Navel Gazing

Why even feminists are obsessed with fat.

Book cover

America’s obsession with fat is increasingly colonizing the cultural imagination, and not just on sadistic reality-TV diet shows like The Biggest Loser. There’s also been a lot of fat on the New York stage lately. Neil LaBute’s devastating new play, Fat Pig, offers thwarted love between a fat woman and a thin man with really mean friends; in The Good Body, Eve Ensler’s one-woman show, the audience is treated to the self-loathing feminist equivalent of a money shot: Ensler yanks her blouse up and waistband down, and there in all its naked shame is her dirty little secret, a small pot belly. Ensler and LaBute couldn’t be more different in sensibility, except that for both, fat spells abjection. For anyone in quest of another angle, a new collection of essays, Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession, edited by Don Kulick and Anne Meneley, takes on the same terrain from a cross-cultural perspective, providing a welcome departure from both fat-as-sideshow or Ensler-style navel gazing.

Can you be a fat female and also an object of desire? This is the question posed in different ways by both new plays. It’s no surprise that for LaBute’s characters, the answer is a brutal “No.” But Ensler, a self-declared radical feminist, works herself into intellectual knots trying to come to terms with her own bodily obsessions. (For her, it’s more about feeling fat than being fat.) The therapeutic mode doesn’t make for gripping theater; here it also makes for a lot of wheel-spinning, particularly because there’s a hard truth that Ensler can’t bring herself to acknowledge about women’s situations today, including her own: There’s simply an irreconcilable contradiction between feminism and femininity, two largely incompatible strategies women have adopted over the years to try to level the playing field with men.

The reason they’re incompatible is simple. Femininity is a system that tries to secure advantages for women, primarily by enhancing their sexual attractiveness to men. It also shores up masculinity through displays of feminine helplessness or deference. But femininity depends on a sense of female inadequacy to perpetuate itself. Completely successful femininity can never be entirely attained, which is precisely why women engage in so much laboring, agonizing, and self-loathing, because whatever you do, there’s always that straggly inch-long chin hair or pot belly or just the inexorable march of time. (Even the dewiest ingénue is a Norma Desmond waiting to happen.)

Feminism, on the other hand, is dedicated to abolishing the myth of female inadequacy. It strives to smash beauty norms, it demands female equality in all spheres, it rejects sexual market value as the measure of female worth. Or that was the plan. Yet for all feminism’s social achievements, what it never managed to accomplish was the eradication of the heterosexual beauty culture, meaning the time-consuming and expensive potions and procedures—the pedicures, highlights, wax jobs on sensitive areas, “aesthetic surgery,” and so on. For some reason, the majority of women simply would not give up the pursuit of beautification, even those armed with feminist theory. (And even those clearly destined to fail.)

Why is this women’s continuing plight? (Even minus financial imperatives, as women increasingly achieve economic independence from men.) Ensler trots out the usual suspects: unrealistic media images, capitalism, mothers. She also spent six years globe-trotting to 40 countries to interview other women on the subject. Lo and behold, everywhere she went, she found foreign counterparts of herself, women who loathe some part of their bodies. Much of the play consists of Ensler impersonating this Olympic village of self-abnegating women.

One problem with this brand of global feminism is how closely it resembles narcissism on a global scale: Women everywhere mirror me. Instead, Ensler should have interviewed a few anthropologists since according to Kulick and Meneley’s Fat,bodily attributes like pot bellies actually have entirely different cross-cultural meanings. Fat connotes very different things in different cultures or in subcultures like fat activism, gay male chubby-chasers, and hip hop. Fat may be a worldwide phenomenon—and increasingly so—but not everyone is neurotic about it, or they’re not neurotic in the same way.

Take the chapter by anthropologist Rebecca Popenoe, based on her fieldwork among desert Arabs in Niger. This is a society with no media influences or beauty industries, where women strive to be as fat as possible. Girls are force-fed to achieve this ideal; stretch marks are regarded as beautiful. Yet somehow this beauty norm doesn’t create the same sense of anguish that afflicts Western women striving for thinness, leading Popenoe to suggest that it’s the Western obsession with individualism and achievement that bears the blame—not media images, not a top-down backlash against feminism, as Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth has it. In Niger, failing to achieve the prevailing beauty standard isn’t a personal failure; it just means someone has bewitched you, or you have a thin constitution.

But reading Popenoe won’t reassure anyone seeking an exit route from female body anxieties. Where the Nigerois fatties and the dieting-obsessed Ensler find common ground is that all are striving for sexual attractiveness in the context of heterosexuality. The Nigerois women fatten themselves to be more desirable to Nigerois men. Women here may pant, “I’m doing it for myself” while strapped to their treadmills, but the fact is that the beauty culture is a heterosexual institution, and to the extent that women participate in its rituals, they, too, are propping up a heterosexual society and its norms. The problem for a feminist is that historically speaking such norms have worked out far less advantageously for women than for men.

The disadvantages can take rather subtle forms, though, as The Good Body itself unwittingly demonstrates, once a recurring character known as “My Partner” is introduced. As described by Ensler—rather reverently—this is the perfect man. He cooks, he adores her stomach, and he’s so enlightened that when they get in a fight while on vacation (she accuses him of calling her fat), he tells her he can’t compete with her stomach and leaves. In other words, the Partner’s dramatic function is to articulate the feminist position—which he does far more adequately than Ensler herself, turning The Good Body into a feminist play that somehow props up the most traditional of sexual positions: man on top.

If even feminist theater ends up reinforcing masculine prowess, perhaps it’s because heterosexuality requires asymmetry between the sexes. Heterosexuality always was the Achilles heel of feminism because the asymmetries involved usually took the form of adequacy for one sex, inadequacy for the other. And so things seem to remain: You may hear a lot of tough talk about empowerment and independence in women’s culture today, except you hear it from women shopping for baby-doll outfits or getting Brazilian bikini waxes and double-D cup breast implants. (“I’m doing it for myself.”)

Of course, masculinity has always been afflicted with its own bodily anxieties; it just compensates for them differently (or overcompensates). Check out Viagra sales if in doubt. Or those penis-extender spam ads. Only feminism-for-dummies defines body pathologies as a female franchise alone, especially since that just buttresses the illusion of masculine invulnerability all over again—traditional femininity via the back door.

Will femininity continue to beat down the feminist challenge? It’s been remarkably tenacious to date. Or will women keep trying to reconcile the two through conflicted enterprises such as empowerment plastic surgery and bestowing men with feminist prowess? If only internal gymnastics burned calories! Then we could all achieve flatter stomachs with far fewer hours at the gym.