SIZE AND PREJUDICE: ‘WEIGHTISM’ IN WESTERN SOCIETY

This article was published in Lot’s Wife on 2/5/2011.

In a shop window on Swanston Street, a number of advertisements are prominently displayed. On the far left, a Sunsense poster depicts an overweight man in speedos. “Why are budgie smugglers only worn by people who shouldn’t wear them?” queries the accompanying text. On the right, a diet-drug flyer presents a woman’s belly, a small quantity of excess ‘flab’ gripped in one hand. “Do something” the slogan implores.

The appearance of these two ads in close proximity is neither coincidental nor remarkable. Their existence is indicative of the extent to which weight prejudice has become accepted and ingrained in our society. ‘Why don’t fat people cover up on the beach?’ implies the former, inviting us to laugh at the concept of the overweight dressing without shame. The latter ad has a more insidious goal: to arouse insecurity within the viewer as a means of selling the product. ‘You look unattractive,’ the subtext reads, ‘take these and become desirable again’. It’s probably worth noting that most people would be able to isolate a comparable amount of tissue from their stomachs if they tried. Fat is a natural, necessary part of the human body; advertisements like these, however, seem to suggest that there is something inherently disgusting about it.

It may seem ironic, perhaps, that the shop displaying these posters is a pharmacy. In reality, it is entirely fitting. The perception among many now seems to be that being overweight is, by definition, unhealthy. This is, in fact, completely incorrect. The term ‘overweight’, as it is clinically defined, refers to the highly arbitrary ‘body mass index’ – a simple height/weight ratio measurement that fails to take into account individual body shapes and metabolisms, among other factors. More remarkably, one has to gain considerably more weight than the index’s arbitrarily-defined cut-off allows before major health risks become apparent. This is where seemingly alarming statistics cited to demonstrate the existence of an ‘obesity epidemic’ originate from, and this is why such claims should be treated with scepticism. Nevertheless, the ‘epidemic’ assertion has developed sufficient clout to ensure that issues regarding weight are now considered the primary domain of the health sector.

This is not entirely inappropriate. Obesity is, generally, an unhealthy state, and it is important that Government departments and health professionals provide information and assistance to those with serious weight issues. Nevertheless, there are other dimensions to the weight problem that need to be recognised. The heavily publicised physical health concerns – whatever pertinence they might have – pale in comparison to the damage being wrought on the collective psyche by a more troubling matter; that is, the generally unacknowledged yet widespread phenomenon that might be labelled ‘weightism’.

Ours is a society, in many ways, terrified of being fat. Even in an age of at least official tolerance – in which cruelty and discrimination directed towards those of different ethnicities, religious beliefs or sexualities are prohibited by vilification laws – overweight people are, when not invisible, objects of derision in the majority of popular media representations. This is a trend that runs through film, television, magazines and advertising. Even a rare television program that ostensibly shows overweight people in a sympathetic light instead degrades and humiliates its subjects for the purpose of entertainment, whilst selling the moral that self-respect is dependent on weight loss.

Messages carried through the media in this way are bound to have a significant impact, and the results are evident. Body image insecurity is rife in today’s society, particularly amongst adolescents already self-conscious about their development. Eating disorders such as anorexia are well-publicised, but they only constitute the extreme end of a wide spectrum of depression and physical insecurities. In high school environments, weight is the subject of anxieties as well as a means of social stratification, and these vulnerabilities and prejudices persist through adult life in many settings.

Weight is often discussed in terms of health, but this is merely a smokescreen. The real issue here is superficiality. There is, to say the least, something seriously wrong with the way the human body is perceived and portrayed in contemporary Western society. It is a situation founded in basic prejudices, exploited by the free market and perpetuated by advertising and entertainment media, to the extent where it has become near-ubiquitous.

