not a culture that cares about health. It is a culture that is using a narrow, twisted definition of health – which coincidentally reinforces social norms around attractiveness – to beat up on everyone, including some of its most vulnerable members. That is the culture being explicitly promoted by the Biggest Loser and other shows like it. It’s making us sick. It’s making our media dangerous to consume. For a society supposedly obsessed with health, we’ve got a damn funny way of showing it.
As people who oppose beautyism, I think it is useful to us to separate out two concepts which are usually bundled up into the words “attractiveness” or “beauty”. The first is conventional attractiveness or beauty, defined by the extent to which one possesses the set of qualities portrayed as desirable in our culture and society. The more of these traits one has, the better one fits into the pre-defined (but ever changing) sociocultural mould. This is one idea bound up in the concept of “attractiveness”.
The second is, for me, the more useful meaning of the word beauty. It is the property of being found to be, or experienced as, attractive or beautiful by oneself and/or by others. This consists of yourself or others experiencing positive feelings about your appearance, and I think it could be broadened to encompass other aspects of your person. Despite what most of us think, this concept and the sociocultural checklist concept are not the same things at all. I think the checklist definition should rightly be called “conventionally attractive” and should never be confused with real attractiveness.
Clearly, not everyone is conventionally attractive. Not everyone ticks most or even half of the ticky boxes required. However, it’s no contradiction to say that someone who is not conventionally beautiful is still actually beautiful. Even if you don’t consider yourself beautiful (this can take time if you grow up being told you’re not), the odds are someone else out there does. In fact, the number of people who are not considered attractive by anyone on the planet is vanishingly small and asymptotically approaches zero. If you are not conventionally attractive, then by definition (in the limit) you are unconventionally attractive. Thus, everyone is attractive. QED.
Now maybe more humans are attracted to humans that fall within the bounds of conventional attractiveness. Nobody knows for sure because there’s no control group of people who haven’t been exposed to any beauty ideals at all. But maybe. We unconventionally attractive people might therefore have fewer suitors. But that doesn’t make much of a difference: how many people can you really be romantically involved with at once? Like, 4 or 5 at the absolute maximum, am I right?
So, if you (like me) are not conventionally attractive: congratulations! Being unconventionally attractive can be very liberating! It has pushed me to learn to find myself attractive on my own terms, rather than on my culture’s terms. Some conventionally attractive people have also had this epiphany, of course, but I think it would have taken me longer to learn this if I were conventionally hot. I find it freeing to feel that I am attractive if I decide I am, rather than relying on the extent to which I fit into a sociocultural ideal. This means that no matter if I wake up tomorrow with a blemish or if I put on weight, I’m still mentally considering myself attractive, and that’s really what matters.
Of course, being unconventionally attractive has serious downsides in a culture obsessed with conventional beauty and prone to beautyism. This is especially true for women: we are consistently told by our media and many around us that we are only worthwhile if people (usually cis-het-male people) find us beautiful or want to have sex with us – and that if we fail to tick even one box on the cultural attractiveness list, then nobody wants us.
Obviously this is bullshit, but it’s hard to shake. It’s everywhere, not least because it’s profitable for the cosmetic and fashion and diet industries. And if we move in social circles filled with people who believe this message, the message can become self-fulfilling: the people who do find us attractive will be deterred from voicing their feelings for fear of being judged by their peers. In addition, recent studies show that all genders rate women wearing makeup as consistently more competent and smarter than those not. There is no point denying that people who are not conventionally attractive are discriminated against.
Clearly, conventionally hot people have it easier in the sense that the world will treat them better. The same way white people, male-presenting people, thin people, able-bodied people, cis-gendered people, straight people, neurotypical people, and rich people are treated better. Clearly, it is the unequal treatment that needs to be changed, not the existence of “unattractive”, queer, poor, disabled, non-white, and other “other” people. But as people, and especially as women, we are repeatedly told that we have to be hot to be worth anything.
