Archive for Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Double standard on weight

March 15, 2005


Why, Kirstie Alley asks in her ridiculous new television show "Fat Actress," do John Goodman, Jason Alexander and the truly large James Gandolfini get starring roles and she does not?

They are "way, way fatter than I am," she sobs to her Hollywood agent, in between bites of a double cheeseburger, crumbs slipping down her ample cleavage.

The weight comparison might be debatable, but the answer is not. As the agent explains: "They're all men."

They are, indeed. And as we know, when men are fat, they are as cuddly as Santa Claus, as funny as Fat Albert, as dangerous as a Soprano. When women are fat, they are as needy and pathetic as Kirstie Alley playing herself.

The secretary of state wears a skirt, the House minority leader gave birth five times and the deciding vote on the Supreme Court once could get work only as a legal secretary. We've come a long way, but obviously not long enough to erase the huge (pun intended) disparities in the way men and women still are portrayed in the media.

"We hold women to much higher, stricter, bizarre standards when it comes to body image and body type," says Ronald Bishop, an associate professor in Drexel University's communications program.

Don't believe it? Just look at the coverage of another celebrity woman this week, and notice how in story after story of Martha Stewart's release from a five-month jail term, her looks played a leading role.

Newsweek: "After Prison, She's Thinner, Wealthier & Ready for Prime Time."

Reuters: "Looking healthy and thinner, Stewart offered coffee and doughnuts to journalists."

And she lost 20 pounds!

If and when the guys go to jail and are released, comments about their looks will be hard to find.

Still unconvinced? In a paper published last September in the Journal of Communication Inquiry, Bishop compared the media coverage of two prominent people who underwent gastric bypass surgery to end their lifelong struggles with obesity. When "Today Show" weatherman Al Roker went under the knife in 2002, Bishop observed, he was lauded for losing weight so that he could fulfill a promise to his dying father and live longer to be there for his wife and children.

How manly. How heroic. How different from the coverage three years earlier of singer Carnie Wilson's surgery for the same problem.

"The media covered her as a spectacle rather than someone trying to fix something in her life," Bishop noticed. "And afterward, her body still wasn't considered good enough."

This leads Bishop -- a man, let's remember -- to conclude: "Seems like women can't get a break."

Don't cry too many tears for the aforementioned celebrities, who voluntarily thrust themselves into the spotlight. No, the reason to be concerned about these unrealistic images and their cultural impact is that they can harm those who struggle with health-threatening obsessions over weight and appearance.

The media are not the direct causes of the serious eating disorders that affect as many as 10 million women and 1 million men in this country. But they contribute mightily to a national preoccupation that associates thinness with beauty, wealth and success.

If turnabout were fair play, we'd next see Jason Alexander star in "Fat Actor" and James Gandolfini check into the West Virginia prison that did so much for dear Martha. Just spare us the stories of how good he looks when he's finally set free.

Jane R. Eisner is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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