Saturday, March 2, 2013

"Real" Women

I started a kerfuffle yesterday. I didn't mean to. I was commenting on this post:

In my own clumsy fashion I stated that the tall, skinny women we see in print ads are NOT real. I recognize that this was a tangent from the intent of the original post. Perhaps it was somewhat defensive. I have and do use the term "real" women. My intent, though, was an allusion the fact that those images of women have been radically altered post-production.

Unfortunately, my effort instead upset the Original Poster, who -- being a tall, skinny woman -- took me to task for not respecting women on the other end of the physical spectrum from me, thereby perpetuating the very culture of discrimination which I deride.

She is right. Referring to larger, curvier -- fatter -- women as "real" does devalue those who don't fit that image. And that's not my intent. I strongly believe that women in all shapes and sizes are beautiful and should be appreciated as they are.

I apologized and posted nothing further. But the conversation has continued in my head, and here in the comfort of my own blog, I am going to say two things:

1) I maintain that the women we see in print media AREN'T real. In the insular world of photo editing and "fashion" the ideal of a woman has shifted to a point that is beyond the reach of human physiognomy. They are physically impossible. I mean no disrespect to the women who are the beginning point for those images. But after seeing videos like this:  

there is no way to say that the pictures to which we all are compared are "real". It doesn't matter that the woman in front of the camera is a living, breathing person. The end result bears no resemblance to her, and saying that the billboard is fake is no reflection on her. If my daughter draws a crayon picture of me with snakes for hair and orange skin, and you say "that isn't a real person", I understand that you are not negating me, just acknowledging that the picture has no correlation with my true physical characteristics. Images can be powerful symbols, and as an educated, critical, thoughtful consumer, I look at magazines and try to keep in mind that the women in those pages have been made into symbols of a idealized, generic, and ultimately (to me) boring, standard of "beauty".

2) Of course Photoshopping is a disservice to every woman. That said, I still argue that the trend toward slimmer and longer as the ideal is more harmful to "larger" women because it removes them (us) even farther from the standard by which we are collectively measured. "Curvy women" are obviously, deliberately, absent from every one of those pages and as Photoshopping becomes more extreme, curves are quite literally being wiped out of the picture. Layered on top of that are the cultural biases toward fat people, which do not apply to skinny people. Yes, I am familiar with, I even have used, the term "skinny bitch". I can imagine the pressure to eat, the comments about anorexia and bulemia. With some thought and awareness I can begin to deconstruct my beliefs about health and how I negatively apply them to slender women. In analyzing myself, though, I also see that I believe slender women are more attractive and perceive them as energetic and healthier, as well as better leaders.

The same does not hold true for fat women. I had the awful opportunity to discuss our collective cultural bias with my own son when he was about eight years old. My boy is brutally honest, and one day we were talking about an overweight person. The words he used included: lazy, greedy, dirty, unhealthy, and stupid. My son is not unique in those impressions. I recognize that have internalized them about myself, even though intellectually I could argue that none of those characteristics apply to me. Still, when I look in the mirror, both before and after having recently lost roughly 40 pounds, I see a fat lazy slob who doesn't take care of herself and obviously isn't as bright as someone who weighs another 40 lbs less.

I joke sometimes that I come from sturdy breeding stock, and I take pride in my physical strength. But as a teenager I thought my broad hips were a sign that I was fat. I was sixteen, 5'7" tall, and I worked out every day. I was an "ideal" 145 lbs. I could count my ribs. Still, I thought I was overweight. That was the year I heard this joke, which I have carried with me for 25 years:
     Q: How are a carousel and a fat girl alike?
     A: They're fun to ride, but you wouldn't want your friends to know.
I don't know how many opportunities I have let pass because of the shame that one joke engendered in me. I don't remember a day in my life when I haven't looked in a mirror and felt less attractive because of my size. On good days I don't feel pretty because of my shape, but in spite of it.

That is why I started using the term "real" when talking about women who look like me. By calling myself real I was both reclaiming myself and using my new found power to try and stake a claim for "real" women in the magazines. My intent was that the pictures my children encounter would reflect the beautiful diversity of women in this world, and would help my daughter in particular to recognize her own beauty, no matter what size she may grow to be.

Having said all that, I have to admit that the OP was right. Tall and Skinny girls aren't imaginary. We are all real women. We must stand together to fight the nonsense about beauty which is thrust down our collective throats. We all are beautiful, with our curves and sags and wrinkles and bones and freckles and pointy chins and tree-like height. So, rather than eliminating the term "real" from my vocabulary, I will choose instead to apply it to all the living, breathing, beautiful women I see. And I will teach my children to carefully consider the messages they ingest from the media around them. I will teach them to see with a critical eye, and to find beauty in the truth rather than the story they are told.


  1. Well said.
    As someone who is both tall and overweight, I understand where you *and* the original commenter are coming from.