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The Dialectic of Fat Kirstie Alley exposes her Rubenesque physique, anorexics share weight-loss tips, TV contestants compete to lose pounds and feminist concerns over body image go global. What’s going on here?
by Catherine Orenstein
Too Fat for Sex! That was one of the headlines, splashed across last November’s cover of Star, that helped launch Kirstie Alley’s television comeback. Who could have predicted? Over the previous year and a half, Alley had become a target of ridicule. Her rising weight drove tabloid sales and became the butt of late-night talk-show gags.
Kirstie Alley sends up the whole Hollywood culture of lookism and fatism
Photo: Mark Seliger/Showtime
“260 lbs!” announced Star, which published before-and-after photos of the former Cheers and Veronica’s Closet lead, as well as a cover image of Alley in a caftan, looking large and furious, flipping the double bird at the camera.
Meanwhile, The National Enquirer put Alley at over 300 pounds and ran photos of her in the parking lot of a local In-N-Out Burger, furtively downing a hamburger.
“She’s a regular at the House of Pies …where $10 confections have 3,000 calories each,” accused the tabloid. “John Travolta, who costarred with Kirstie in the Look Who’s Talking film series, is so concerned that he’s reportedly offered the services of a personal chef and dietitian to wean her off fatty foods.”
But just as the gossip rags seemed to turn her into an object of pity, Alley has turned the tables: All these headlines and more are spoofed in Fat Actress, the pseudo-reality television show in which she plays a tabloid version of herself.
In the first episode, Alley sobs after stepping on the bathroom scale (and hearing from her agent that the Jenny Craig weight-loss program would like to hire her as a spokeswoman, as it has in real life). Still dressed in satin negligee and bathrobe, she heads out for a burger and fries — a scene that lampoons the unflattering Enquirer snapshot.
Later in that episode Alley laments that she doesn’t want to have “fat sex,” the term that inspired the Star headline after she uttered it last year on Oprah. And finally, John Travolta appears, playing himself, to give her the number of a “dietician” played by Kelly Preston, his rail-thin real-life wife, who offers horrific — which is not to say unheard of, or even unpopular — weight-loss tips: vomiting, laxatives, parasites and cigarettes (to eat, not smoke, in order to burn a hole in Alley’s stomach lining).
It’s all a great joke. But on whom? Fat Actress is good at what it does, sending up not only Alley but the entire Hollywood culture of vapid lookism and fatism. On its surface, it is the latest in a series of body-obsessed reality shows that have introduced the era of weight loss as national competition.
On last year’s Extreme Makeover and The Swan, the (mostly) female contestants competed to streamline their bodies and faces through exercise and surgery. This year, on NBC’s The Biggest Loser, contestants of both sexes competed to lose weight; those who didn’t “improve” enough were cut.
But while these shows promote “tough love” and conformity, with carefully crafted plots that reveal a parallel struggle for body control and social acceptance, Fat Actress is rudely nonconformist. The Biggest Loser holds up the fat-free body as moral accomplishment, the result of hard work and commitment; Fat Actress holds up the opposite.
It is not so much about fitting in or losing weight as it is about actually being fat — about appetite and vulgarity, prejudice and loathing, mammoth bosoms and hips (enhanced to caricaturist proportions in Showtime’s promotions for the show).
More specifically, Fat Actress is about being fat and female in Hollywood . Through her self-parody, Alley dramatizes the opprobrium of obesity in the land of sylphlike starlets — where thinness and femininity are synonymous — without actually giving in to it.
Even as she sobs on her scale, she is a minute away from pointing out the preposterous double standards that keep her and other women down: “Why can’t I get a TV show first and then lose weight,” she yells at her agent (balancing her cell phone against her ear while she eats a hamburger). It doesn’t work that way, her agent tells her.
“It does work that way for the guys,” she sputters, pointing to actors James Gandolfini and John Goodman. “Do you think they said to Marlon Brando, ‘Hey Marlon, you’re a little bit too fucking fat to do Apocalypse’?”
Everything Alley says feels right — including the angry delivery. But what’s most interesting about this outburst on sexism in Hollywood is that Alley does have her own TV show — a much-hyped one, at that. What she illustrates is not the impossibility of a fat woman having a career in Hollywood, but rather the centrality of weight to a woman’s cultural identity. A fat woman can carry a hit show, but only if it’s a show about her size.
Fat Actress is a cash cow — so long as the actress is willing to act the part.
Of course, Fat Actress is part of a larger story line, one that now seems to be unfolding in fast motion. Fat — our preoccupation with losing it, its meaning for our identity, its effect on our desirability, work prospects and social status — has become a trademark American obsession.
