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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.

Let Them NOT Eat Cake
by Wendy Shanker

What a month for bodacious bodies! Ugly Betty became the prom queen. The fat American Idol became a Dream Girl. Tyra Banks told America exactly where to kiss her 161-pound ass. Of course, there have been some mishaps as well; seeing Britney’s naked…skull doesn’t do any good for anyone. And positioning Anna Nicole Smith’s death as a tragic-yet-classic-American fairy tale? Well, she legendarily abused her body with food, diet, surgery, sex, drugs, exposure, and suffered through their connected emotional upheavals, only to die at age 39. That ain’t exactly Mark Twain territory.

Another major body drama has been unfolding in the fashion world over the past few weeks: what on earth are we going to do about too-skinny models? This issue came to a head after the eating disorder related deaths of two South American models. As a result, Madrid and Milan instituted weight standards for runway models. In the U.S., the Council of Fashion Designers of America created a six-point “health initiative” (which sounds almost as successful as the food pyramid). During New York’s recent fall fashion week, I saw lots of photos of models backstage eating pizza while they were getting their hair done. Those photo-ops seem to have literally backfired, as a janitor at the tents reported to New York magazine, “’We can smell it…they’re doing a lot a vomiting.’”

The general consensus in most fashion capitals seems to be: let’s regulate this! We can’t let girls just drop dead on the catwalk, or on their way to it. But common sense tells us that if a young woman wants to be a model, whether she’s “naturally thin,” or she doesn’t want to eat, or she thinks she’s more of a person if there’s less of her to go around, and she wants to work in an industry that not only supports that but encourages those attitudes, then by all means, let her starve and stomp and live out the very short, very stressful, very limited career of a moving mannequin.

You’re gonna tell girls who don’t want to eat to pound peanut butter?
You’re gonna tell girls who would like to eat but would rather model to have breakfast?
I say, let them NOT eat cake.
It’s none of my effing business.

No one can simply cajole away eating disorders (which may affect up to ten million young women in this country) from aspiring models or aspiring attorneys, or teachers, or gymnasts. Moms can’t nag them out of daughters. Best friends can’t trick them out of each other. Politicians can’t make laws or bills or standards that will make an anorexic wake up one morning and shout, “I scream for ice cream!”

Don’t you dare tell me what to eat or not to eat; or how much to weigh or not to weigh. I don’t want to hear it; why would anyone else? Whether or not it’s a back asswards standard, straight-size high fashion modeling demands a certain weight requirement. So do firemen, and astronauts, and professional wrestlers. It’s not that much holier-than-thou in the plus-size fashion world either. Plenty of girls don’t make it as plus-size models because their “proportions” are wrong: aka, they are too heavy, too short, too old, or too ugly (ouch).

Those of us who are concerned about attitudes toward body image have a tendency to think that the fashion world has a much greater impact on society than it actually does. Do you think 99.9% of the population could identify Marc Jacobs by name or photo? Most Americans can’t find the United States on a map. So while we stress about Donna and Diane and Donatella, Joanne America is not. Unless one of the three D’s is a contender for American Idol, chances are Joanne could give a rat’s ass. As long as hers doesn’t look fat in her jeans.

In the film The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep delivers a great power monologue about the connection between the ugly sweaters you and I buy at the mall, and the finely-tuned aesthetic decisions she makes as editor in chief of a chic fashion magazine in New York City. But that’s Hollywood, kids. We are fascinated by what we think goes on in that tall tower known as Conde Nast, but guess what? Vogue is a business, like any other business.

Our world isn’t all that different than high school. Think of the fashionistas as The Mean Girls, surrounded by their (mostly gay boy and desperate girl) acolytes. They’re the way-too-cool-kids in the cafeteria who don’t eat lunch. Actually, they’re so cool they don’t even show up at the cafeteria. But we do. We go to the salad bar and scoop up our iceberg lettuce and turkey cubes and croutons and Ranch dressing and Diet Coke, and then greet the lunch lady by name. We’re nerds. Normal. Average.

Don’t let the Mean Girls scare you. You worry about yourself, and go buy your sweaters at Target, and wrap skirts at Macy’s, and giggle when you read in the New York Post that supermodel Gisele was forced to gain 14 pounds to work the runway shows in her home country of Brazil. Fourteen pounds. That’s like, a whole SIZE.

Sure, I’m worried about the health and well being of the eleven people in the universe who are actually affected by this issue. By all means, let’s march on Seventh Avenue. Let’s storm Saks. But we have bigger fish to fry (yum, fried fish!). Let’s put that energy into Iraq, or Darfur, or even airline customers’ bills of rights. I think the deaths of those models are absolutely tragic, but I don’t know that you or could have changed those particular outcomes. I’d rather write a letter to Vogue praising Jennifer Hudson’s cover appearance. I’d rather write a letter to ABC telling them if we love America Ferrara, then just imagine what other kind of women we’d like to see on their network. Let’s support bodies of all sizes and shapes. And if a woman in trouble, fat or thin, asks me for help I will run to get it for her. But I will not tell a woman what she is supposed to look like or how much she is supposed to weigh - especially is she represents nothing; in other words, a “model” that has no connection to the reality of you or me.


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.



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