Why Do We Pressure Sexy Women to Lose Weight? 8 Beautiful Stars Who Still Get Called Fat
Photo Credit: Aishwarya Rai
The type of woman’s physique that is popular in the media varies over time—recall the way healthy, toned ‘90s supermodels like Cindy Crawford gave way to the “heroin chic” of emaciated Kate Moss—but in the last decade, the demand for a hyper-emaciated frame has reached a fever pitch. High-end fashion models, plagued by the constant fear of being called too fat for a job, throw themselves into starvation mode, some to the point of death: Ana Carolina Reston, Isabell Caro, sisters Luisel and Eliana Ramos. And it’s not just fashion models—the end of the aughties brought weight-obsessed stylist Rachel Zoe’s anorexic clients into vogue, including Nicole Ritchie and Mary Kate Olsen.
And yet even after high-profile deaths, anorexia runs rampant, encouraged by a media that seems to despise women’s flesh, and we're also seeing an overgrowth of pro-anorexia (pro-ana) Web sites and Tumblrs encouraging young users with thinspo—”thinspiration”—images. As though we should waste away into simply not being.
But even those women who aren’t pressured into this cultural ideal of rail-thinness are roundly criticized by the media, which on slow news days apparently decides to erupt in attacks on women who aren’t trying to fit into the tiny-frame paradigm. Gossip magazines operate in extremes, and tend to flog the women responsible for selling their titles.
Take Kim Kardashian, a woman whose personal life appears on gossip blogs and in magazines literally daily, owing to both her own reality show—she’s made a fortune putting her business on front street—and to the fact that she’s glamorous, gorgeous and wealthy. Widely regarded one of the most beautiful women in the world, she’s also renowned for her curves (and is also subject to speculation that she’s had ass implants). Despite the media’s thirst for hyper-skinny women, men around the world regard Kardashian as a physical ideal, and it’s not rocket science to figure out why. As Psychology Today reported a couple of months ago:
A woman's figure is a hallmark of her fertility, they argue, and men subconsciously know it. Researchers have documented a widespread, magnetic male attraction to a waist-to-hip ratio of .7—the classic hourglass. An eye-tracking study last year found that men start to evaluate a woman's hourglassness within the first 200 milliseconds of viewing, which, based on my pedestrian observations, seems slow.
Not that eating disorders have anything to do with men; they rarely do, and are in the DSM as such. But that evolutionary reinforcement is evidence that the media is inventing its own firestorms against women who are healthy, successful and gorgeous, for body-shaming sells magazines. So when news of Kim Kardashian’s cellulite makes the covers of People and Us and the like, it’s meant to give women one more thing to feel bad about.
Here’s how some of the world’s most beautiful women have been harangued for their weight—and what they did about it.
1. Kate Upton. This is the most recent example of body-shaming, and one of the more ridiculous. Kate Upton is a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, and is presently on the cover of men’s magazine GQ accompanied by the caption “The Newest Reason to Love Your Country.” She’s also got a fashion shoot in the latest issue of US Vogue, whose editor Anna Wintour is notoriously disdainful of curves (and breasts). And yet the blonde bombshell was recently called out on the Web site SkinnyGossip for walking in a swimsuit runway show “like there’s a buffet at the end of it.” The blog also called her a "squishy brick,” “lazy” and “lardy.” Jezebel’s Jenna Sauers, a fashion model herself, wrote:
Have we gotten so riven by self-hatred in this country that even Kate Upton's body can still be subjected to this nastiest and most personal of public critiques? Upton is basically the epitome of curvy, blonde beauty as it's valued in the U.S. today. Hers is a look that ticks every box. She has the long, golden hair, the huge breasts, the tiny waist, the long legs, the tanned skin, and the gorgeous face that we women are taught — by virtually every beer ad and billboard and movie poster — that men want.
If Kate fucking Upton's thighs are not immune from public dissection, then who is?
Sauers comes to the conclusion that none of us are, and she’s right. But so many more famous women are upheld—not just by pro-ana bloggers—to this ridiculous standard. As for Upton, she hasn’t publicly responded. Perhaps tellingly, her Twitter feed is a string of public appearances (Fallon), more fashion spreads (Vogue España), and TwitPics of beach vacations.
