…well, I ain’t down with that!”
Maybe you don’t remember Sir Mixalot’s quintessential curvy-girls anthem, “Baby Got Back.” But I do. Growing up, I was sandwiched between skinny and fat in that gray area people called “sturdy” or “thick,” and I memorized every last lyric to this fat-bottom tribute because I knew I’d never look like those magazine models, and I assumed that beauty centered on some fixed, universal standard that I would never meet. Then, in 2008, I moved to Ghana, West Africa and my perspective changed completely.
In Ghana, a place where food can be scarce and abs are chiseled by years of manual labor, roundness has become the sought-after ideal. Women don’t compliment each other on their weight loss. Quite the opposite: “Have you put on weight? You are looking so good these days!” I can’t tell you how many times my friend Judy, a nurse I worked with at a clinic in Ghana, greeted me with “You are looking nice and fat today.” Now, I have spent years nourishing a healthy body image, but “nice and fat” still feels like an oxymoron.
Women in Ghana are given images of voluptuous role-models: movie stars, singers, actors, even newscasters are all soft, curvy women. My Ghanaian friend, Freda, has been desperate to gain weight since I met her. With the same slavish dedication that American women follow diet regimens, Freda inhales starchy food and avoids physical activity. She laughs when I tell her that, in America, tall thin women like her are idolized for their beauty. I remember changing clothes in front of Freda once, and she pointed feverishly at my upper thighs. “Oh my gosh! You have it! You have the dimples in your legs. I wish my thighs had dimples; men love it!” What?? What kind of twilight zone had I fallen into, where cellulite inspired envy?
The things I hated most about myself were prized in Ghana. My beauty was in my squishy belly and my cellulite thighs. So, Cosmo says I’m fat….so what?? In Ghana, fat is beautiful. But in the U.S. fat is a problem, just like crow’s feet and gray hair. Like pubic hair and pimples. Like small breasts and large labia (Oh yeah, I went there—female genital cosmetic surgeries are among the fastest growing surgeries in the U.S. Apparently, even our labia can be too “fat.” Read more here). So, Cosmo says I’m fat….who decided that fat was bad??
At last weekend’s screening of the documentary Miss Representation, I got my answer. In a capitalist society, corporations need us to feel uncomfortable about ourselves so that we will be compelled to buy their products, which promise to “fix” us. In other words, the more I think I’m fat and the more that fat = bad, the more likely I am to buy this magazine that provides the ultimate fat-blasting workout, and the more likely I am to buy the cellulite cream and appetite suppressants Cosmo advertises. And all of that adds up to more money. For Cosmo. For the diet industry. For the cellulite cream company.
And me—what do I get? Smooth thighs and a bad case of the jitters? An underlying feeling of inadequacy?
This isn’t news to many of you. We have classes on feminism and media, advertising and marketing, and social psychology. We know how the media objectifies women and creates impossible ideals to fuel the bottom lines of corporate machines. We talk about how women are beautiful at any size and that what matters is our inner beauty: our minds, our creativity, our spiritual core, blah blah blah. We know all the buzz words. And yet, we continue to participate in this madness. By buying the magazines and the creams. By blasting Britney for looking like a “hot mess” in a tabloid photo. By gabbing about so-and-so’s freshman 15 and worshiping so-and-so’s perfect abs. By saying we’ve been “good” for eating a salad over pizza or “bad” for indulging in a cookie at Lenoir. By telling ourselves, whenever we look in the mirror, that we are too fat/thin/ pale/dark/ short/tall/ curvy/boyish/ ugly/cute/ big/small.
By engaging in these behaviors, we perpetuate a culture that tells us that what we look like is wrong. And that’s a lie. As much as I adore Sir Mixalot for helping me through my teenage body-angst, I recognize now that “Baby Got Back” objectifies women just like Cosmo does. It asserts that a woman’s body is her best asset and that only curvy girls need apply. It leaves out the slender and cellulite-free. Like my friend, Freda. The truth is, there is nothing inherently wrong with our bodies, and what we look like is not the same as who we are. I repeat: WHAT WE LOOK LIKE IS NOT THE SAME AS WHO WE ARE.
So, the next time Cosmo says you’re fat, ask yourself:
- What does Cosmo mean by fat? Healthy? Curvy?
- What are they trying to sell me?
- When I look in the mirror, what do I see?
- How do others see me? (Ask them!)
- Why do I care what this article says about my thighs/stomach/weight/skin?
- Why the hell am I reading Cosmo anyway—where’s my Kindle?
And if you’ve already had enough of the Cosmo-says-I’m-fat message, go ahead and channel your inner rap star and tell the world “I ain’t down with that!” Check out these sites for more ways to promote healthy body image: