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A R T I C L E S* &* S P E E C H E S
BODY IMAGE

Weightism
by Rivka Tadker

WEIGHTISM: (n.) 1) Discrimination against overweight people, especially in the workplace. 2) Discrimination against not really overweight people if someone thinner and cuter is in the room. Origin: America, circa 1991, during the season opener of sitcom Mad About You. All Helen Hunt’s fault.

Hold on. Too much, too fast. Back up a second. There are some themes and facts first, or the whole Helen Hunt thing won’t make any sense: Marketing to women is all trickle-down. It’s the Reaganomics of the thong set. If 40-year-old women are supposed to look like they’re in their 20s, then what the hell is a 20-year-old supposed to look like?

Size zero.

Twenty years ago there was no size zero. Twenty-five years ago there was barely a size 2, and if someone fit in a 2 she was what my mother called, in a whisper, “one of those girls with problems.” Anorexia and bulimia were just getting popular then among the teenage set. The goal of weight obsessed teens and 20somethings was to fit in a size 4. It was a badge of honor to say you wore a 4. That was bad enough.

Now the badge of honor is to be size zero. How can it sound right to brag about being nothing?

It seems we’ve gone back 400 years in our evolution. In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, the nothing referred to was the essence of women, our genitalia. So what’s changed? Then we had the royal court broadcasting our being null and void, and today we have CNN.

CNN now does segments on how personal appearance affects your status in the workplace. You’re not supposed to be fat, or short, for that matter, but the combination of the two is the worst. Apparently you have to be eye level, and not wider than people’s eyeglasses, for someone in management to see your brain.

Digital cameras don’t help. The moment we could see ourselves instantly on digital cameras, our extreme nature was let loose. Now we click a shot, take a look, erase, and do it over without even waiting an hour at Moto Photo. When we used to pick up photos at Moto Photo, we picked the best one there was in the roll. And we felt okay. Now there’s no roll. We do it over and over and over and over. We’re little foundlings with no boundaries.

With infinite possibilities, we want better, even if the subject is the same. It seems plausible that there may be one angle, one glimpse of the ideal us, the us that is fleeting but definitely there. Just keep clicking.

Digital cameras illustrate the symptoms. But they don’t explain the source. That would be a cheap answer. So how did size zero happen? It was before we all had digital cameras. The cataclysmic event was….

Helen Hunt, in the sitcom Mad About You.

First season: It’s an instant hit because it’s funny, it’s so New York, we all relate, they’re both so cute.

But remember what happened to Helen Hunt the next season? First episode, she walks out of the bedroom, enter stage right, to complain about Paul. Happily, I dip my chip in salsa, take a crunch, shift in my seat, excited to hear her pithy quip. And then, GASP!

She is linguine thin, her face like a sharpened pencil.

“Oh my god, does she have cancer?” I ask my roommate, who is shrugging, wide-eyed.

After a very long, very analytical moment: “No, not cancer. Hollywood.”

Okay, so where’s the logic that adorable, funny, smart, sophisticated, fabulous Helen Hunt, ratings through the roof, wasn’t good enough?

Did they click a digital picture of her?

Did they say: Okay, they love you. Now we’ve got problems. Let’s try to make you look like a teenage sex symbol. That’ll make it last. Otherwise, by next season they’ll notice that your calves…you know, they’re larger than…TV calf size.

So then Helen hunt, who was relatable – better than that, she was us in our best mood, our most on ever -- is a freak. But we still want to relate to her because she made sense to us and made us laugh. So I put down the chips and salsa I’m eating – the snack I thoroughly deserve for working 10 hours and then going to the gym. But I put it down, because if she’s not good enough….

And what happened when someone like my boss watched Mad About You? (Or now you can add Will and Grace, or CSI, or Sex in the City, or plug in any of the plethora of smart, urban, educated professional female stars who have gone from normal to skeletal in a matter of seasons. Or weren’t even let on the air until they were gaunt.)

That boss goes on a diet, and starts looking at everyone in their employ like they should be Helen Hunt. Eventually CNN does a segment and weightism is born. Why I cite TV is because whether we claim our formative years were spent being spoon fed Edith Wharton, Kurt Vonnegut and their ilk, we’re a visual society who watches TV. That is our global village, as much as the Internet, where incidentally there are quite possibly more video clips of Britney Spears than of George Bush.

Just one thing to think about: No one ever told Hot Lips from M*A*S*H to lose weight. And we never stopped loving her.

***

Rivka Tadjer Rivka Tadjer is an author who specializes in the sociological implications of the techno-centric era—how our behavior is changing. She has devoted a lot of ink to the issues of privacy, security, and identity.

Tadjer has written for newspapers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times Op Ed page, as well as many business papers, magazines and online outlets, including: The Wall Street Journal Interactive, Business Week, Red Herring, and Working Woman, and CBS MarketWatch. She has been a columnist for The Wall Street Journal Interactive, as well as for several tech and business magazines. She has written for TV news, made on-air appearances for Internet privacy issues, and authored a non-fiction book called Small Business Solutions for Financial Management, to help entrepreneurs compete with large corporations.

After they tried to dose the New York press corps with Anthrax, Tadjer started writing novels. (see rivkatadjer.com).

Tadjer teaches journalism as an adjunct professor at SUNY New Paltz, in hopes that someone will carry the torch of an independent press, before the Fourth Estate crumbles to ruins altogether. She also does marketing and PR work for select, worthy high-tech companies and non-profit organizations in the arts and education. Her favorite long-term personal project: Finagling a way to make the voting system in this country mandatory, less hackable, and able to provide voters with a receipt. She also serves as Secretary of the Board of Trustees at Woodstock Day School, a progressive, independent private school.

Tadjer’s hometown is Washington, D.C. She went to Boston University and University of Maryland, studying philosophy and journalism when those two things weren’t mutually exclusive. She is a first-generation American who lived in L.A. briefly, Manhattan for most of her adult life, until she scurried to live on high ground in Woodstock, NY. Visit her website at rivkatadjer.com.


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