So, like other marginalised groups, “unattractive” people can too often find themselves in the awful trap of looking around at a world that treats them badly and concluding that this is the treatment they deserve. They may feel that they have to change if they want to be treated better, and if they can’t change, they have to excel at literally everything else to the exclusion of any personal desires or individuality. This isn’t just about unconventional beauty – almost all marginalised groups are sold the idea that conforming to dominant culture will lead to some kind of undefined happiness from which they are currently excluded. Of course it’s a lie. That’s not how oppression works or how happiness works – and on some level we might even suspect we’re taking a sucker’s bet, desperate as we are. Faced with a system that erases us for being different, we want so badly to be accepted that we participate in our own erasure. That’s part of how kyriarchy works.
As a result, it is my experience that the hardest part about being outside of the socially approved mould is not how other people treat me but the way I treat myself - though I want to be clear, this starts off largely as a result of their treatment. The worst part about not living up to that golden ideal is that you believe that the suffering you experience as a human being is caused, or at least exacerbated, by how you look. You begin to believe that if only you were conventionally beautiful, you would not be lonely. You would be affirmed and wanted and validated. You would like yourself. You would feel loved.
The reality is, however, that while you would be treated (perhaps) a little better by strangers, the things that cause us the most pain as human beings would remain unchanged. If you do not like yourself “ugly”, you will not like yourself when you are “attractive” – indeed, you will probably keep moving the goalposts out, demanding more and more conformity to the ideal before you believe you can be happy. If you don’t feel worthy now, it won’t help you achieve lasting self worth if everyone on earth woke up tomorrow in agreement that you were the new social beauty ideal. Yes, it would probably be exciting and fun. But ultimately it’s not something that can radically alter who you are. Who you are is more about you than about other people. The bottom line is that if your life is not fulfilling you now it will not fulfill you when you look like a movie star.
As far as I know, based on my experience, the only way to like yourself is to put in the hard emotional and psychological work of dismantling the cultural and personal psychological bullshit that tells you you’re not worth anything. In my experience, you can get rid of those awful thoughts and feelings – not all the time, but much of the time. And you can go from being absolutely obsessed with attaining conventional attractiveness to being able to build a core of self worth completely free from it, a core that can survive almost anything. (I know. I did it.)
But you don’t do it by being conventionally beautiful. That’s an external quality that changes based on the whims of those around you, and that’s not the horse you want to back. People who buy into the idea that being conventionally hot can protect them from pain, from rejection, from fear and loss are taking a gamble with extremely bad odds. The wealth of human experience strongly suggests that nothing can protect you from that. That is the human condition, and conventional hotness is nothing but one more Faustian bargain.
The Princess Bride, whatever its faults as a movie, got this right: “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.” This doesn’t just apply literally, and in this case, I’m not just talking about the industries that make money from beauty products. I’m talking about a culture that gets you to do things by promising you happiness and self worth. This is really no different – in fact, it might even be more insidious. Don’t let your culture sell you the idea that if you can just conform hard enough, you’ll be happy. Your culture is not just asking for your money when it makes you this offer. It is asking for your life.
Lipstick I love. I love the nice little shiny tube it comes in and the way it smells. I like the greasy feel of it on your lips (something which sounds terrible). I like getting the colouring in just right and then smacking my lips at myself in the mirror. I put a little bit on my finger and use it as makeshift blush and any leftovers I use to slick back flyaway hairs (this was not a technique I learned in any women’s magazine but it works).
Sometimes when I am at home by myself I put lipstick on just for fun. Putting on lipstick before a job interview, or a first date or even just on one of those days where I feel like just leaving the house might be impossible, makes me feel like I can do anything! (I feel, just a little, like those American footballers who smear black paint under their eyes before the game, ready to win!)
I realise that for many people, being “femme” is complicated by very serious issues, that it and its gatekeepers are mentally and physically dangerous. Many trans people are confronted by violence from (formally recognised or self-appointed) gatekeepers when they perform or embody their gender identity. For me, a straight, cis gendered, white girl growing up in Australia, it was just insecurity – assisted by high school bullies – that complicated my relationship with being femme, with what being a girl or a woman meant. As a teenager I strongly believed that you only got to wear short skirts, low tops and “girly” shoes if you were hot and popular. I was neither.
