thinness and power

The below is a short break from the interviews to reflect on recent conversations and topics…

The following is a conversation overheard on the MUNI (bus line in San Francisco) by a friend of mine.

Two college aged men on the bus:

man 1: Today I found out that two girls in my nutrition class have eating disorders.

man 2: Oh yeah?

man 1: Yeah. First one admitted she had bulimia, then another one said she used to have anorexia.

man 2: Anorexia isn’t an eating disorder. It’s just not eating much. It’s not like bulimia. Bulimia is effed up.

man 1: Well… anorexia is when you like the feeling of being hungry…

man 2: That’s the only way to lose weight!

man1: Yeah, I guess. The anorexia girl is a healthy looking, she’s good looking. The bulimia girl is all fat and gross.

man2: How can you have bulimia and still be fat?

man 1 : I dunno!

both: hahahaha!!!

At this point, my friend changed seats.

Just this week while standing in line at the supermarket, a magazine headline caught my eye: I weighed 82 lbs. (People, 11/15/10). The article continued to talk about how this television actress shrunk to 82 pounds battling anorexia during her sitcom run in the 1990s.

I don’t personally know this actress. She’s not someone whose work I follow professionally. The effervescence of tabloids in the check-out line is another beast all together. But what caught my attention was the normalcy of seeing a headline like this one as well as the feelings and thoughts it was meant to evoke.

We see an attractive Hollywood actress who has “battled” and overcome. She has gone from pitiably (and might I garner enviably) thin and beautiful to still enviably thin enough to be on the cover of a national magazine. Her willpower to control her eating has created yet another magazine headline which will sell. We will all see how pretty and famous she is (even if we’ve never seen her or any of her work before). And we all can easily understand that she is in the spotlight because she has overcome. We want to be like Portia. We hunger for this smallness. And now we envy even more because she is now no longer sick. She has overcome the female malady, hysterics, the slimming away and so now, she can be not only beautiful, but also our role model.

Anyone battling with eating issues would probably be the first to admit how much of a continuum and process it is throughout a life. Recently I interviewed a former dancer who even in older age, wanted to be thin and felt bad about “being overweight.” As I talk to older women, it is interesting to note how and when the topic of thinness comes up.

Granted, I know our present culture has in some ways gone to the other extreme. Children and adults are more obese than ever, creating serious medical issues. But I would posit that the pervasiveness of the obesity epidemic only serves to highlight the wonders of being thin.

Why is Portia de Rossi on the People cover if not to sell magazines? She has battled, yes. But she is still relatively thin. No doubt, if you talked with her, she would probably tell you that her work with self-image and food continues on a daily basis.

Why, on a cultural level of consciousness, do we want female thinness? Why is the anorexic girl “good-looking”? Why do women in their 70s and 80s lament “letting themselves go,” not being anymore as thin as they once were?

To me, it all comes down to the physical space of a woman in society. If you are thin, you take up less space. You are small(er), physically and quite obviously. Again I ask, why do we want this for our women? Why is it nice for a girl or a woman to be petite, slim, tiny, thin, to have lost weight?

Here I am not talking about the importance of being healthy. That word infrequently pops up as a compliment. What is more often admired and envied is merely the physical size of one’s legs, waist, cheekbones and neck, upper arms. We see thin fashion models, created specifically to generate desire…for consumer product, yes, but even more so to look like the woman or girl selling.

Every woman I have spoken with or interviewed has seen media images and advertising of women. Historically, over the last century, media images of women have emphasized size and shape, both of which have tended towards a young woman’s physical proportions. The Flappers espoused being thin and boylike (to try to live the same rights as men). Women appeared curvier in the 30s, 40s and 50s, and then shrunk again in the 1960s on. The last 30 years has fostered a extreme and sometimes dangerous trend in combining the two – curves and thinness, molding the bodies of adult women into those of adolescent girls.

Adolescent girls are not powerful in society. Thin women do not take up much space. If we continue to esteem this shrunken ideal of femininity, what are we saying to our girls and women on a very obvious level? The smaller the better. Focus on controlling your food intake instead of eating as a source of pleasure and nourishment. Men can eat freely and still be attractive and powerful. Women need to always be careful about how we appear to men, how much space we take up, if we can keep our food and our (wild and dangerous) bodies under control.

kittens on black velvet

What did beauty mean to you when you were in your 20s?

How you dressed was important.. You always had high-heeled shoes on, which I’m sorry I did because I had problems later on. I was living in Stockholm, Sweden. I came to the US  when I was 23. The style was prominent waist and an underskirt so your skirt stayed out. I wore my hair in a French twist. My hair was slightly long. Sometimes I went to the hairdresser and she puffed it up. When I look at pictures now, I get frightened. The styles in Sweden and the US were about the same. In Sweden, no one was super rich, but we got by. You bought a new sweater for Easter or maybe a new French lipstick. But you didn’t go out to shop and shop.Women wore more make-up in the US.

