I strongly believe that women's preoccupation with weight goes far beyond fulfilling an impossible standard of beauty. Our obsession with thinness is largely intertwined with the amount of space women are expected and "allowed" to take up in society, both physically and mentally. I came back to this thought today as I waited for a client in the lobby the substance abuse clinic where i work. I sat on the end of the bench in the waiting area as three men walked into the clinic. They continued talking to each other and two sat on the bench next to me while one remained standing. I moved as far to the side of the bench as i could and sat with my legs crossed and arms to my sides. The man next to me sat down and stretched his arms up and placed them on the top of the bench, making himself as wide as possible. There were other dynamics at play here such as status for example, because i am staff and they are clients, but i felt uncomfortable because this man almost had his arm around me... so i moved. As i stood by the wall i thought about space and just how much of it women are expected to take up, and give up, based on the circumstance.
None of us are new to the idea that advertising sells more than the products illustrated. Advertising and media also sell values and ideals that we're expected to buy into. For women, there is no greater concept sold with products than thinness. The video below is a short segment from Jean Kilbourne's lecture series about advertising and the obsession with weight and dieting. What struck me most about it was her discussion of a Virginia Slims ad that reads: "if i ran the world calories wouldn't count." But of course she doesn't run the world, and calories "do" count so she should grab a cigarette instead of eating. This ad blatantly instructs women to SMOKE instead of EAT. Women shouldn't eat, they should diet, they should take up as little space as possible, the thinner the better... but what does "the thinner the better really mean?"
The message of "the thinner the better" is an extremely pervasive attempt for women to become as thin and small as possible and thus take up as little space in the world as they can. And this message isn't just taught to us by mainstream media. It's taught in etiquette classes across the country. Women are instructed to sit gracefully with their legs crossed while men are usually found sprawled out, taking up as much space as they can on the chair. Men even reach their arms out when sitting, and make their frame as large as they can to take up as much space as possible. Women keep their arms at their sides, or crossed on their lap. Again, women are supposed to take up as little space in the world as they possibly can, be it with actions or their physical appearance.
I have seen a trend recently in advertisements depicting women with muscle and strength. It's about time women are shown kicking ass, lifting weights, and using their bodies in ways we haven't seen in mainstream media in the past. The obsession with thinness goes beyond weight and extends to women's place in the world and women's right to use 50% of the space in our environment.
What do you do to take up space? To make sure you are a known force in the world? Is this something you've ever considered or acted on?
My example may not be life changing but it's one i'll share with you: I love fall for many reasons, but one of the biggest is because i get the chance to feel like i exist in the universe while i walk outside. When i was younger (ok who am i kidding, i do it now, too) i deliberately step on the dry leaves on the ground and celebrate internally as each one goes "CRUNCH." I feel like my presence was known in the world with each leaf i squash. The noiser the better. I love that CRUNCH feel and love putting a sound to my walking through the world.
UPDATE: I posted this in the Feministing Community section, where there is currently a lot of discussion, feel free to add to it there, or here in comments :)