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

The Body Politic
By Wendy Shanker

Welcome to “The Body Politic,” a column about women and body image from Wendy Shanker, author of The Fat Girl’s Guide to Life.

Wendy will cover the diet and beauty industry, weight loss drugs and studies, celebrity culture and body image, hoping to help smart women wade through the media mania and still maintain a healthy sense of self-esteem. Consider it feminist food for thought in a culture where fad diets are front page news.


Strong Enough?
by Wendy Shanker

“Are you a lez?” he asked.

“What?” I asked, taken aback.

“ARE. YOU. A. LEZ.” he repeated, enunciating each word as if I was deaf instead of confused.

I didn’t know what to say. I pulled away.

“Well, you must be.” He got up from our not-so-secluded spot behind my cabin and snuck back across the lake.

That’s how a 14-year old boy responded to me at summer camp, a 14-year old girl, when I said I didn’t want to have sex with him. Couldn’t be that I didn’t want to. Wasn’t ready to. Or worse, wanted to…just not with HIM.

I assume his pride was injured. I’m sure he felt rejected (though possibly relieved). Maybe he was expected to come back to his crew with a story that he wasn’t going to be able to tell. So he lobbed what was at that time the teen girl equivalent of “fag” at me: lesbian.

By the next day, no one in my cabin would talk to me. ‘Cause everyone at camp knew I was a LEZ.

I’m not gay. But as a fat girl, lots of people assume I am. My theory is that most people are confused by a fat woman who is not on a diet. If I am fat, I’m not doing my evolutionary job, which is to make myself attractive enough for men to want to have sex with me. Being fat is an insult to male egos. It makes dating and mating difficult. I’ve even met fat guys who have the audacity to share that resentment. So why would I choose to be fat? I must be gay!

My straight girl friends with short haircuts tell me they often get the same treatment. By not keeping their hair long and straight (and blond), some men sense it’s their subtle way of saying no to our current beauty standard. “How dare you pull a Mia Farrow!” Short hair isn’t sexy to a certain kind of man, or to the woman who desires that dude.

I believe the same issue was at the heart of the Don Imus controversy. We now know the words by heart, but the subtext got lost. Sure, his comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team were another example of racist, sexist insults from a white dude with a microphone. On a more subtle layer, I saw it as “lez” thinking: “Here’s a group of talented, successful, strong young women who seem to have other priorities in life than making themselves attractive enough for me to want to have sex with them. How dare they? Ah, I know a way to bring them down to size, to collectively voice the thoughts of other men who may feel threatened just like me.” Voila, Nappy Headed Ho-Gate broke loose on the airwaves.

What I heard was two mouthy men talking like they were scared of the Rutgers players, threatened by their physical appearance. Were they trying to make a guarded statement about the players’ sexual preferences? The word “ho” is used in a sexually promiscuous context, yet their conversation inferred that they did not deem these women sexually appealing, especially when comparing their “nappy” hairstyles to the long, straight (Caucasian) do’s worn by players on the competing team.

Look at male ballers and you’ll see that many have braided hair and earrings. They wear big, baggy clothes on the court. Unlike their cheerleaders who let it all hang out, the only balls on display are being shot into baskets. Dennis Rodman dyed his hair pink and pierced his nose. Would anyone lob sexual insults at him, or doubt his masculinity?

Black women have spoken and written eloquently about hair and identity. Judgments are made inside and outside of the African-American community with something as simple as a hairstyle. Same with fat. The size of the pants I wear seems to say something about my sexual appeal and sexual preference. In the 70s, long hair was a way to stand out. In the 00s, hair is a way to fit in. No wonder the main character in Hairspray is a fat girl.

Athletic women are taunted about their sexuality in the same way fat women are, the same way women with short haircuts are. It cuts through their threat factor. “What if that chick is stronger than me? What if that chick can run faster, hit harder, and lift more?” Women are expected to be strong and muscular, with cut biceps and ripped abs, but for ogling purposes only. Don’t use those muscles to shoot free throws. Don’t use them to run marathons. Unless you’re wearing a tiny tennis skirt over a thong, it’s hard to be strong and look “feminine” at the same time.

We don’t owe anyone an explanation when it comes the choices we make about appearance. Yet here we are, dieting and sweating and cutting and spritzing and waxing and sucking and shooting and plucking, hoping to look less like ourselves and more like Halle Berry or Angelina Jolie or Anna Kournikova, thinking our problems will be solved. I’ll never understand why some men fear fat and strength and pixie cuts; it has nothing to do with them. Wait – maybe that’s exactly the problem.

I appreciate beauty. I love feeling beautiful. And there are many ways for me to do that. Trust me, Sephora has no better customer. I do my hair, put on makeup, wear sexy clothes, show off my rack and my booty. Whether I’m a size 8 or a size 18 doesn’t matter. It’s not beauty that’s the problem; it’s our limited definition of beauty that’s a problem. It’s why Imus’s insult hit so hard. With three little words, he managed to insult our looks and our sexuality, reinforcing our fears that we aren’t good enough, pretty enough, or strong enough.

Beauty is how YOU see it. Eye of the beholder, remember?

That’s why The Case of the Nappy-Headed Hos resonated so hard with women of all colors across this country. When I was 14, I didn’t have the self-possession or confidence to properly respond to that loser boy behind the cabin. If he asked me now, I’d tell him: “I don’t want to have sex with you. And it’s not because I like girls. It’s because I don’t like YOU. When it comes to my sexual preference, I’m strong enough for a woman, but I happen to be made for a man.”


Previous "The Body Politic" Columns:



Wendy Shanker's humorous, hopeful memoir about women and body image, The Fat Girl’s Guide to Life (Bloomsbury USA) changed the way many women related to their weight. You may have seen Wendy discussing her book on “The View,” “Good Morning America,” “CBS Sunday Morning,” or on her national tour sponsored by Macy’s Woman. The Fat Girl’s Guide was recently released in paperback, and will be published in seven different languages, including Italian, German, and Japanese (but not French – because French women don’t get fat).

Wendy’s byline has appeared in Glamour, Grace, Self, Shape, Us Weekly, Cosmopolitan, Marie-Claire, Seventeen, Bust and Bitch, and on MTV. She contributed to the anthology Body Outlaws: Rewriting the Rules of Beauty and Body Image (Seal Press), and her essay “Big Mouth: Women & Appetite” was recently published in The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide To Guilt (Dutton). Check out her introduction in the new book Big Girl Knits: 25 Big, Bold Projects Shaped for Real Women with Real Curves (Potter Craft).

Wendy is honored to be a national spokesperson for NOW’s Love Your Body Day (loveyourbody.nowfoundation.org).

For more info about Wendy, go to www.wendyshanker.com. You can also send Wendy an e-mail.