Apr 25, 2010

On Hating Women's Bodies -- Updated

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

As a personal trainer on "The Biggest Loser," Jillian Michaels prides herself on being able to get anyone into shape. Anyone, that is, except herself should she ever have a baby. Michaels has created a bit of stir by dissing pregnancy in an interview with Women's Health.

"I'm going to adopt. I can't handle doing that to my body," she told the magazine. "Also, when you rescue something, it's like rescuing a part of yourself."

Michaels, who is now 5'2" and 120 pounds of muscle, was overweight as a teen. She said she once weighed 175 pounds but lost the extra weight with martial arts, which she has practiced for 20 years. She is currently embroiled in a lawsuit over the efficacy of her diet pills.

Sure. Let some other gal wreck her figure so that Michaels can experience the joys of motherhood.

There is so much wrong with this it's hard to know where to begin. Aside from what it says about her skills as a personal trainer that she doesn't think she can get back into shape, what kind of message is she sending to women and girls everywhere about priorities? There are lots of very legitimate reasons to choose not to have children. But fear over marring your perfect figure? Really? I wonder what her plan is to defy gravity and the hands of time. Mother nature always wins out.

I've always found Michaels's body language and affect troubling. She's always pointing, grasping, pulling, or folding her arms across her chest. There's an aggressive intensity and defensiveness to her demeanor that makes me uncomfortable. Now, she's put her neurosis on full display. It seems pretty clear that she's still wrestling with some "chubby kid" insecurities.

For someone whose career is all about helping other women take mastery over one area of their lives, this was a foolish insult to a large chunk of her target market: Mothers. The implicit message is that if you do this thing that a woman's body is uniquely able to do, you'll ruin that body. It's a distorted idea of beauty that values cosmetic perfection over an amazing act of creation.

Michaels's comments underscore a deeply rooted sexism that has long been apparent in the fitness industry. Much of it runs counter to health and wellness. Anorexia and bulimia are endemic among fitness buffs. There is an attitude that the natural inclinations of the body are an enemy to be tamed into a thoroughly unrealistic image of physical perfection. It's an attitude that has also begun to take its toll on men, but women are still the primary targets of multiple industries devoted to making us feel like we need to change ourselves to be worthy. And we're just never good enough. Poor women. Our natural curves are so hard to discipline and subdue.

But real women do have curves and more women look like the size 16 Lane Bryant model who was deemed too hot for prime time, than the size 2 lingerie models that usually grace our TV screens.

While Victoria's Secret Angels are clearly fine to prance around the networks, the commercial for Lane Bryant's new lingerie line has been turned down. The company is pissed — and it's openly saying so.

According to Lane Bryant, the networks took issue with the the amount of cleavage in the ad. Well, yes, a fuller figured woman does have more cleavage, but the ad actually shows less skin and is less racy than a typical Victoria's Secret ad. More to the point, it shows much less skin than "Dancing With the Stars," the show for which Lane Bryant made the ad buy. It sure does look like garden variety sizism. But there is an undercurrent of fear, yes fear, of the sensuality of a full figured woman.

If Lane Bryant's account of events is accurate, it would confirm suspicions that this is about the belief that larger women are somehow hypersexual, even as their bodies are less valued in pop cultural imagery. A woman bigger than a size 0 admiring her own body and apparently going off to do something hot with it? Now that's a scandal.

In other words, the problem isn't that a more ample woman isn't sexy. It's that she is.

What is it about a woman's body in it's natural state, curvaceous and capable of reproduction, that is so threatening? Why do the fashion industry, the fitness industry, and the diet industry, seem so intent on reshaping us into boyish slimness, with the periodic addition of disproportionate, fake boobs. I have long suspected that it has to do with a fear of genuine feminine power and of a need dominate and diminish it. It's like we're being constantly erased; our bodies, our self-esteem, our reproductive freedom, our fully realized sexuality.

Ironically, classical ideals of beauty are based in the fundamental principle of creation; the golden mean or phi ratio. For the ancient Greeks the phi ratio governed art and architecture. Notably the Parthenon is a celebration of the phi ratio.

Pythagoras (560-480 BC), the Greek geometer, was especially interested in the Golden Section, and proved that it was the basis for the proportions of the human figure. He showed that the human body is built with each part in a definite Golden Proportion to all the other parts. Pythagoras' discoveries of the proportions of the human figure had a tremendous effect on Greek art. Every part of their major buildings, down to the smallest detail of decoration, was constructed upon this proportion.

The Parthenon was perhaps the best example of a mathematical approach to art.

The Parthenon is the temple of Athena Parthenos or Virgin Athena. It also forms the word root for parthenogenesis or virgin birth. As discussed here, this idea of woman as the divine creatrix, capable of generating life on her own, vastly predates the Madonna. As women we have a direct connection to this vortex of creation through the womb. We are living, breathing incubators of creation. That divine creation expresses itself through the coils of the kundalini (Shakti) and ureus (Wadjet) serpents, the spirals of the triple goddess, and through the sensuous curves and natural proportions of our bodies.

The uproar over Jillian Michaels's comments has prompted this statement on her Facebook page.

“There is a misunderstanding circulating in the press on my personal choice to not get pregnant. I think that pregnancy is admirable and selfless. For myself, I have remnant body issues left over from childhood which leads me to make adoption my personal choice down the road.” She later wrote, “I NEVER said I was anti pregnancy or that pregnancy ruins a body. I said that "I can't put my body through it". There are emotional issues and physical LIMITATIONS that have resulted in that conclusion- some I have discussed publicly and some I haven’t.”

If I haven't been clear, I think Michaels is every bit as much a victim of psychological terrorism over body image as she is a perpetuator of those damaging ideas. Basically, what she's saying is that she  knows her perceptions are distorted. Does that really make her a good arbiter of what is good for other people's bodies?

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