These depictions are not, as some claim, merely a reflection of natural biological preferences. Standards of beauty have varied significantly over history and different cultures. Even within such contexts, natural physical attraction remains highly subjective; although, it might be hypothesised that cultural norms and popular media can exert a significant influence on what we allow ourselves to find attractive. Today’s near-homogenisation is at least partially the result of the rigorous conditioning that occurs through exposure to film, music video and advertising media; platforms that consistently associate sexiness and beauty with a certain kind of body image. The extent to which weight is stigmatised is bound to have a similar effect.

It is one thing for a body type or appearance to be generally preferred; it is another for the alternative to be reviled. Human society is made up of many different body types and metabolisms. Some are naturally big; some are bigger than they should be. Some of us, for that matter, are outside our recommended daily intakes of cholesterol or vitamin A. These are personal health issues that ought to be seen as nothing more.

The development of ‘fat pride’ movements is encouraging, but they are a long way from receiving mainstream acceptance. Scare campaigns about rampant obesity form a significant barrier, whilst fostering a perception of the cause as irresponsible and a promotion of an unhealthy lifestyle. This is a particularly counterproductive view. The fight against weight insecurity and shame is crucial, and there is no reason why health advocacy cannot one day be pursued in conjunction with anti-weight-discrimination movements.

In the meantime, our society’s malignant superficiality will continue to ensure that many live in a state of permanent anxiety and unhappiness over their appearance. Simultaneously, those of us who do possess socially acceptable bodies will face a constant struggle against absurd fears and insecurities. “Just accept yourself the way you are” the women’s magazines insist. Until there is a radical shift in the way body image is dealt with in this society, that will remain an impossible feat.

POLE POSITION

This article was published in Esperanto on 5/4/2011

One place that I’ve never had any particular desire to go is a strip club. It’s sort of like visiting Adelaide or going to a Holocaust museum. You know you should maybe do it some day, but you kind of want to put it off until the next life.

It’s not that I’m a prude. Nudity is great. In fact, I sometimes wish everyone would go naked for a day, if only so that everyone could stop being so ridiculously self-conscious about their bodies. As for pole dancing, it’s a fun, athletic exercise that I’m totally going to take up when I have my mid-life crisis.

There just seems to be something distinctly depressing about strip clubs. Women reduced to sexual objects; boorish, idiotic men leering at them; sexual desire commodified. I already hate the way women are portrayed in so much advertising and popular media, and strip clubs seem like the veritable ground zero of that mentality.

And yet, all of this was little more than hearsay. I’d never actually been to a strip club, and it was going to be a little difficult to write about the phenomenon with any real authority unless I went to one of these establishments.

So, like the intrepid investigative reporter I am, I did just that.

*

It’s a rainy Saturday night. I’ve asked my girlfriend to accompany me in order to provide moral support, a request she accedes to a little too enthusiastically. “You know we’re not actually meant to enjoy this,” I remind her sternly, as I don my most presentable pair of jeans and something resembling a t-shirt.

It’s all planned in my head. We’ll spend about 20 minutes there, get a good glimpse of the degeneracy, have an awful time and wash it all down with some cheap pizza.

The moment I step in the doors, my scheme is in disarray. The place is spacious, clean, and the denizens appear remarkably laid-back. It’s not exactly tasteful, but it doesn’t look too bad. I mentally curse myself for not going to King Street, and head to the bar in resignation.

As we line up for a drink, a punter turns to me, an intense look of disappointment in his eyes. “You brought your missus, didn’t you,” he says, disapprovingly. I nod sheepishly, half-expecting to have to find my birth certificate and allow him to remove the letter ‘M’ with liquid paper.

Behind the counter, a huge poster suggests that we try a, well, ‘Thirsty Cunt’. It must have been difficult to come up with this terribly witty if somewhat ambiguous name for a cocktail, I imagine. After all, the remainder of the nightclub world has somewhat of a mortgage on suggestive cocktail names, and it wouldn’t do for a strip club to simply toe the line. I silently wonder what the rest of their menu might contain. ‘Anal Massage’? ‘Steaming Turd’? Alas, even these would lack the instant shock value of the c-word, and thus this particular beverage probably remains the sole jewel in their creative crown.

