I’m a feminist.
I could go ahead and itemize every reason why, but in short: I dedicated my entire undergraduate thesis to analyzing feminist critique of mainstream women’s magazines. I peruse feminist blogs during nearly every idle moment of my day. When I hear a friend react to a photo of an impossibly slender celebrity, I’m the first to chime in: “It’s not real! It’s a farce! She’s a victim of Photoshop!”
I know as well as any other savvy and feminist consumer of media that the photos we see of famous people are often works of fiction. I know that there are pop stars with pores and celebrities with cellulite. I know that they have flaws, even if they have the time and money to commit to seven-hour daily training sessions in their fully loaded home gyms.
But here’s what troubles me: Despite how well I know this (and trust me, after writing that thesis, I know it well), I can’t stop comparing myself to photos of thin and subjectively “perfect” women, doctored or otherwise.
Let me rewind and explain why I’m even writing about this. It all began with Ke$ha.
Last week, photos came out of the arti$t at the beach. Call me ignorant, but I was shocked to learn that Ke$ha’s body isn’t model-size. Don’t misunderstand me — she’s not fat — but she’s unquestionably Not Model Size.
As one might imagine, the photos drew in a slew of vicious comments on Web sites like TMZ (if those are even worth considering, because seriously, who comments on TMZ?).
The language TMZ used to describe the photos wasn’t much better than what the site’s commenters had to say. As TMZ put it, in a not-so-subtle pun: “The 24-year-old has let herself go two-pieces.” (There’s also been a lot of debate about whether or not that high-waisted black bikini did Ke$ha’s figure any favors, but that’s beyond the point. I’m interested in her body shape, not her fashion choices).
Before I saw those photos, I falsely assumed that Ke$ha was stick-thin, meaning a size two or less. Because that’s just the way pop stars are supposed to be! So after I got past my initial shock, a new feeling came over me: confused relief.
In some perverse way, I felt like my own body was validated by Ke$ha’s less-than-rock-hard physique. Her shape, to me, is far more relatable than Lady Gaga’s petite, svelte bod. I felt a sense of affirmation upon seeing candid photos of a woman close to my age, who has what I’d call a sexy image in the media and in her music, who didn’t immediately inspire the usual allergic reaction I have to images a young, sexy, skinny starlet — which is to get my ass on a treadmill and commence a liquid diet. And no, that is not hyperbole. I’ve done things like that more times than I’m proud to admit, purely out of self loathing that started with comparing myself to other women.
This feeling of validation after seeing Ke$ha’s beach body continues to confound me, because that certainly wasn’t the first time I saw a female celebrity with what I’ll call a “normal” body for the purpose of this piece (although I realize there is no such thing as a “normal” body; Ke$ha’s body is one more commonly found in nature , i.e. the real world, and not exclusively in Hollywood).
I distinctly recall Britney Spears’ transition from teensy-tiny teeny bopper to her post-baby KFed figure. I remember tabloids filled with beach photos of Tyra Banks and Jennifer Love Hewitt after the two had gained weight — not that either woman was ever overweight, but still, their weight gain was evident. Their fans and the media reacted critically, regardless of the fact that both Tyra and Jennifer still had body shapes that many women aspire to attain.
Seeing those celebrities’ weight gain didn’t make me feel any better about my own body. Instead, it confirmed to me that their bigger bodies were unacceptable: Lady celebs who are already thin are expected to stay that way. Never mind if they’ve had a baby, retired from modeling or simply decided to rejoin the human race and eat more than 1,000 calories a day.
The same goes for celebrities who became famous with more buxom bodies. Mo’nique, Kirstie Alley, Whitney from America’s Next Top Model (is she actually famous?); they made it to the top with the figures they already had, but even that couldn’t make me feel more confident about embracing my own “imperfect” body. It only endorsed the idea that being curvy means being big — or, more specifically, it means “plus size.”
When Glamour famously published a photo of a “plus-size” model in 2009, I wanted to be thrilled. I wanted to praise the magazine for representing a woman who was bigger than the sample size. But when I saw the model, I thought, “This is plus size? This tall, blonde girl with a body like mine is plus-size?”
And that’s where it gets tricky for me. I’ve never considered myself a plus-size girl, and I’ve never worn a plus size, even as my weight over the years since high school has fluctuated significantly. But still, my body doesn’t look like the body I “should” have. The body I’ve always wanted to have. The type of tight, slight body that I can usually ignore when I see it digitally whittled down on the cover of Vogue, but the type that’s much harder to disregard when the “real women” in fitness magazines or at the gym have somehow attained it themselves. Instead, my body looks much more like that of the alleged “plus-size” model who up until that photo in Glamour, I simply would have viewed as normal. Not big, and certainly not plus-size.
So to bring this back on point and back to feminism: It’s easy enough, as an educated media consumer and a feminist, to brush off an illusion. I’m not upset that I’ll never look like Barbie, because her proportions only exist in some sick Mattel fantasy.
But when impossible (or improbable) body shapes are presented beneath a veneer of fitness and diet tips (or a cloak of “reality”), they become much harder to ignore. Interestingly, a recent study at Ohio State University shows that the difference in editorial context (fashion vs. fitness) influences the way women perceive those idealized body types; I may be able to disregard a touched-up model on the cover of Vogue, but when Women’s Health shows me the same photo and explains what I can do to look like her through diet and exercise, I suddenly feel like my imperfect body is my fault. Because hey, it’s totally feasible that with some light walking for 30 minutes a day and a healthy diet, I’ll have the body of a triathlete.
If I could, I’d write something conclusive here. Maybe something about how now that I recognize the ways that these photos affect me (in spite of my feminist sensibilities), I won’t allow them to affect me anymore. But let’s face it — that’s unlikely.
People who don’t understand feminism often assume that a woman who calls herself a feminist is so self-assured that she’s completely unfazed by criticism or insecurity. Of course, that’s not true — when I complained to one of my male friends about needing more time to get ready on a Friday night, he said (innocently enough): “You’re a feminist, why do you care how you look?”
I felt ashamed of myself as a feminist when I realized how photos of female celebrities influence my self image, whether I’m gazing at a reassuring photo of Ke$ha or even a photo of a dainty drag queen that makes me wonder, “God, if a man looks that good and thin as a woman, why can’t I?.”
We can, and we should, continue educating women about how our bodies are digitally mangled in magazines and tabloids. Jezebel has already taken on the role of chief Photoshop watchdog. But even for some of us who have seen all the proof that most women aren’t shaped like strands of angel-hair pasta, it isn’t always enough.
Even when women gain fame with more meat on their bones than LiLo, they’re still “plus-size,” and that’s still a stigma. I know that being emaciated is not the norm, and nor should it be, but that knowledge doesn’t quash my own desire to lose weight, gain visible abs and look like a lady in a fitness mag.
In the meantime, I’m making an effort to spend less time wallowing in self loathing every time I feel a tinge of body insecurity, or every time a beautiful, normal-size girl is labeled “plus-size.” I can’t erase all of my insecurities or anyone else’s, but I’ll depart with the wise words of my girl Ke$ha: We R Who We R. So let’s appreciate R selves as much as we can.