During one of my yo-yoing escapades thirty-four years ago, Est, my sister-in-law, who hadn't seen me in the five months it took me to shave off sixty-six pounds (I went from 188 to 122) exclaimed when she saw me, "You look like you are rich!" The remark confused me; but then I had been living upstate in Albany for eleven years and the place was fifteen years behind the times. It may be better now with globalization and the internet, but everything upstate from fashion trends to cultural attitudes seems to move slowly, retro-throwbacks to a softer, sweeter, adolescent age. Anyway, Est's comment thrilled me. I was accustomed to perceiving myself as ungainly, unfashionable and unappealing. "Rich" was an excellent descriptor for my "new" selfhood at 122 pounds. Too bad I couldn't maintain the identity or the weight.
The next time I heard a similar remark I was 175 pounds, fifteen years later, after having yo-yoed four times. I was on another slide toward thinner when a teacher colleague who was naturally thin but was pregnant commented, "Well, you can't be too rich or too thin." Again, the equation between wealth and uber thinness! I was annoyed and offended. I had struggled to lose twenty-five pounds and I was obviously still a fatty and the thought that "regardless of how much weight I lost I would never be thin enough" did not endear me to my colleague or my situation. I thought to myself then, what is this cultural idea that wealth and weight are correlated?
Apparently, the concept has been around for centuries. When food sources were scarce, oftentimes the wealthy and the merchant class were the only ones that had access to good food. The poor starved. Thus, it was fashionable to appear plump, overweight, heavy as a sign of economic status, security and prosperity. If you appeared attenuated, chances are you were from the lower classes, scratching around for your next meal. Rosy cheeks were a sign of health and well being; in the eighteen hundreds, even men at court wore make-up to appear robust, healthy and full "of money."
What a reversal of fortune! The situation has radically undergone a 180 degree turnaround. In this century there is an abundant food supply and Americans have access to it, regardless of whether they eat healthily or not. Now, the trend is to deny oneself the foods once indulged in to prove oneself superior to everyone else. That is the jist of any century; proving the superiority of the ruling elites who in fashion and social trends distance themselves as far as possible from the lower classes.
The irony is that once again, women get the short shrift. Three centuries ago, it was pleasurable to be able to eat sumptuous meals, satisfying one's hunger with impunity; you were encouraged to gain weight to appear rich. Now wealthy women must tighten their belts, forgo gustatory pleasures and exact a lifetime of hunger pangs to accommodate updated versions of beauty and glamor which only lionize gaunt looks, high, bone protruding cheeks and sharply chiseled stick bodies.
"You can never be too rich or too thin." This phrase governs the lives of many wealthy socialites who, according to Paul Campos in The Obesity Myth, are anorexic, and struggle to appear as thin as media celebrities and Haute Couture runway models (many of whom are BMI Underweight). But the fact remains that women who are uber thin, starve themselves so that they will not appear fat. All too well they understand the equation of obesity to poverty, an equation that reeks with morbidity, mortality and obscurity. To thrive, they must repudiate fat. They must adhere to rigid standards in order to dominate in their socio-economic class. They must be what they are, look what they are, act what they are to fulfill their identities, their marriage vows, their destinies. Scrawny scarecrows by the standards of yesteryear! Someone is having a laugh, but I don't think it's the scrawny scarecrow socialites who must struggle to "make weight."
Of course, this ethos sets a standard for the rest of us. BUT IT ISN'T WORKING!!! America is resistant, that is middle and lower class American women are resistant. For middle upper class American women, like those appearing on "The Real Housewives of...." series, the ethic is burgeoning. It is also burgeoning for young golddiggers who intend to marry a "wealthy" man. (Well, ladies, just make sure your body is BMI Underweight. Wealthy men don't like heavy or obese women, except maybe as mistresses, or girlfriends in addition to their wives and mistresses. You'll have to get in line.) While it may be status for wealthy women to be uber thin, it is status for wealthy men to have in addition to their Ivy League educated wives, a panoply of mistresses and girlfriends. When you're wealthy, you can have your cake and eat it too, except if you're a woman.
Cynical? Can't you think of any films that reinforce these cultural assumptions? Now? How about real life: politicians recently making the news for their philanderings while sporting their perfect wives on their arms (until the flames of public exposure became too hot for them and they pursued divorce)? While the woman is damaged, her X-man may be excoriated and ridiculed for a season, but he always comes out of it with another woman ready to take the wife's place, regardless of his emotionally niggardly ways and pathetic prior history. And why oh why do I get the feeling with every public exposure of these deceitful, lascivious rakes, secretly, men are back-slapping each other and whipping the air with the "thumbs up" sign.
You can't be too rich or too thin? For whom?
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