Recently, the blog Modern Mechanix posted a vintage ad for Kelp-O-Malt tablets, a wondrous innovation that helped young women of the mid-century reach one of their most desired goals - that of gaining lots of weight.
What a strange, alternative world that must have been, a world where "naturally skinny" girls glare in envy at those with full figures. Or, just my world. I've been exceptionally skinny my whole life, and I've always disliked it. It's not something you can really complain about, though, at least without incurring the wrath and/or disdain of all your female friends.
It's even harder if you happen to dabble in feminism. Because if you're skinny, you're obviously that way because you diet to excess or inflict yourself with eating disorders, and therefore are simply a tool of the patriarchal value system that places undue pressure on women to conform to a specific, unnatural body image. If by chance you aren't dieting like a fiend or practicing anorexia, well, then you're just lucky the culture skews in your favor and you should probably just stay out of the fray.
At least that's what I seem to be told all the time. Perhaps sometimes in nicer language, but the meaning is essentially the same - you don't understand and therefore have no valid opinion. I feel as if that if I were to stand up in favor of more natural depictions of women in media, everyone would look at me and my 105 pounds askance, and dismiss what I had to say on principle.
I can't stay out of the conversation, though. Because I am a feminist, and a big sister to a teenage girl, and a mother to a daughter. I care very much what message girls are getting about their health and bodies. And an exceptionally thin woman keeping quiet about those issues, I think will come across as the wrong message.
The point of all this is that I think we should shift our battles in the war on female images from an issue of fat vs. thin to one about revealing and appreciating each individual's natural attributes. Most people don't fit into one of those two narrowly-defined categories anyway, and there's a ton of factors that can skew the balance - and most of them are out of an individual's control.
How can you tell whether or not a woman's low weight is natural or a product of medical problems? Simple - get to know her before we pass judgment. If that's not possible - in the case of celebrities we have no direct contact with - maybe we should forestall judgment altogether. Don't we have better things to worry about, anyway?
I hear many stories about women's frustration and annoyance with naturally thin friends who try to downplay their weight and act like they're just the same size as everyone else. Why do you think these women do this? Probably because they're tired as hell of being picked on, however enviously, for their size, which is something they just can't help any more than naturally larger people can. We've made it socially unacceptable to make fun of fat people, but skinny people are apparently fair game. What exactly is the difference?
And, yes, it is quite true that some people are just skinny, by nature and by natural inclination. I, personally, am 5'6" and have never weighed more than 115 pounds. Including during my pregnancy. I have weighed much, much less, mostly due to stress and anxiety, which is nothing to tease someone about. Now I do exercise, especially running, but this has nothing to do with my weight and more to do with that same stress. Exercising relieves it, as well as actually stimulates my appetite. I am currently gaining much-needed pounds by eating healthily and running regularly. That type of lifestyle is not about making me fatter, or thinner - it's about making me as healthy as I'm intended to be.
I think feminists and those who care about issues which affect our young women need to let go of the pointed attacks on skinniness and take a positive approach to appreciating different body types in general. We're not doing the awkward, flat-chested young women any favors by making them feel guilty about being a way that they're not even comfortable with in the first place, and the almost-obsessive concentration we give to tearing down thin girls is hardly admirable. I think we'd make a lot more progress by not defining our stances in negative terms.
It's also quite possible that the backlash against the rail-thin female ideal is just the beginning of another cultural change. After all, it was only a little more than fifty years ago that more flesh on a woman was not only expected, but desired. Who's to say that in another fifty, we won't be cycling back to that? But here's the real question - if we just trade one image for another, are we really making progress?
Note: Image from another vintage ad sample at AdvertisingLab.