The False Body Dichotomy

If you’re on any sort of social network, chances are pretty good that you’ve come across the following image, or one like it:

If you’re like me, the first time you saw it, the first thing you thought was “Damn straight!” This has been the most prominent reaction that I’ve seen in the numerous comment fields attached to these images. On the image’s most recent appearance on my Facebook wall, the first response is “They don’t make them like they used to…”

I’m here to call “Bullshit.” My first reaction was an emotional one—a bit like showing one’s ass without realizing your pants are down—and the second I put any thought into it, I saw these images for what they are: another form of shaming. And this isn’t just a women’s issue.

To be clear, I’m an overweight—Ooh, a loaded term! It only took me 100 words to get to one!—guy. Anyone who knows me probably sees that I’m comfortable with my weight, and that it’s generally a non-issue. Not so, I say! Trust me, I have a good eighteen years of on-again, off-again self-loathing behind me. In fact, my relationship with my body could be dubbed an abusive one and, if I were my body, I would have left me a long time ago. (Coincidentally, as an atheist, I recognize that I am my body and nothing more; unpack that one.) Even thought I’ve come to a more-or-less uneasy truce with my body, I’m still the guy who leaves my clothes on at the clothing-optional parties.

The author thinks this guy is really hot. (Photo by Christopher Schulz for Pinups Magazine)

I’m partial to and sensitive to arguments that promote the idea that beauty exists beyond the narrow (pun intended) image presented by popular media. It’s comforting to find that chubby, hairy guys have grown in popularity in gay culture, especially in young, hipster culture, thanks largely to publications like Butt Magazine and Pinups Magazine. Fighting against the pop-culture-approved limitations on beauty and bodies is a valid fight, an argument worth having.

That being said, I think it’s ridiculous that anyone thinks the best way to promote body-positivity is to insult someone else’s body, and that’s exactly what the “When did…?” images do.

“I think it’s always problematic to discuss beauty and desirable bodies as dichotomy. While the more curvaceous standard of the mid-century might be ‘healthier’ than today’s emaciated one, it was still an unattainable aspiration for many, if not most women,” my friend Jennifer wrote when I solicited opinions about the image and its ilk. “It still did not promote acceptance of a diversity of bodies, which is greatly needed.”

“I definitely think that the comparison game is the root of the problem. We make a hierarchy of appeal, and then try to subvert the hierarchy, and insodoing, we are simply engaging in a subtler form of oppression. All body types are beautiful. It is not about better than, hotter than, skinnier than, curvier than. It’s about existing in comfort with your own self, emotionally and mentally and physically. It’s about consciously rejecting the “compare-thyself” construct that we are taught to use when thinking of the self,” commented Emily, when I posted the picture on the SEX+STL Facebook Page. Emily linked me to a great article on Girlie Girl Army:

“The real question is, why must it be one way or the other? Shouldn’t we all be striving for healthy bodies? And that means a different shape for every woman. The media has us all chasing our own tails in the search of the perfect figure. No matter where you look, you’ll find a reason to believe that your body can never reach perfection. The idea that perfection actually exists is the real myth,” writes Ali Berman in “The Problem with Skinny Bashing”.

...also this guy.

It’s true—and perfectly okay—that people find different features to be attractive. Attraction is a many-splendored thing and a largely misunderstood human brain function. Innumerable factors play into what makes us find one person hot and another disgusting even if, on paper, the two might be indistinguishable. Weight is just another factor. While it’s important to try to understand why you’re attracted to the things you are, and ethically imperative to understand how you act on those attractions, you shouldn’t beat yourself up when you find one person more attractive than another. It’s human nature. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” and all of that.

The problem is the way society as a whole deals with discussions about weight and body image. The discussion regarding this image is still going on the SEX+STL Facebook page, nineteen hours after I posted it, and the responses have been varied and emotional.

“This is a very sore subject for me. I’ve had two bouts with eating disorders. The most recent, was when I met my husband. I was invisible until I was thinner. I was commended more for having lost weight than for any other accomplishment in my life. I will not disrobe in front of thin women, unless forced to do so, and likely will never vacation in a tropical setting,” commented Kathleen. “Expectations of women are distorted, and we all can’t look like supermodels. This tactic divides women and pits us against each other. I realize this with my mind, but it still hurts my heart.”

Athena added: “Media makes you feel bad about your body, no matter what your size. I have a smaller than a cup bust size, and i hate that all the images of women have huge breasts. Im sure that larger women hate the fact that all the images of women have thin legs. There is an impossible figure that is shoved down our throat every time we turn on the computer or open a magazine.”