2. Aishwarya Rai. The stunning Bollywood superstar has been called the world’s most beautiful woman by a variety of media outlets across the globe. She’s also super-bright, having had aspirations toward zoology, medicine and architecture before her modeling career kicked off and she became Miss World. She’s been on the cover of US Vogue thrice, and she’s broken boundaries for South Asian women everywhere, having become the first Indian woman to join the Cannes jury panel in 2003, the same year she became a face of L’Oreal and an ambassador for the United Nations’ work against global poverty. She’s the type of woman anyone would look up to, on par with the Queen of Jordan or Audrey Hepburn in her well-rounded awesomeness.
But none of that mattered this year when Rai, shortly after having GIVEN BIRTH, became the subject of derisive body-shaming headlines in India, whose tabloids seem to be taking a cue from the United States. ABC News, this May:
In November 2011, she gave birth to a little girl named Aaradhya. Recently, she started stepping out in public again. Pictures show a woman who has clearly gained weight, but does not appear unhealthy or abnormal for a new mother. But online criticism of her body was swift, harsh and carried an undeniably snarky tone.
The boiling point appears to have come with the release of a report by “Bollywood CIA” posted on YouTube. The video, titled “SHOCKING! Fat Aishwarya Rai!” shows before and after pictures of the star set to the sound of an elephant trumpeting in the background.
There were also tabloid headlines that seem quite familiar: “Shocking! Aishwarya Rai’s Baby Fat Woes!” a statement echoed in the latest stateside gossip headlines about Jessica Simpson, who also recently gave birth. ABC reports that indeed, it’s the Western world that is responsible for this stigma:
Professor Rachel Dwyer, the professor of Indian Culture and Cinema at SOAS, University of London, sees the criticism as a western import.
“I think this baby weight thing is a western obsession with pulling stars down,” she wrote in an email exchange on the topic. “Women who lose weight are congratulated and those who don’t are seen as letting themselves go. I’ve not heard of it in India before.”
3. Alicia Machado. This Venezuelan bombshell was crowned Miss Universe in 1995. If there was any doubt that a beauty pageant is little more than a “cattle auction,” as second-wave feminists deemed it, in 1996, the Miss Universe Organization considered revoking Machado's title because, as it was reported, she had gained too much weight. She was still the stunning telenovela star who had won over contestants across the globe, but a few extra pounds (and not much) on her arms and waist were what set off the organization, and there were rumors they would replace her with the runner-up.
At the time, she weighed 141 lbs—which, at 5’8”, is hardly even close to obese. But it apparently conflicted with the message of Miss Universe, pushing its thin-agenda across the world. She managed to hang on to the title, but only through a series of humiliating public weight-loss attempts, including one instance in 1997 in which she was forced to exercise in front of Donald Trump and a host of reporters.
4. Kate Winslet. Through the power of Titanic, this Brit beauty became one of the most beloved movie stars in the world. And through the power of her strength and intelligence, she managed to rebut the constant media harassment about her “weight problem,” which she’d been bullied about her entire life. Despite a long career of incredible works and an Oscar under her belt, she revealed to Vanity Fair in 2008 that she almost didn’t follow through because of body-image pressure:
I was fat. I didn't know any fat famous actresses. I just did not see myself in that world at all, and I'm being very sincere. You know, once a fat kid, always a fat kid. Because you always think that you just look a little bit wrong or a little bit different from everyone else. And I still sort of have that. I often look at women who wear great jeans and high heels and nice little T-shirts wandering around the city and I think, "I should make more of an effort. I should look like that." But then I think, "They can't be happy in those heels."
It’s stunning that a woman as accomplished and acclaimed as Winslet still wrestles with weight issues—but it’s indicative of how profound and lasting media-inflicted neuroses can be.
5. Jennifer Hudson. Jennifer Hudson won "American Idol." She won an Oscar. She’s won Grammys. She delivered one of the best tributes to Whitney Houston. And yet all anyone seems to focus on is the fact that she lost a whole bunch of weight. Obviously she’s the Weight Watchers spokesperson, which factors in, and maybe she’s healthier now, or maybe not. But it’s telling that the beauty was featured in more gossip rags when she lost weight than when three of her family members were brutally murdered. This is a woman who’s overcome so much to get to where she is—it should be a point of American shame that a woman who is such a perfect example of manifest destiny is mostly lauded for shedding pounds.
