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Archive for Thursday, March 10, 2005

Our battle with our bodies

March 10, 2005

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— You have to admit that a show named "Fat Actress" is a headline writer's dream. The Showtime docu-comedy that premiered Monday was heralded with enough puns to fill the all-you-can-eat buffet at the copy desk.

There were the headlines announcing that Kirstie Alley "throws her weight around," and that "girth turns to mirth," and that the show was "worth the weight," and you get the idea. The idea being that Alley, former babe of "Cheers" fame, was going to take on and send up Hollywood, the land where being a fat actress is an oxymoron.

It's not exactly a news bulletin that the deadliest sin in Hollywood is gluttony and the greatest moral flaw is cellulite. Remember the classic line about the three ages of women in Hollywood: Babe, District Attorney, and "Driving Miss Daisy"? There are only two weights: skeletal Babe and unemployable Blubber.

When Gwyneth Paltrow pulled on a fat suit for "Shallow Hal," she was considered braver than The Rock as his own stuntman. When Renee Zellweger gained 20 pounds for "Bridget Jones's Diary," she got as many gasps as a method actor taking heroin for "Trainspotting."

Indeed back when Alley herself tried out for "Fatal Attraction," at 5-feet-8 and 125 pounds, she was told to lose weight. When she topped 200 pounds, the auditions stopped.

The delicious part of "Fat Actress" is her revenge on the fatparazzi. The tabloids had stalked her, chronicling her weight and making her the big butt of the joke. Then she decided to be the jokester. When no one bought the pitch, Alley sent the network president two boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts with a note that said, "Maybe you're not fat enough to get it. Have a doughnut."

He bit.

This ribald and irresistible show is more than a case study in the double standard of fat. It's also a study in the cultural and personal ambivalence of a woman who is both brazen and vulnerable, sassy and self-loathing, and trapped between the desire to accept her weight and lose it.

But more than anything else, "Fat Actress" puts a star's body at the center of the plot. And that's where we are these days.

On Broadway we had a play about a doomed relationship named "Fat Pig." Eve Ensler, author of "The Vagina Monologues," turned her sights to the bad belly in "The Good Body."

Meanwhile, television is full of "Extreme Makeovers" and Us Weekly ranks the "Best Body Makeovers" from J.Lo to Kate Winslet. At the same time, the thinparazzi track the eating disorder of Mary-Kate Olsen while The New York Times describes her and her twin sister as role models for the cool look of skinny girls in baggy clothes.

We are no longer surprised when the narrative of a celebrity's life turns out to be divided into the chapters of her changing body. It's the norm. And it's the norm for any number of non-celebrities to judge the stars and themselves by the numbers.

The female redemption stories are equally weighted. Sarah Ferguson, "The Duchess of Pork," was recycled from the trash heap of fame to be a spokeswoman for Weight Watchers. Anna Nicole Smith now speaks for TrimSpa. How many of Martha's comeback stories focused on jail as a weight loss opportunity?

The most predictable if disappointing part of Kirstie Alley's return is that the actress who ranted against the offer to do a Jenny Craig commercial in her comedy show, accepted the gig in her real life. And lest Alley think she beat the tabloids, the current National Enquirer reports that she reran the first Showtime episode as a negative reinforcement to hate herself down 20 pounds.

After all these years, after all the books and talk shows and think tanks, magazine pieces and Ph.D. theses about women, one thing hasn't changed very much. It's the overwhelming power of the scale on the floor and mirror on the wall and the snicker in the hallway.

I remember back when Ellen Malcolm, the founder of Emily's List, used to do fund raising by asking women to add up the cost of the clothes on their backs and write a check for that amount to a female candidate. I have this fantasy of collecting all the time women devote to thinking about our weight and then using it to learn Mandarin, cure cancer and take over the entertainment business.

As for feisty, funny, ego and id Alley, it's possible she's created a permanent gig. The star may be 180 pounds and losing, but she's 54 years old and gaining. If she gets down to fighting weight, the next target is the fate of older actresses. We'll call that one "Slim Pickings."

-- Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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