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 slate review makes it sound dry as hell, but it’s not. You can’t help but alternate between chortling and anger at the absurdity.
Take the essay on Argentianian middle class women. Their obsession with fat makes the US look tame - endless plastic surgery, diet pills that make you leak fat out your ass - and the leak is a moment of triumph! The tiny middle class there (something like 80% of the population is poor) lives in terror of falling into the underclass and diverts that into an obsession with whitening treatments and weight loss as a salve to convince themselves they’ve made it. The author spends a good five pages dissecting a single television ad for a sugar substitute to help you lose weight. Boring, whatever - except that everything in the ad that’s good and holy is white, white, white. White teeth, white cups, white tables, white shirts; it’s a klan weight loss rally wrapped around selling fake sugar.
Or the Swedish high school girls and their pecking order. Their lives are a 24/7 bitch session about how fat they all are, it’s used for bonding and reinforcing the norms, yeah yeah, whatever, right? The whole essay leads up to the devastating observation that only skinny girls are allowed to talk like this. Fat girls have to keep their damn mouths shut; if they talk about how they’re fat and need to loose weight, or join in the “oh we’re both so fat lets good lose weight at the gym” back-and-forth, it’s a social nuclear weapon - ostracization from the group is immediate. The worst possible insult is to talk like this either as or to someone who’s actually not rail-thin - for god’s sake, it might be catching then!
Also included: Hawaiian Spam culture, Portuguese women who achieve underground sainthood by eating nothing but the eucharist for decades, an examination of Lard (the pig fat) pride in Italy, the mechanics of desire in gay chubby porn, fat activists who demonstrate by accosting strangers on the street and demanding an answer to the question “Am I fat?”, Seattleites who get coffee with non-fat milk and then put whipped cream on top, the rapper translation of enormous size into provider ability and street cred, and the Peruvian conspiracy theory that rich first worlders are hiring people to literally stab them with needles and suck out their body fat for sale.
Fucking awesome, I tell you.