My boobs weren’t big enough, my hips weren’t curvy enough, my hair wasn’t straight enough. I talked too much in class and not enough the rest of the time. In general I wasn’t enough. Boys at my school firmly believed that the worst thing you could call a girl was a lesbian and it was clear that that was the opposite of feminine. Gender lines were very fiercely guarded. In grade 9 I bought a backpack for school, it was grey and purple. One of the popular boys recognized that it came from the “boys” side of the overpriced surf shop in town. I remember being deeply mortified by this knowledge, blushing furiously with embarrassment.
So when my mum taught me about makeup it was a little bit scary, because I kind of felt like I wasn’t really allowed to wear it. I remember that every time she helped me with my makeup I would blot most of the lipstick off. When I think about makeup I always think about my mother. She still hasn’t given me the advanced lessons (eyeshadow, how does it work!?) but she taught me about lipstick.
I have a very strong memory (not just one either, memory on top of memory) of what my mother would smell like as she kissed me goodbye, leaving me with a babysitter when I was a child. There would be a quick whiff of perfume and then smacking lipsticked lips against my cheek, a jangle of jewelry. It is at least partly because of her that I have never bought a tube of lipstick. My mother would (and still does, when I go home) invariably have some lying around that she had deemed “not a colour that really does anything for me” and which she will happily pass along. (My mother does this with other things, tshirts and belts and scarfs, to such a degree that I suspect she is just covertly buying me stuff, but I see no reason to object).
These days most of my skirts are short, I still don’t wear high heels, but only because they hurt my feet when I do, I think my hair is pretty great (and my boobs too!) and as I said at the start I love a good coat of lippy, but I still can’t bring myself to buy my own fucking lipstick. The reason for this? To me there is probably nothing as terrifying as the makeup counters in department stores. Do you know what I mean? They always seem overly warm so that your face will immediately go pink and your fingers clammy upon entering their white and pungent depths. I think they put something in the air that makes your hair messy. And EVERYTHING is reflective, so you bet you are going to see your pink, sweaty face and flyaway hair.
The floors are always slippery, to give an extra hint of danger. And the people, the people who work there! The women always seem perfectly perfect. They don’t just have hair (like me) they have hairSTYLES, and God do they know how to use eyeliner. I know, it is completely unproductive to judge myself against other women. The world is not divided into girls who like reading and those who like makeup (for a few years in high school I was pretty sure it was, but it turns out I didn’t know everything then).
But the cosmetics section of David Jones makes me forget that. I posses everything I need to march up to that counter and buy that tube of “Burning Sunset” Loreal lipstick, but I suddenly feel like the money in my pocket is useless here, I don’t know the right words, I am probably not even WALKING right… Am I alone in feeling this way? Should I just give up and buy lipstick online? Won’t you hold my hand while I buy lipstick at a department store? (To be sung to the tune of this)
Musings on the judgements teachers make about their female students (and a sneaky Taylor Swift reference)Posted: September 10, 2011 | Author: Caphesuada | Filed under: Beautyism, Gender, Privilege | Tags: Education, teaching | 14 Comments »
That caveat aside I am, for all intents and purposes, a teacher. Just like the ones that you used to have, who would say things like “students if you’re not quiet now we can do this at lunchtime” (sometimes I say this!). One of the discoveries of being on the other side of the staffroom door is that teachers are, despite teacherly-attitude to the contrary, exactly like everyone else. This means that we don’t really want to stay in at lunchtime in order to instill some discipline in our uncaring students. Sadly it also means that teachers are beset with the usual prejudices. Just as within the rest of the world in our schools young women are repeatedly judged by their looks.
This week I was waiting for a student to join one of my classes. Every time I talked to another staff member about her they said some variety of the following “You’ll love her, she works so hard. Also she is very pretty.” Sometimes the fact that she was pretty came first! This made me feel increasingly uncomfortable. Her prettiness is clearly unimportant in her academic abilities but still it was remarked upon. It seemed the other teachers were unable to stop themselves from mentioning it.
In the above example the other teachers seemed to be suggesting that this student was worthy of greater attention from her teachers because of how she looked. Attention is a keyword when talking about beautyism in the classroom because a whole lot of teaching is based on getting and keeping the attention of your students. Furthermore, being the idealistic teacher that I am, I believe students who get more of my attention are more likely to succeed at school.
It is wrong that we grant greater attention to female students who are good looking. However, pretty girls who distract male students attention in class are also quickly judged unworthy of teacher attention. As with everywhere, it is desirable to be “pretty” but only if you’re pretty in certain ways.
