Thursday, November 17, 2005

On the fat suit: fall's new hot trend

Okay, so Katie Couric must have been wicked pissed when she saw that Entertainment Tonight had scooped them on their newest make-America-aware ploy: dress a skinny chick up in a fat suit and put it on TV.

I won't even go into how insulting and patronizing it must be for a heavy person to watch 125-pound Vanessa Minnillo shuck her fat suit and say, "I had no idea how hard it is to be fat! People, like, stare at you. I have so much sympathy for fat people now. I'm so glad I'm skinny again." I just wanted to address the insane lack of self-awareness apparent in the Today Show's model-turned-fat-girl, who said, "I just had no idea that the world is so superficial, that people would treat me that differently because of the way I looked."

My educational moment of the day: Buttercup, you are a model. Maybe the agency didn't tell you this when you signed up, but people hire you based on the way you look. This is coming from one of the people responsible for hiring people like you: do you honestly think we're looking at your abilities? Your ability to fit into the samples, sure. Your ability to pose is good, and your ability to look sultry, happy, angry or bored on command. Stylists aren't looking to hire smart girls. Why? Smart girls tend to have ideas, which is bad. We like our models just smart enough to follow instructions without asking a lot of questions. So yeah, you're treated differently because of the way you look.

And That's One to Grow On.

I'm still confused, though, as to how these exercises in temporary obesity are supposed to help people. Katie's version was part of a series called "How Does It Feel?" where they put people in sinking cars or houses aflame so they know what it feels like. Apparently, their research didn't reach deeply enough to learn that a good two-thirds of Americans already know what it feels like to be overweight. It doesn't even really help in terms of self-awareness; Vanessa Minnillo did make a connection between the discrimination she experienced during her fatness and the discrimination she experienced as a racial minority growing up, but the Today Show's model really just seemed to learn that she, like, totally prefers being skinny. It is, it would seem, bitchin'.

Could it be that the road to acceptance and sympathy (and I'm not saying that someone at an unhealthy weight shouldn't work to lose or gain to a healthy weight, but there's no need to be mean about it) might just be paved with more than a waif in a bulky, awkward fat suit? I kept holding out for this deeper message, something about the growing obesity epidemic and ways to address it, or size discrimination, or even dressing to flatter your shape or something. But all we got was cute lil' Vanessa saying that she got hit on when she was skinny but not when she was fat. Wow. Let me find a suitable container for my shock.

I guess another thing that bugged me was the fact that, as a quasi-respectable news personality, Katie Couric should have known better. Sure, she's no Peter Jennings, but she is a) a woman, b) working in broadcast, and c) expected to be fairly aware of the world around her, so more than anyone she should be able to make the connection between media and body image. The women working in the entertainment industry are exposed to nothing but an unnatural standard of beauty that says that Nicole Kidman + wife-beater tank top + cigarette * bad Maine accent = homely. Katie gets to see the real world. Katie should be able to say, "Part of the reason the cameras are pointed at me is that I'm tiny and pretty, and I recognize that if I were as smart as I am and looked like Rosie O'Donnell, I'd be editing copy for Wake Up Charlottesville right now." But instead, she sat aghast to hear a waifish redhead tell her that when she's skinny, she gets catcalls, and when she was fat, they were yelling other things.

All of this is one reason that I'm scrambling and clawing to find a job outside of the fashion industry. I actually had to sit down with our stylist a few weeks ago and ask that she hire older models for our photo shoots (in our world, "older" means "up to 25;" any older than that and you're looking at "mature"). It seems that our last shoot included a 13-year-old girl who, when shot in capri pants and a halter top, looked very much like a 13-year-old in capri pants and a halter top; and two flat-chested 16-year-olds modeling bras. Our darling, adorable, petite stylist blinked at me a couple of times and said, "Are you sure? Their skin doesn't usually shoot as well as the younger girls."

There you have it. Women my age are nigh-on unhireable because we don't have the skin of a prepubescent girl. That, however, wasn't too much of a surprise to me when I started at this job. What was a surprise was the fact that I, as a writer, as one who would never appear in a photo shoot or represent any kind of fashion line in any way, would be held to similar standards. Now, I happen to come equipped with boobs and a butt, tamed through diet and exercise to look pretty good in a pair of jeans and avoid the threat of the dreaded "overweight." But a recent awards ceremony found me in need of an evening gown, which is easy enough to borrow from a designer if you happen to be sample size. Which is pretty much expected. Which I am, on a good day, after a lengthy illness, before lunch, in certain designers. After a particularly complimentary article, designers have been known to send a top or a nice pair of pricey jeans with a thank-you note; when I say "size medium" and receive a shirt that a Cabbage Patch Kid would find clingy, something isn't right.

The effort to find some kind of reasonable perspective when it comes to body image is going to take the cooperation of, well, everybody. The fashion and entertainment industries have their work cut out for them; glamorizing a certain body type is to be expected, but they (okay, we) have gotten to the point where any body type other than that of an underweight 25-year-old working out for four hours a day and eating pre-packaged Zone meals is presented as the norm. I was chuffed to see a pleasant, slightly plump Renee Zellweger in a movie trailer until I discovered that she was supposed to be the chubby-beyond-belief Bridget Jones. Hollywood puts an average-sized woman on the big screen and tell all of the average-sized women in the audience, "By, the way, she's fat to the point of neurosis" and then wonders why women have body image issues?

The rest of the effort, though, is on the rest of us. Men, in particular, need to make sure that they have realistic expectations for the female form. Lusting after celebrities is to be expected; Angelina Jolie wouldn't wear a vinyl bustier in a movie if she didn't want audience members to drool. Hell, I thought that was hot, and I'm straight. But if you're expecting every woman out there to have a figure as solid as Angelina Jolie's, you're going to be a sad, sad, lonely man.

Finally, women. We are such bitches. Fat Suit Exposes tend to focus on male reactions to the faux-obesity, but the fact is, women are tougher critics than any man out there. I'm not likely to find a date at any work event I attend; the fashion industry isn't exactly busting with heterosexual men. But I'll spend hour figuring out what to wear, because I know that these women will tear me to pieces and that, as a journalist, I can even lose access to certain contacts who don't feel that I'd "really have appropriate appreciation for the line." Jesus. Ladies, next time you're nit-picking another woman, you think back to the Tuesday underpants you put on this morning and wonder why you're feeling all superior.

Sidenote: This is as good a time as any to kick off what I'm calling Operation: Find ACG A Non-Sucky Job. At least, that's what I'm calling it until I can find some really kicky acronym. All I'm looking for is a job that exercises my writing talents, pays the bills and doesn't require me to throw up my food or disguise my contempt for Tom Ford. Keep me posted, y'all.

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