Thursday, August 11, 2005

Wierd pop culture musing involving women and weight

I just walked into the living room to find my husband (who shall from now on be referred to as P since the words "husband" and "wife" squick me out) watching a documentary about ABBA. The first thing that stuck me, after "why the hell is he watching ABBA", was how heavyset the women looked by modern standards. In the seventies these were considered to be very sexy women. Today both of them would be considered not just chubby, but positively fat. Both are, by modern standards, heavy in the hips and with rather small breasts. If ABBA were to appear today VH1 would probably refuse to play their videos unless the women lost about 30-40 pounds each (MTV seems to have almost completely abandoned the idea of showing actual music). The seventies weren't really all that long ago in historical terms. What happened?


FoolishOwl said...

I was looking at some photos of demonstrations in the 60s, and I thought, the men all seemed very thin.

Cassandra Says said...

Yep, the men were thinner and notably less muscular and the women were heavier ie the level of visible sexual differentiation in terms of body mass was less obvious. That's a good point too, actually - at the same time as women have been expected to shrink men have been expected to get much more muscular, expecially in the upper body. I'm planning to write something about how patriarchy plays into wierd expectations about masculinity at some point soon.

Tuomas said...

I remember watching a document about "Making the Sports Illustrated Swim Suit Issue" (I know, it's pretty objectifying stuff, but it was something that got blabbered about in American sitcoms so much and I was unfamiliar with the phenomenom so I was curious).

It was truly weird. The photographers, models and editors all spent plenty of time in the photoshoots to minimize the bony parts and maximize the fleshy parts . Perhaps they knew (correctly, if I speak for myself) that many hetero men would find most of the models there rather frighteningly thin. Therefore great effort was put to made the models look more curvy by strange, painful poses, carefully chosen lights, and other optic tricks. Seems to me that all that work might have been avoided by choosing models who have "10-20 extra pounds" (that is, thin but not anorexic thin) or even (gasp!) women of different sizes, including shorter and/or heavier women.

That's what annoys me about the whole "men consider looks most important" meme, it seems that tall, model-thin women are more like trophies to be won, to get more status among men, and thus generally more status in patriarchal society. (Dad thrusting a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition in son's face: "Son, score with one of those and you're the king!"). Seems that women (because they aren't socialized "to care about looks") seem to more openly have different tastes in what is handsome/beautiful/attractive.

Anonymous said...

Think about the sex symbols of the sixties and seventies -- the men, that is. Mick Jagger. Robert Plant. Skinny as rails.

Today, only Daltrey would dare take off his shirt in public, and I don't recall much of a cult of Roger Daltrey.

I think that as the social role segregation for men and women has eroded, partly due to economic changes and partly due to feminism, the reaction has been to emphasize the physical differences between men and women.

I think the same may be true of the U.S. Naval Academy. (I once dated a woman from Maryland's Eastern Shore, where this is a matter of public concern.) They have emphasized athletics and physical toughness, but the lunkheads they are attracting now can't hack the academics, leading to massive cheating scandals. This may have changed in the last few years, but that was a big problem in the 1990s. I would speculate that as women are becoming increasingly capable of performing naval functions that will advance their career, the defenders of male privilege have made male physical advantages their citadel.


FoolishOwl said...

Part of why those photos that grabbed me is that now and then, women will tell me that I'm too thin and need to gain weight. This happens particularly on dates, or what appears to be a flirtation, so it's really disconcerting.

I mentioned this on a thread on Pandagon not long ago (before it got overrun by MRAs) and the next morning, an old friend of mine, a woman, said I should go get lunch -- preferably something really fattening. I explained to her that this bothered me, and she said that the reason she'd said it is that she feels under a lot of pressure to control her own weight, so it's an expression of something like envy.

I remembered that the last woman who'd criticized my weight had said something very similar. And in neither case were the women who'd said this even remotely overweight.

I remember watching (somewhat against my will) an episode of that "reality" show about SI swimsuit models. It seemed incredibly perverse, when at the end a woman was criticized for having hips too wide. By what, a centimeter? It was insane on the face of it, before you even got to the sexism.

Cassandra Says said...

