We probably both are. As women (and men) of the late 20th century and early 21st our eyes are trained to see the sylphs sold to us by the cadaver Anna Wintour on down, she, by the way, a woman more responsible for eating disorders than anyone else on the planet. Not to mention our crippled feet.
But recently body image is changing – and a bit of flesh, enough, a handful is now seen as perfectly ok, if not preferable.
Most “science” now says slightly overweight is healthier than underweight or even what is now classed as normal, vis the Body Mass Index. The Kardashians have trained us to see outsize curves as desirable, which means that we have widened our definition of beauty to include body types of races, other than northern Europeans. Which is a good thing.
But fat, obesity, the way out of range? This is still seen as toxic, if not dangerous. And of course, in real terms, it is. Obesity shaves 9 years off your lifespan, multiple studies affirm. One hardly needs to enumerate the risks, but knees, hips, heart, stroke, cancer, all risks are increased. The obese are universally seen as weak, as figures of mockery, dangerous to themselves, inevitably to depend on others to live out their lives.
Never mind all that, said Roxane Gay, whose memoir of being 534 pounds, Hunger, A Memoir of (My) Body, broke the spell. Gay, from a disciplined, accomplished black family was gang-raped at 12, the gang led by the boy she thought was her friend. At which point she started eating and did not stop.
Gay points out that for her, and for generations of black women, and doubtless, white, overeating suppressed pain. Poverty, abandonment, single motherhood, struggle all resulted in over-eating anything that would change your emotional state, and that preferably cheap. Therefore sugar and saturated fat. And of course the food industry’s shameful use of toxic addictive oils and sugars increases the likelihood of illness.
Leaving aside the culture of addiction, Gay and painter Jenny Saville (see above), want to view what we call obesity as acceptable, normal and even beautiful. They charge it is our prejudiced eye that sees the tryptyich above as ugly. Gay sees “society” as contradictory.
“As a woman, as a fat woman, I am not supposed to take up space. And yet, as a feminist, I am encouraged to believe I can take up space.”
If I run into someone who is 400 pounds, that’s pretty much all I am going to think about. In fact, my insurance agent weighs up around those numbers, and I delay leaving her desk because I am so interested. It may be trauma, weird hormones, an accident which led her to her fate, but I wonder at her, her stamina, her insistence on being present, her cheerfulness. I find myself admiring her. I suspect she might be spiritually advanced. She is literally wearing her cross. And I do find her beautiful.
Here’s my point. Most over-eating is about state change. Excess flesh is a protection against emotions you don’t want to feel. Food delivers satiation. You don’t need as much from people. In fact, you can even protect them, because you aren’t as vulnerable as they are. And, importantly, with the extra calories, you can push yourself to acquire at least some of the prizes the world values.
But mostly, it’s cultural.
Look at our recreation. It’s all vicious and violent. Current women’s fiction ramps up terror for vulnerable women to the max. Adrenalin or limbic level capture is massively addictive, therefore successful, so there is almost nothing gentle left to watch or read. Come home from work, exhausted from the competitive fury the marketplace now demands, binge violence and fear. Drug yourself to sleep with Diet Coke, popcorn and chips. Get up and do it all over again.
The sexual landscape is equally vile. Sex has turned entirely extractive and sexual abuse of even the smallest of children is hardly worth a shrug. Trafficked women live miserable enslaved lives in every city and town. And the news cycle reliably delivers fresh outrages perpetrated by members of our extra-special-people class. This week we discovered the FBI refused to investigate Larry Nassar who abused hundreds of members of the US Olympic gymnastics team. We learned that the 15 year old Alanis Morrisette was repeatedly abused by her music producers.
No one wants to have sex with someone obese.
The old culture told women and men to toughen up, to conquer their demons, work towards a unified goal. The world they created was relatively crime free, solvent, riot-free, sexually ordered, family-focused and was moving to extend those benefits to marginal groups. The new culture is immoral by those standards. People are shot in the street while eating dinner at an outside cafe. Business and government are staffed by criminals, actually working against us. People are told to indulge, celebrate their weakness, especially if they can use it to stick it to the man.
The results? Women (and men) who are obese are telling us their story before they open their mouths or laptop. The culture we have created is a sewer, and they need all the protection they can get.
We are well into the self-improvement months. There is a new wrinkle to the diet and suffer thing, stopping drinking and suffering, suffering at the gym and so on. But no worries, there is still pain involved. It is about manipulating your face to make it look the way you want it to look. Younger women want to look like Kylie Jenner, a heavily sexualized siren presenting as much older than her actual years. If you are 50 and under, like Jennifer Lopez, say, you want to look like yourself at 30, sharper angles, idealized, and very slightly threatening. Both are possible. Costs range between $5,000 and $30,000, depending on your location and involve no surgery or not much. Over 50s are still working on the old paradigm, wellness, and rejuvenation. For now.
The difference is that whatever iteration you choose, you can do it yourself for a fraction of the above prices. You can whisk control from The Man, or rather, from the insanely rich plastics in the megacities busily turning out copies of Instagram Face. Glancing through Youtube will tell you, that this is everywhere, in every single country, rich or poor, women are performing these procedures on themselves far into their 70s.
The average price of a syringe of filler at a clinic is $683 US. Calculate one syringe per decade, meaning at 50, you need five or $3,500 US per year to keep up. That does not count Botox ($1000 3 times a year) micro-needling, peels, IPL, etc, etc, etc. You can buy filler for $40 US, and Botox for $50, which means we are seeing the democratization of beauty. For $500, you can slowly over time, create the way you want to look, yourself. It’s not that safe, you can really fuck up. But so can the plastics. Various health authorities are trying to stop it, but the desire is too strong, it’s spread too far, it is unstoppable.
Disturbing, right? But beauty is disturbing, it’s supposed to be.
Beauty can be consoling, disturbing, sacred, profane; it can be exhilarating, appealing, inspiring, chilling. It can affect us in an unlimited variety of ways. Yet it is never viewed with indifference.
The New Yorker ran a story on Instagram Face in mid-December by Jia Tolentino who investigated the increasing prevalence of the cyborgian beauty of Kim Kardashian, who, over the past ten years has turned herself from human into something out of a digital war game, something unearthly and all-powerful. Some elements of Kim’s beauty are fairly easily re-created: remove the buccal fat in your face, slowly, over time, inject hyaluronic acid building that desirable cartoonish smoothness. There are dozens of other non-invasive procedures that can create a facial imperturbability that is both repellent and seductive.
So what are we considering beauty in a woman these days? Instagram Face tells us. First of all, it is multiracial. Secondly, it is decidedly not a vulnerable beauty, like that of Marilyn Monroe. Lips are invariably African-American and telegraph a deep sensuality. the high (called top model) cheekbones, American-Indian or Middle-Eastern. The eyes (Bella Hadid, the K Jenners, Emily Ratajowski, Chrissy Tiegen) have an Asian tilt – making the windows of the soul a mystery, out of reach, setting up a tension between the eyes and lips. The nose is refined Caucasian, leading the beauty, arguably.*
Our response to beauty is mostly unconscious. We cannot inform ourselves enough not to be taken by it, even when it is an obvious commercial play, like those of the Kardashians. This too tells us something about where we are going, which is towards cultural multi-racialism. It is also telling us what men are finding attractive in women, which on the evidence, is strong, mysterious, sensual women who can out-earn them. I’m not saying it’s complex, thoughtful, or virtuous. It is precisely what it is.
make-up artist Colby Smith*