Next time a discussion comes up that pits skinny vs. fat, try to remember that the real problem is society trying to fit anyone into any mold. We’re just not made that way. People are people. We come in all different shapes and sizes and we can all struggle with our bodies. The grass may look greener on the other side, but looks can be deceiving. Eating disorders can affect anyone, whether they’re thin, in shape, or overweight. Any attempt to shame us for being one shape or another should be recognized for what it is: shameful.

My friend Lindsey writes: “Honestly, why can’t all bodies be beautiful representations of authentic sexuality? What about women who naturally look like Twiggy and others who naturally look like Marilyn? And the millions of women in between? Body confidence equals better sex for everyone!”

And finally, fighting meme with meme, my sister shared the following image:

What are your thoughts on the issue? I’d love to see the conversation continue below!

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5 Comments

  1. Amen. It is not (and shouldn’t be) fat vs. skinny, but love vs. hate, pride vs. shame, positive vs. negative. When the marginalized fight amongst themselves, the forces of marginalization win by default.

  2. As a fellow overweight guy I have to ask, do you feel that we are getting properly represented in the fight for body positivity?

    I think it’s great that women are being told that they are beautiful no matter what society at large says and I agree; thing that I am noticing is that noone seems to be telling us the same. I would love to hear someone telling us guys that we are beautiful no matter what shape we come in. As you mentioned there is starting to be more acceptance of overweight men in the gay community but there is next to non for us straight men.

    I personally am ok with my body and how I look but sometimes having someone say that I am beautiful in my own right would be nice.

  3. You know, Kevin, I have a hard time answering this question. In short, no, I don’t think men are properly represented.

    There are so many things that go into how culture treats men differently than women and it’s hard to unpack them in anything less than very, very long essay, and it’s even harder to do it without offending someone’s sensibilities (and sometimes, rightfully so). I did my best in the post above to focus on this as a peoples’ issue, although most of the quotes I solicited from friends came at this from (and toward) a female perspective, and I think the images in question are very much about women’s bodies.

    For better or worse, I tend to stay out of the body positivity discussion; this is one of my first forays into it. I find the casual acceptance of the image in question to be a really contentious issue.

    Body image issues are universal, they affect men, women and everyone in between. It’s the nuances of the discussion that shift depending on whom we’re talking about. Not every discussion about women’s body image issues is a discussion about everyone’s body image issues, and vice versa.

    Culturally, men aren’t expected to be as concerned about image as women are, so it makes (an unfortunate) sense that most conversations about body image and body positivity are about or aimed at women. Hopefully, we can have more discussions that address it as a human issue, because it affects everyone.

  4. I’m sorry but this promotion of women so thin & anorexic that they are falling down dead literally right on the runway because their heart stops is NOT appropriate for any woman. If you are naturally thin & cannot gain weight that is one thing. If you are starving yourself to death that’s a whole other story. A size 2 is NOT a normal size for almost 6 foot tall women. I was a stick in HS & I was NEVER a size 2. It would have been impossible. I would die before I ever got to that size. As a society it is our job to accept women who are healthy whatever that means for them fat or thin. Unhealthy is unhealthy PERIOD. Men do not have to deal with this because it’s acceptable & even looked upon as cute, cuddly & fluffy when they are overweight but not women. We are just fat or thin. This has gone well beyond the gay male world as straight males who are becoming heavier are also looked upon favorably. Alec Baldwin, Jack Black, Jonas Hill, Seth Rogan, John Travolta…the list goes on & on of male heart throbs acceptably overweight. Not ONE woman is talked about favorably in this way. Not even Queen Latifa who is a lovely thick & curvy woman. The fashion world needs to get a grip. You won’t walk into a museum & only see tiny frail women. You will see all the beautiful shapes & sizes that women can be. The myriad that should be accepted. When I see that a plus size model is in a size 6. I find this an unacceptable & unrealistic standard. I was a 5/6 at 6’1″ & 135lbs & let me tell you that was too thin & not healthy. I immediately gained weight because my bones were sticking out so much I would walk into something & bruise so easily. It’s time the world woke up. In the 80’s these ridiculous impossible standards were not set & our models were VERY beautiful. Agencies stop telling your models they are too fat at a size 4! We are mad as hell & not taking it any more!

  5. God, it didn’t take long before someone had to uphold the myth of women as “the only victims that matter.”

    Men are more concerned with body image than women and would give up more for a better physique:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/jan/06/body-image-concerns-men-more-than-women

    Not only are men expected to meet unrealistic physical standards, they are given far less sympathy if failure to meet those standards causes them distress and there aren’t efforts being made to give men a better self-image.

    More importantly, western culture still promotes the idea that women are more sexually desirable than men which adds an additional element of shame that men have to deal with.

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