Brian - I kind of missed it on Pandagaon (ducked out because of the troll invasion)but I get what your female friends are doing. They think they're giving you a compliment. It's something women say to each other all the time. It's sort of a backhnaded compliment, granted (ie there is a less snotty way to say the same thing).
B&T - the SI Swimsuit thing is a wierd phenomenon. I'd basically put it in the same bucket as Mazim et al - porn for guys who're too inhibited to buy actual porn. I suspect that a lot of that stuff is really less about the scantily clad babes per se as it is about an almost BSDM control game ie that the viewers are getting as much of a kick out of the idea of the models being at some guys's beck and call as they're getting out of the pictures themselves. I've seen guys who watch and love that stuff and I've also been in the BSDM scene, and it looks like a similar emotional reaction to me. It's like the crazy wingnut lady who was upset because her husband critiqued her choice of mop - honestly, if these people would just get into some actual roleplaying they'd probably be a lot happier (and less likely to project their feelings onto other people).

Tuomas said...

Hmm, perhaps there indeed is BDSM element involved, that's an interesting observation. And I think in addition to the personal inhibition thing on SI and similar magazines, there probably is sort of affirming straightness in a safe, socially acceptable way -part on insecure men.

It seems that thin men nowadays aren't thought out as masculine at all, you either have to be an athlete if young (teen, 20s) or a slightly big bellied family guy (later). Certainly there is no shortage of sitcoms etc. with (slightly) "overweight" man as a husband and a thin woman as a wife.
Thin is associated with feminine. (Curiously, all my older, Karelian relatives, both men and women hold an entirely different idea, the idea that women are rounder while men are lean and thin, and that's how it's "supposed to be". Strange.)

Cassandra Says said...

Tuomas, that's always been a big question for me - why do men feel the need to constantly affirm their straightness? There seems to be a lot of "look at me, I'm straight, straight as an arrow I am, who said I wasn't straight" stuff in the culture and I'm a bit puzzles as to why guys think it's necessary.
I do think that the male standard is getting bigger as the female standard is getting smaller. Back in Scotland when I was a kid the older man=skinny and older woman=round idea was the norm, to the point where calling a woman skinny was an insult. Amazing how fast things have changed.
BTW, and men feeling oppressed by the "must be hugely muscular" meme might benefit from a trip to the UK. The idea of a desireable man in the UK is much thinner and rather prettier than in the US (think Jude Law as the prototype). Or, as comedian Scott Cappuro put it "mmm, England, skinny pale boys!".

Tuomas said...

that's always been a big question for me - why do men feel the need to constantly affirm their straightness?

Huh. That is a huge issue to tackle with. But for starters, it could be linked to gender roles... Even very overtly masculine men generally aren't completely the manly man stereotype that is trotted out by sexists (for example, I have a very macho [man] friend who loves gossip more than any woman I have ever met. Go figure.). There are always aspects of personality that aren't from the "right" gender, and this may create a feeling of inadequacy.

Of course, this doesn't answer the root issue: how come homosexuals are seen as less manly, or in a sense, as "failed men"?

Heh. A trip to UK might be interesting, now on one more level (I'm bit on the thin side, and pale too).

Cassandra Says said...

I suspect that the need to constantly reaffirm one's straightness may be because many traditional people see gay men as "feminine" (clearly they've never been to a leather bar).
I have a (gay, male) friend here who is rather macho, was a football player in high school etc and I notice that men who are usually a bit homophobic are quite comfortable around him (although at first sight they tend to assume that he and I are dating, which is kind of funny). That would support the theory that they're afraid of being femmey more than actually being gay. Interestingly enough, I'm trying to think of an overtly macho gay man who's well known in pop culture, like a celebrity or a movie or TV character, and I can't think of one, which is odd as in real life there are plenty. What does that say about our wierd cultural ideas about gender?
And you should definately make a trip to the UK. It might be a nice little self-esteem boost, and if you're shy the fact that British women are on average not at all shy might come in handy! If nothing else, if you're thin it's a great place to shop for clothes (P is also quite thin, and tends to find that British clothes fit him better and everything American is too big and boxy).

Tuomas said...

Wasn't there a macho gay guy in the "reality" TV show The Survivor,Richard something?

But I see your point there - pop culture is very hard trying to reaffirm the gay men: "feminine and fabulous" stereotype. Not that there should be anything wrong with that if that's what the person in question wants (and dares) to be, but I get a sense that it might not all "that's just the way they all are".

I'm not really sure if the gay=feminine thing in popular culture will turn out good (as in weakening the traditional divide between masculine or feminine), or will there be a backlash of straight men trying to aspire to even more far off ideal of masculinity, and a divide into "men as in straight/real men" and "the others, women and gay men"?

Hmm, going to UK shouldn't be that difficult/expensive, now I'm really considering it. Thanks for the suggestion!

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