Attention seeking behaviours of boys are deemed cheeky. Boys who act the class clown are maybe reprimanded and sometimes punished with detention, but invariably teachers will make an ongoing effort to get them engaged in class work. If you are a pretty girl who distracts the attention of the male students in your class, in my experience you are not so lucky. Teachers in the staffroom will talk about the length of your skirt and the colour of your makeup, they will even explicitly call you out for being a slut. And guess what? They won’t help you catch up in class.
Disclaimer, disclaimer: Of course, the plural of anecdote is not data. These are just my (limited) experiences of teaching and talking to other teachers. In fact, on the macro level the data is against me, everything I have seen in the last twenty years of education research suggests that girls out-perform boys in almost all subject areas. Furthermore, maybe I am putting too much stock in the importance of having the attention of a teacher. There are also issues around class that intersect with gender in this area (there is at least another blogpost in that, probably a book).
However, my experience has been that school systems often work to reinforce and perpetuate the societal norm that women and girls should be judged on their looks, and that there success is dependent upon them. It is so easy to fall into the trap of reinforcing this. Difficult teenage girls are fairly terrifying. Plus, they can totally remind you of when you were in high school when you were the one with the sneakers and she is clearly the kind of girl that had the high heels and the shorts skirts. So, one promise I’m going to make as a young teacher is not to reinforce this idea, not to support the pretty girl just because she is pretty and not to stop helping the difficult girl. If anything we should all be working not to confirm the ridiculous distinctions made by Taylor Swift songs, surely?
If we want to end cultural pressure on women to make their bodies conform to an ideal, we need to reject – not embrace – the idea that “men prefer curvy women” or “men like women to have some curves”. I know it’s tempting for those of us whose natural body shape puts us outside the sociocultural beauty ideal to try to latch onto this idea to regain some confidence. I also understand wanting to propagate a message that subverts dominant beauty standards, and because it attempts to do that, this message is not as harmful as a message that says the opposite. Nevertheless, a cursory analysis of this message reveals that it is not really progress. It does not promote genuine freedom from misogyny and beautyism.
First, by invoking male approval to validate a certain female body type, this message reinforces the idea that men’s approval of women’s bodies is the most relevant and important yardstick by which the quality our bodies should be measured. In this framework, women are seen to be valuable largely (or indeed only) to the extent that they are enjoyed by men. This idea is implicitly invoked whenever men’s approval is deemed the most suitable basis on which women are invited to build their self esteem. Obviously, this idea is deeply misogynistic and seriously heterosexist. It’s also damaging on a psychological level for individual women to base their self worth on the extent to which they please men.
Secondly, this message reinforces the idea there is a need to rank women’s bodies at all. It implies that some kind of hierarchy should exist. People who propagate this message want the current regime inverted to favour women with “some curves” rather than very thin women. This not only ignores but actively undermines the superior goal of destroying the whole concept of a beauty hierarchy. Instead of criticising the whole disgusting concept of ranking people based on the extent to which their bodies conform to the conventional ideal, the message actually reinforces it as a worthwhile exercise.
Thirdly, this message subtextually supports the idea that there is one nebulous, homogeneous entity of “men” who all like the same thing. Although this is what women’s magazines, men’s magazines and many human beings seem to believe, this is bullshit. This erases not only men who do like skinny women, but also men who like other men, men who prefer very fat women rather than women with merely “some” curves, men who prefer genderqueer or intersex partners, asexual men, demisexual men, men who don’t care about any physical attributes of their partners, and so on. Also, the message that all people, or even most people, have highly similar sexual preferences and desires is damaging in another way: it is part of what makes the existence of a cultural beauty standard so poisonous, because it allows our culture to invoke a monolith of attraction/disgust for certain bodies.
It is perfectly fine – important, in fact – for us to make media celebrating the fact that some people are really into women whose bodies are larger than the current sociocultural beauty ideal. Given the state of mainstream culture, it is fast becoming absolutely crucial we make media acknowledging that human sexuality is diverse, and that being outside the boundaries of conventional attractiveness does not mean nobody finds you hot, sexy, gorgeous, or beautiful. That would be real progress. This isn’t.