Having purchased a pair of humble Tequila Sunrises (themselves undoubtedly the beneficiaries of some unprintable nom-de-plume), we sit huddled together in the middle of a far too large couch and watch. I expect to be immediately set upon by a score of aggressive women demanding to gyrate on our crotches, but, surprisingly, most give us a wide berth. Is it kind of awkward that I’ve brought my girlfriend? More likely, they can see our scruffy appearance and have somehow worked out that we have the combined cash to be able to afford about four seconds of a regulation lap-dance. Whatever its cause, our newfound strip club leper status allows us to sit down and watch the stage in peace.

The first act begins, and a performer strolls out in underwear, does a few twirls on the pole for ten minutes and then disappears. I look at my girlfriend in disbelief, and wonder if I have accidentally turned up at a K-Mart product launch. Where is the nudity? I am prepared to head back home and play a good game of Scrabble, until a male voice on the P.A. announces that the buck’s night show is about to commence.

There are many things in this world that I’d like to think I understand. Richard Wilkins; dogs wearing sunglasses; the Socialist Alternative: all of these can, to some degree, be rationally explained. Buck’s nights, on the other hand, perplex me. Quite why the rite of passage for a man about to marry the woman he loves is to go and have an intimate encounter with a naked woman baffles me. Admittedly, I don’t pretend to understand why some of their female counterparts run around with dildos on their heads, but that’s beside the point (my idea of a great pre-wedding evening, for the record, is The Royal Tenenbaums and a lot of valium).

Well, evidently some men have other ideas. This one is in his 40s at least. He looks a little too old for these shenanigans, but has still managed to assemble a fair collection of good old boys to sit in the front row and witness the sheer wonder of somebody of another gender without any clothes on.

Where the previous dance was mundane, this is decidedly risqué. This time, there’s definitely nudity, and more touching than I expected. Our Lad, shirtless and apparently near-catatonic from alcohol, sits on a chair and more or less gets molested. It’s all rather intimate, even erotic; and yet, the front row cheer squad seem relatively subdued. Perhaps there is something that still shocks us, in this age of sexual liberty, about the personal being made public in this manner.

Afterwards, we’re treated to more run-of-the-mill pole-dancing shows. A tall, androgynous-looking blonde performs some remarkable feats of flexibility. Another gives a personal dance to a front-row spectator. This latter performance is like an encapsulation of the entire strip club concept. The naked woman gyrates in front of the man, who clutches a $50 note. She reaches for it; he pulls it back. It’s all part of the act, but it’s disturbing nonetheless.

As another dancer performs, video clips play on a neighbouring TV screen. They’re just average terrible pop music videos, but my girlfriend notices something peculiar. The women on the screen, albeit infinitely wealthier and carrying famous names like Rihanna, Gwen Stefani and Ke$ha ($igh), are performing exactly the same moves as the stage performers. It begins to dawn on me: pop music is really shit. More to the point, I begin to wonder if the world of commercial pop music is, in many ways, just a strip show of another kind, in which women (selected on the basis of looks and marketability) are sold to the public as sexual objects.

Of course, it’s not as simple as that. Those women, like the dancers we see on stage, are in their jobs of their own volition. They too are protected by regulations, and, we presume, are free to leave at any time.

It’s far too easy, really, to fall into simplistic reductions when discussing strip clubs. You can gloss over the issue by saying it’s ok and a matter of choice. You can take a moralistic stance and condemn the concept as an assault on decency. You can patronisingly assume that the women who work here are helpless victims and that the male patrons are disgusting perverts. None of these responses really deal with the issue.

For better or for worse, there is nothing about strip clubs that isn’t already mirrored to some extent in the rest of our culture. If you want objectification of women, turn on Video Hits or look at a billboard. If you want sexism, look at the history of gender discrimination in Western culture. If you want commodification of sex, look at our society’s commodification of, well, everything. Today, the existence of strip clubs is permitted, and, in exchange, they adhere to laws and rigorous government regulations. This is probably the best possible situation. We can go deeper and discuss the ideological problems that strip clubs pose, but, at the end of the day, they are only symptomatic of much wider societal concerns.