As our waistlines expand (two-thirds of Americans are now overweight, according to government statistics; a third of us are officially obese), the press coverage and cultural reflections on our obesity crisis seem to be expanding endlessly as well.
There’s something for everyone, from the aggressively wistful makeover shows to Neil LaBute’s recent and darkly cynical off-Broadway play “Fat Pig,” which charts a man’s inability to publicly embrace the plus-size woman he loves.
There is also Judith Moore’s new book, Fat Girl, a memoir that begins with a line reminiscent of the headline the Star hurled at Alley: “You’re too fat to fuck.”
And “Vagina Monologues” creator Eve Ensler has weighed in, so to speak, with her recent, short-lived Broadway play “The Good Body,” in which she attempted to do for stomachs and thighs what her previous play did for, well, vaginas.
Ensler’s latest mission: to liberate the female landscape by revealing her own pot-bellied, dimpled imperfection. “What a way to control us. This skinny thing is genius,” she explained to London’s Guardian newspaper. “If you’re hungry you don’t have a lot of energy, and it’s really hard to think.”
It’s no coincidence that these fat commentaries revolve around female bodies: Even though women are statistically less likely than men to be overweight (but somewhat more likely to be obese), feminists have long pointed out how the twin fantasies of beauty and thinness torment us.
The late Andrea Dworkin saw the battle of the sexes as waged on the female body in an unbroken history of oppression extending from ancient foot-binding to modern-day waxing, tweezing and dieting. Naomi Wolf, in The Beauty Myth, exposed the staggering amount of time, effort and money that women are compelled to spend on their outward appearance in order to be socially acceptable, employable and marriageable.
And Susie Orbach, in her 1978 classic Fat Is a Feminist Issue, saw story lines playing out upon women’s flesh: She presented food as language and fat as a metaphor — a filter between us and the world, telling a story about our relationship with our mothers, men and ourselves.
She urged women to stop dieting and instead seek to understand the reasons why they were fat in the first place. Fat, she wrote, has hidden agendas and can express many things: the desire for protection, to remain unseen, or to rebel against imprisoning social ideals.
But whatever wisdom we may have absorbed about the tyranny of the health and beauty industry and its relentless glorification of thinness seems to have had a limited, and ambiguous, impact. Today, eating disorders affect 5 to 10 million Americans, most of them women.
Time reports that 80 percent of children have been on a diet by the time they reach the fourth grade. According to one survey, 40 percent of women would trade three to five years of their lives to achieve their goal body weight.
Meanwhile, the ideal body has become ever more narrowly defined, even as it is presented as increasingly accessible to all. On television makeover shows, ordinary Americans whittle stomachs and lift breasts, liposuction thighs and force noses into alignment, often in the course of a single episode.
Today, anyone can (supposedly) have Britney Spears’ face and body. Indeed, the recent MTV reality show I Want a Famous Face transformed one contestant into a would-be carbon copy of the star.
In the age of the designer body, thinness has a brandlike Quality — an idea indirectly explored in LaBute’s “Fat Pig.” The problem the playwright’s male protagonist has with his girlfriend is not that her fat makes her unattractive to him, but that it makes him feel insecure with his friends, who laugh at him. One might imagine a similar dynamic if he were driving a tacky car or had bought his fiancée an embarrassingly small diamond.
“Fat Pig” suggests that our disgust and discomfort with female fat has less to do with sex and desirability (as we might tend to think when reading a headline like “Too Fat for Sex!”) and more with the social status conferred by a girlfriend’s looks.
While Ensler’s plays have activism at their core, and her driving goal is for acceptance, she too raises the specter of the body as product, displayed for others as often as (or more often than) it is used for oneself. For LaBute, the plot lies in exposing this notion; for Ensler, the plot lies in shattering it.
At first glance, Fat Actress seems part of the shattering process, but for all the satiric edge, it’s not. Thinness remains a defining beauty ideal not in spite of but, in part, thanks to shows like this. Like the women on the “don’ts” page of fashion magazines, Alley, along with Roseanne and Rosie O’Donnell, illustrates the unacceptable.
It’s a rare female on TV — Camryn Manheim, late of The Practice, comes to mind — who can transcend the narrow cultural meaning of an oversize body, and become known for her acting, rather than as a warning tale.
Part of the torment of fat, and fatism, is how it grows. Dominant American (read privileged and white) body ideals have spread along with our pathologies. Despite the conventional wisdom about African American and Latino cultures’ appreciation for more voluptuous female body types, eating disorders are on the rise for both those groups. We are also exporting our body issues to faraway places, with disturbing success.