And still, the fight to be thin is so tied up in the fact that our dominant cultural ideal is based in that which is white and European. Sure, it’s changed a bit—when Jennifer Lopez became a superstar, Puerto Rican booties gained cache in the mainstream—but for the most part, the concept of the perfect, perfectly thin body is what the media tells us we should aspire to. And sometimes, it works.
Hudson aside, take Kerry Washington, another of the world’s most beautiful women. For most of her career, she has been voluptuous, never considered overweight but certainly at home in her hourglass figure. In 2007’s I Think I Love My Wife, she was the ultimate bombshell, as beautiful as any woman onscreen. But once she landed a more mainstream role—as the lead on ABC’s "Scandal"—she shed weight quickly, and now her figure is virtually indistinguishable from the (exceedingly white) red-carpet norm. She’s still one of the most stunning women in Hollywood, but it’s hard to see the weight loss-starpower correlation and not wonder whether she was advised to drop pounds to become even more mainstream.
Additionally, societal and cultural pressure (as well as other factors) tend to obscure the existence of eating disorders among women of color, as pointed out by a recent Black Folk Don’t episode.
6. Christina Hendricks. As Joan Holloway on "Mad Men," she’s become the Marilyn Monroe of our time, but if Marilyn were alive now she’d certainly be considered a fatty, too. Hendricks has the perfect hourglass figure, and yet by some she is viewed as being too large for television.
In 2010, Hendricks hit the Golden Globes red carpet in a peach-colored gown with a ruffle down the hip. The New York Times’ Cathy Horyn (whose writing I normally enjoy) criticized the choice, writing, “You don’t put a big girl in a big dress.” Was she calling her fat? Hendricks’ husband Geoffrey Arend certainly seemed to think so; he told People that he was “upset about the whole Golden Globes dress thing. I thought she looked so gorgeous. And that New York Times blogger saying that... It's so ridiculous." (In case you’re wondering, the best dis of anyone who considers themselves a serious journalist is to call them a “blogger.” Point: Arend.)
But it’s not just Horyn: people all over the blogosphere regularly note Hendricks' weight derisively, and in the most ridiculous of these scenarios, feign concern over her health. Unfortunately, the drive to combat obesity in America has helped fuel weight-shamers’ gaslighting game, and you end up with people attacking someone who’s 5’8” and about 150 pounds—a healthy weight for that height, just not salads-only skinny. And that’s okay. More than okay: good for your health.
7. Ananda Marchildon. This is a body-shaming success story: Ananda Marchildon won Holland’s Next Top Model in 2008, which was supposed to award her a $100,000 contract with Elite, one of the world’s top modeling agencies. But rather than following through, the agency withheld her money and let her go on the grounds that her hips were too big—by two centimeters. Marchildon immediately coerced herself into an eating disorder, starving herself in order to lose the weight, but it did not work, and Elite reportedly called her names like “fat ass.”
Rather than descending further into unhealthy eating habits, however, Marchildon got out, and filed a lawsuit. In March, a Dutch court ruled that Elite would pay her the money it owed her, in an unprecedented victory against body-shaming. Marchildon now makes a living as a cabinet-maker.
8. Jennifer Lawrence. The Hunger Games is a box-office juggernaut, with no small thanks to the likeable intellect of lead Jennifer Lawrence. But once it was released, the criticisms rolled in: that Jennifer Lawrence was “too fat” to play the hunter-warrior Katniss, even though, you know, Katniss is a hunter-warrior. A hungry one, sure, but a WARRIOR. Surely those were the same critics who lauded Anne Hathaway’s descent into frightening emaciatedness for her role in the upcoming film Les Miserables, and actors lose and gain weight all the time. (Fat Matt Damon aka “Fat Damon” is a personal fave.) But once again, Lawrence—a beautiful, toned star who played Katniss as fierce and fearless as she should have—was thought of as too fat. To Lawrence’s credit, she didn’t let it bother her publicly:
According to the Chicago Sun Times, the actress told a friend: First, people say how so many actresses in Hollywood look anorexic, and now they are criticizing me for looking normal. She went on to say that super-thin body images "are too often adopted by young girls and women -- thanks to what they are constantly being shown as being attractive."
This smart 21-year-old can see past the media game of body-shaming and generally trying to wilt women out of existence. As a hero to generations of women, let’s hope they heed her call to resistance.