I like to eat, and I don't like to move.
That is why, roughly one year ago, I was sixty pounds heavier than I am today. For this, I have no one and nothing to blame but myself. In a nation plagued by a worsening obesity epidemic, excuses have become as common as credit card debt, which is why I make a conscious effort to avoid joining the chorus of people blaming their corpulence on elusive "glandular disorders" or needing to "eat to dull the pain." While I don't deny that problems such as these indeed exist, they are also overly used as excuses. That's why I own that my past weight problems were due to my own poor discipline and lifestyle choices, a fact I continue to keep in mind as I struggle to lose the lingering twenty or so extra pounds today.
What I've also grown to realize, however, is that there is one way in which I am quite lucky. After taking a close look at contemporary culture, it has been impossible for me to avoid the observation that if one has to live as an overweight person, it is far easier to do so as a man than as a woman.
Take Jessica Simpson. Given my complete unfamiliarity with her oeuvre (in music or reality television), my chief exposure to Simpson comes from the random stories I occasionally encounter when browsing through Google News. Such was the case this week, when I found myself greeted by a series of articles sporting pictures of an extremely attractive Simpson followed, with jarring incongruity, by melodramatic proclamations about her weight loss struggles.
Some of these came from the expected sources, such as The National Enquirer's "Jessica Simpson Post-Baby Weight Hell" and TMZ's "Jessica Simpson: Professional Fat Person." Others appeared in ostensibly reputable outlets, such as The Huffington Post, which devoted an entire piece to the singer being spotted exercising in Los Angeles, one that mentioned how she "wisely lined up a deal with Weight Watchers months before even giving birth to her little girl."
This reminded me of a comedy skit I saw a couple years ago on Will Ferrell's comedy website Funny or Die. In it, two young men at a beach pretend that they're drowning so a "perfect 10" lifeguard can come and give them mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The punchline was that when the lifeguard finally showed up (gamely played by former Baywatch starlet Nicole Eggert), the men were so disgusted with her "fat" physique that they desperately tried to shoo her away. While they don't go unpunished for their shallowness (the poetic justice served to them at the end is mildly amusing, albeit predictable), the video clip still manages to send the undeniable message that women who let themselves go will see their value diminish accordingly. This is made all the more disturbing by the fact that the "fat" version of Eggert comes across as merely flabby more than anything else.
At the core of all of this is a very serious social problem: In America, a woman's intrinsic value is far too often measured primarily by her appearance.
This isn't to say that the feminist movement hasn't done wonders in improving the economic, political, and cultural circumstances of American women. From the days of Susan B. Anthony and the early suffragettes to Second Wave leaders like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, we have come a long way as a country, breaking down numerous sexist barriers in our professional and social life. Nevertheless, it is foolish to look at the progress that has been made and use that as an excuse for arguing that all of the necessary work has been done. This is especially true in our pop culture, where blatant and subtle forms of sexism are rampant. From the rampant denigration of women in music videos and the sexualization of female roles in film and television to the fact that stories with female protagonists are almost always perceived as targeted primarily toward women (as opposed to those that center around male characters, which due to the use of male as "generic" are more likely to have universal demographic appeal), the media both contributes to and reinforces the perception that women are primarily defined by their gender.
This, in turn, far too often causes them to be valued based on their sexual desirability, which centers heavily around their physical appearance. That is why Jessica Simpson is hardly the first female celebrity whose weight has become headline news. Within the last few years, similar stories have been written about figures including Kirstie Alley, Kelly Clarkson, Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Tyra Banks, and Britney Spears, to name only the ones who immediately come to my mind (i.e., those I've seen on the covers of tabloids and gossip magazines at my supermarket). While one might argue that this is merely reflective of society's general obsession with our nation's weight problems, that notion doesn't explain the obsessiveness with which we pick over the bodies of famous women who have gained a few pounds. Indeed, it also doesn't explain why male celebrities who gain weight, though certainly ridiculed to an extent, are not subjected to nearly as harsh a spotlight as their female counterparts. Even the notion that health is the main concern doesn't hold up when one takes into account that celebrities who are underweight aren't derided nearly as much as those who (often temporarily) find themselves on the other end of the spectrum. In the end, the reason these women receive such a disproportionate amount of attention is that their perceived value as female celebrities is conflated with their physical attractiveness. Because women who are overweight are considered less attractive, the prospect of someone rich and/or famous losing her looks plays right into our society's love of watching influential people fall from grace.
If there is anything about this trend more striking than the underlying sexism, it is the sheer cruelty of it all. In light of how deeply normal women fret over their appearance when in the privacy of their own homes, it is unimaginable how much more excruciating that internal pain must be when it is turned into national news. There must be a humiliating sense of dehumanization, disempowerment, and objectification in the ordeal that borders on being downright torturous. That this is merely a magnification of what everyday women encounter daily only makes the realization that much more sobering. When I was at my heaviest, my ordeals were never that terrible precisely because I was lucky enough to be a fat man instead of a fat woman. Until this fact changes - until both genders are allowed to view weight gain as being primarily a health issue, with the aesthetic implications of obesity being limited only to their personal lives rather than to any greater sense about their social value - feminism will have one more front on which it needs to fight.