Studies funded by Harvard Medical School tracked the eating habits of girls on the island of Fiji, where television was first introduced in the year 1995. Between 1995 and 1998, the islanders watched Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210, and 11 percent of the girls surveyed developed bulimia — a disease previously unknown to them. Television, it seems, can carry disease. That is not to say those affected were unwilling victims.
“The girls were articulate and explicit about why they were making themselves throw up,” says Harvard medical anthropologist Anne Becker, who led the study. “They felt that if they had a Jennifer Aniston body, they would look more modern and more Western, and they would have a better chance of getting a job.”
Their dream job? Stewardess.
“Not only is fat still a feminist issue,” author Susie Orbach comments, “now it’s a global feminist issue.”
In an introduction to the 1990 reedition of her book, Orbach wrote enthusiastically about the progress that women had achieved since she had penned Fat Is a Feminist Issue 12 years earlier. But today Orbach — a psychotherapist and cofounder of the Women’s Therapy Institute in New York City — is less optimistic. She says she underestimated the extent to which young women are “assaulted by visual culture — by monolithic mono-imagery.”
She also worries about the “normalization of disordered eating: that is, compulsive eating and dieting that is no longer considered abnormal.” Several forthcoming books, and substantial anecdotal evidence, echo Orbach’s worries, which are also reflected in the Fat Actress gag about the bulimia-promoting dietitian.
The gag isn’t far from the truth, as we see the emergence of “pro-ana” websites created to support anorexics not in gaining weight, but in more effectively starving themselves. (Visitors can click on “thinspiration” photos, or seek tips on eating fewer than 400 calories a day.)
To Orbach, feminism has not only failed lately to address body politics, but has incorporated — through the fitness movement — an oppressive message about thinness.
“If you look at what happened to feminists, in terms of their own preoccupation with the body, their own desire, they are buying into the idea that the way to feel good is to look after our bodies,” she says.
“We would have been horrified at this years ago, but it’s just part of what we do now. How many hours are spent by accomplished, capable, intellectually interesting women in being frightened of food, then decorating or denigrating their bodies? Is the gym really about health? For a lot of women, it’s not about health at all. This is not to attack the women, it’s just to say, ‘What the hell has happened in the culture?’”
Not everyone would agree, at least not without qualification. The health and fitness movements, along with Title IX, represent, in the eyes of many women, huge steps forward. But Orbach has a point about how slyly we have adjusted our thinking and language to preserve the old, oppressive rub.
Now we obsessively shrink our bodies in the name of staying “in shape,” and we can worry about the “obesity epidemic” instead of admitting our phobia of fat. But no matter what we call it, the pressure to lose is as powerful and one-sided as ever.
Take opera star Deborah Voigt, one of the world’s leading sopranos, who made headlines last fall when she was fired from a role at London ’s Covent Garden because the director thought her too large for the black dress he had in mind for her character. Instead of performing, the singer underwent a gastric bypass operation. This March, The New York Times reported its success — a phenomenal 100-pound weight reduction for Voigt — in a front-page article titled, “With Surgery, Soprano Sheds a Brünhilde Body.”
The article mentioned that the weight loss could jeopardize her singing career, but glossed over the implication that, to the Royal Opera Company, Voigt’s size outweighed her sound. The Times also noted the health benefits of her ordeal, which are many. Still, one wonders if Pavarotti ever lost a part because he couldn’t fit into his trousers.
Fortunately, as an intriguing new anthology points out, the stories fat tells about us aren’t written in stone. In Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession (Tarcher/Penguin), 13 anthropologists and an activist tell a few lesser-known plots. In Niger, Rebecca Popenoe writes, desert Arabs idolize fat bodies, girls are force-fed and women don extra clothing before stepping on the scale; stretch marks are beloved.
In the world of fat pornography, Don Kulick observes, astonishingly obese women are eroticized as goddesses: Instead of having sex, they have food. And in hiphop culture, Joan Gross reminds us, girth is a sign of power. The term phat seeped into that culture through music, and its original meaning — a full, rich sound — expanded to express general praise.
Indeed, it’s hip-hop that provides Fat Actress with one of its more memorable scenes: At the end of one episode, as credits roll, Kirstie Alley does a lap dance for the singer Kid Rock, accompanied by the Sir Mix-A-Lot song “Baby Got Back.”
“I’m tired of magazines / Sayin’ flat butts are the thing,” go the lyrics. “I like big butts! ”
After the deluge of tabloid photos and headlines that shouted Alley’s weight as if it were a national threat, it’s hard not to like a woman who dances to that. At the same time, it’s worth noting that the lyrics — like the tabloids — are still fixated on her fat.
Catherine Orenstein is author of Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked and is a Fellow of the Woodhull Institute. She previously wrote about Desperate Housewives and other television dramas featuring married women. Other articles can be found here.