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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Fat People in Public

Last week La Crosse news anchor Jennifer Livingston sparked a national conversation after a viewer claimed she was a bad role model for girls because she's overweight. Her on-air reply was picked up by media outlets around the country and went viral on YouTube. This prompted us to wonder about why the appearance of public figures has become so important, and where our obsession with such things began.

No More Fat Presidents?

In his path-breaking 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argued that television had made it impossible for an obese candidate such as William Howard Taft to be elected president. He wrote that voters only trust leaders who look slender and fit. Certainly it's hard to imagine viewers of this week's presidential debate placing their trust in two candidates who looked like this.

For women in public positions, the problem is compounded. Not only must they appear healthy and trim, but they're also supposed to be beautiful. For two generations our culture has idealized women who were unusually thin. But this was not always the case.

Who's Beautiful?

Starting in the middle of the 19th century, women adopted the corset to create a narrow waist without sacrificing their maternal features. The ideal beauty of that era was voluptuous above and below -- skinny women were considered unattractive. A mature figure with wide hips and generous bosom was the goal (here's young Belle La Follette, as an example).

But starting around 1910, standards loosened up. The ideal woman didn't need a dramatically small waist, though she was encouraged to be less fleshy than her Victorian predecessors. By the 1920s, the ideal flapper had a flat chest and wore straight dresses de-emphasizing her hips. It was an androgynous, youthful look that signaled the "modern" woman's freedom from traditional sex roles and gender constraints.

During the 1930s, feminine beauty swung away from the flapper's extreme slenderness. Female models and film stars were allowed to have a full figure again. In the 1950s the waist was cinched, but not in the extreme manner of the corseted Victorians, and a wholesome, robust figure became idealized (think of Marilyn Monroe).

Then in the 1960s the ideal American woman became almost unnaturally skinny, like the fashion icon Twiggy. This was the beginning of our current obsession with thinness. But once a woman is no longer a young adult, extreme slenderness is a difficult look to achieve. With the recent obesity epidemic, especially, many women feel painfully trapped between the ultra-skinny ideal and corporeal reality.

Anchorwoman Livingston argued that this contradiction drives many girls to eating disorders such as bulimia, to endless dieting, and to needless self-loathing. From her perspective, "America's Next Top Model" causes far more harm to girls than an overweight TV anchor.

Ideals, Assumptions, and History

The controversy highlights an often-overlooked aspect of history. What did our forebears consider ideal -- or simply ignore because it was "normal"? Millions of Americans once believed that slavery was natural; after all, it was sanctioned in the Bible and the U.S. Constitution. A century later, millions thought that the threat of nuclear war was tolerable because they would be "better off dead than Red."

That makes us wonder what notions we ourselves unconsciously embrace, and where we got them.

Will future historians be amazed that we thought it was morally right for every person to pollute the planet every day in his or her own 2,000-pound vehicle? Or that each day we blindly flushed millions of gallons of clean water down the toilet? Or that we let our daughters torment themselves trying to conform to advertisers' ideals of beauty?

Our media create and reinforce our shared assumptions. With the pulpit and the press relentlessly declaring it was America's manifest destiny to occupy the continent, few citizens objected to the genocide against Native Americans or the Mexican War. But a few did.

"The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad," Henry Thoreau wrote in 1854, "and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior."

Today's media constantly deluge us with persuasion and propaganda. Advertisements and marketing messages flood into our minds at a rate that Thoreau could not have imagined. So we would each do well to investigate, and stay in touch with, what we believe in our own souls to be good and bad.

Jennifer Livingston helped remind us of that this week.

:: Posted in Curiosities on October 4, 2012
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