I came to the US and stayed (at first) for a couple of years. It was very exciting. I had a relative in New Orleans who sponsored me. It was exciting to go to America. Today everybody comes here for vacation, but at that time you didn’t. I lived with my relatives, and they had a young daughter who was 16. She was into make-up, clothing and dating, and I thought it was odd. I had other interests, like my dance study. I liked boys, but it wasn’t the same. I never used to date when I was 16. She was really angry because she didn’t get a car on her 16th birthday. For me, to get a car you had to work and buy it.

I was pretty ignorant about Americans. From the movies, everybody had big Cadillacs and lived on cul-de-sac streets. They slept in nice negligees and never had sex. When I first came to the South, people didn’t know where Sweden was. They thought I said Swiss and mentioned coo-coo clocks. My best friend was German. If  people thought I was German, they didn’t like that, understandably. Maybe some of the men had been in the War. So I always had to to say, “I’m Swedish.” And they said, “What’s that? Oh, coo-coo clocks and watches.”

The economy wasn’t that fantastic in Europe. In Sweden, the economy got much better in the ‘70s. There really were no foreigners in Sweden when I was young. But then in 1956, with the Hungarian Revolution, I met a lot of Hungarian students who came to Sweden. They worked as dishwashers. They had a lot of problems, a lot of run-ins with the police. In the ‘60s, a lot of Italians came. Growing up, I never saw a black person really. If you saw someone, he probably worked at an embassy. Today the picture is altogether different. It has changed for the better in many ways…interesting food, more cosmopolitan, but there are also problems.

I studied classic and modern dance in Sweden – that was my first love. But I was tall, so there weren’t many opportunities for me as a dancer. I was offered a couple of jobs abroad but my mother wouldn’t let me go. One was in a nightclub in Germany. I could have worked a job in Paris too. But if was a little iffy. It was more like a showgirl cabaret. I got a job for one season in a theater in Malm in My Fair Lady. The ballet master told me he liked my expressions but he said,“You have to go abroad because you’re too tall for ballet.”

During this time, one was very concerned about one’s appearance and weight, especially studying dance. Not everyone was naturally skinny. So everybody was on diets all the time. We just didn’t eat. We had our regular jobs at the office during the day. At night, we had to study. We ate something made of grape sugar to get energy. That’s all we ate. We sometimes ate a meal late, but not regularly. Everybody was like this…you had to be really skinny and on a very strict diet.

We drank a lot of coffee, and people smoked a lot. I smoked a little. I think people did this so they wouldn’t eat. My sister smoked and unfortuantely, it killed her. She was afraid to gain weight. We didn’t talk about anorexia. It was just the style. I had some friends who were naturally skinny. I thought they ate so much and still didn’t get fat. In that world of dance and modeling, you make your living from your body. Nowadays you have to be skinnier than ever. The models today in all these magazines are like 14 years old.

For me, weight has always been a problem. Now in my old age, I still want to be skinny, but it’s hard. Your system changes. I like to eat certain things. Except for the last 15 years, I have been on diets all my life.

Some foreign art students interview me (as an artist) because they have to write papers. They ask me why I paint women’s legs. It’s sort of a feminist statement. In Europe, men used to look at your legs. Here they look at your breasts. I remember many years ago, I walked up a hilly street here in the city, and some guy came running after me because he saw my legs. He was a foreign man and was interested. I never thought I had very good legs, but he thought so. I thought it was cute and good for my ego.

What does beauty mean to you now?

I think inner beauty is more important. I probably thought that when I was younger too, but there are many other things, like wanting to please a man. That’s why we all dressed up. When you get a little older, you get dressed up for your girlfriends. Now dressing up is nice, but it’s not important.

I have a Swedish niece who lives in Florida. She used to be a model (and I did too in Sweden). She just came back from Paris where she met her American model friends.They are all so skinny. They have lifts and breast implants. My niece doesn’t, but she says, “Oh, my nose is so bad. I need to do plastic surgery,”.

She is 54, and she is a very good-looking girl. She is slender and worked many years in Japan as a model. She meets other models and they tell her she needs to lift this and that. I tell her, “Please don’t do that,”. It can be very dangerous. Plastic surgery was nothing we talked about when I was young. My friends here talk about face lifts. I don’t think European women are so much into it as American women. It’s much more natural.

If different, why have your ideas about beauty changed over the years?

Hopefully we change for the better as we get older. Your value system should be different. Otherwise it means you’ve stopped growing.

I have a feeling that people look at you (and judge). I’m overweight with gray hair. I used to have red hair. (As an older woman), they think I do a certain type of art…sweet art. It can’t be anything interesting. If they see my art, that’s one thing. But if they see me, they expect I’ll be painting kitten s on black velvet. I’ve heard comments like“Your art looks like some young person did it.” They all like my colors. And it’s nice when they give you a chance. We always have to give people a chance. We cannot judge people from the façade.

Anonymous, over 60

San Francisco

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