Baywatch Babes and Barbie Dolls

© Alena Ozerova -

Tough Talk And No Nonsense

One of the most common refrains I hear from overweight women is their rebellion against the emphasis they feel our culture puts on impossibly perfect bodies. If Barbie were actually alive and full-sized, she wouldn’t be able to carry her own weight and she wouldn’t be able to walk without tumbling over. Yet little girls crave Barbie after Barbie, each one with a new look, a new outfit, a new hairstyle. Consciously or subconsciously, Barbie is a role model of style and grace to little girls, a mentor of feminine perfection that is actually possible only in molded plastic.

The glamorous women in bathing suits on the television shows and the centerfold spreads in Playboy magazine achieve their look, we are told, only after cosmetic surgery on top of cosmetic surgery. They exercise for a living, they spend hours on personal grooming, and even then they must be carefully airbrushed and digitally edited to look like what we see on the screen.

There was a movie out earlier this year in which a director actually creates a virtual movie star. The computer places her into the live action movie and then the director has to go to great lengths to hide the fact from the public that she does not actually exist in flesh and blood.

Of course we rebel against these kinds of expectations.

I am, however, wondering if these expectations are as real and as prevalent as some of us feel they are. I don’t actually see real people waiting for such perfection before choosing sexual partners for a night or for a lifetime. I watch the courtship rituals of junior high teenagers, and I watch the courtship rituals of fifty-year-old divorcees. I sat in a bar one recent Friday night and watched the 20 somethings gather to look each other over. Everywhere I go I see singles and I see couples, and it appears to me that the men seem to be drawn to women with pleasant figures and pleasant faces. Not a one of them seems to be waiting for Pamela Lee Anderson to walk in the door before they get interested. The men where I live seem attracted to women who have beauty well within the confines of ordinary possibilities. And I live in Dallas, Texas, the home of Cowboy Cheerleaders and Pamela Ewing. A face that promises a pleasant personality and a body that looks healthy and active seem to be enough for almost every man.

And we women are even easier to please. We’re not looking for someone off the cover of GQ. If he’s nice, interested in us, and good-looking enough not to actually repel us, then we ladies generally give the guy a shot.

So why do the images of impossibly perfect women bother overweight women so much?

We don’t seem to be bothered by the images of impossibly perfect men who grace our movie screens. No one is out there protesting that Superman and James Bond represent an impossible ideal and stifle the psyche of our sons. We know perfectly well that they are the stuff of fantasy, not the stuff of real life. Do we imagine that men don’t know that as well?

As I said, I have heard many overweight women complain about this nearly-impossible-to-achieve cultural ideal. And I have watched many of those same women get fatter and fatter and fatter. Are they doing it as a political protest? I doubt it. I never see successful long term lowcarbers raising this complaint, and yet almost none of us have bodies anywhere near like Barbie’s.

I wonder if these complaining women are rejecting these so-called ideals as a way of rejecting the concept that they themselves, as they are, are not OK.

I’m not talking about moral or spiritual worth here. I’m not talking about being equal under the law or under God. But let’s face it. What is OK about chronic obesity? What is OK eating ourselves into physical and mental oblivion, one Oreo at a time, one day at a time? What is OK about uncontrolled diabetes? What is OK about saying you’re only going to nibble at the party and then spending the whole night picking up the next sausage ball or cookie before we’ve even finished chewing the last one?

As long as we keep the focus on how wrong “the media” is to set up such ideals as Baywatch Babes and Barbie Dolls, we keep our own focus off what we are doing, and failing to do, to care for our own bodies. We don’t have to look at our own wrongs in the mirror.

It may be that psychologically, we need nearly-impossible-to-achieve ideals. And what’s more, apparently we need to accept them, and at least on some level, share them as worthy aspirations.

I remember when my son was young he was a pretty good athlete. So, naturally at the age of 8 he was assuming that he would be going to the Olympics in one sport or another. If I had sat him down and told him that, statistically speaking, he’d be doing good to make the junior varsity team at the local high school, chances are he would have given up sports after his first missed save at goalie, after his first strike out at the plate. But his belief in the possibility of Olympic gold early on is exactly what has gotten him to the point where he is today, trying out for the freshman teams. The children who believed at 8 that they would never make it, that they were too fat or too short or too slow to ever make the Olympics, quit then and there and by now they surely are too fat and too slow to ever make it.

No halfway intelligent woman believes that she will ever look like Barbie, no matter how much weight she loses. No halfway intelligent women believes that she will even look like the average Miss America contestant without serious effort and some real money for plastic surgery. But rejecting even a ridiculous ideal is a dangerous thing if it means that we reject any ideals.

Unless we believe in a personal ideal for our own bodies, apparently we will never even make it out of the plus-size department. Unless we are willing to stop whining about the so-called media’s unrealistic expectations, apparently we are never able to look at the fact that we need to have some personal expectations for our own behavior in relation to food, exercise, and our own bodies.

Perhaps we were personally held up to an impossible standard as children. I suspect a few of us were. But as long as we are still rebelling against that we are shooting ourselves in the foot. That anger and resentment keeps the focus on other people, and on things we have no control over. It keeps the focus off what we choose to eat today, this evening, this minute.

I am sure I am hopelessly politically incorrect on this subject. But so what if there does exist some kind of false ideal in the media? What difference does it make to me? Does it excuse me from taking responsibility for my health and appearance?  Does it excuse me from setting a realistic goal for my own weight?

Do we imagine that the world is divided into two camps, the fat vs. the thin, and if we accept the idea that it would be nice to look great in a bikini that we are endorsing every sexist standard in the world?

Or do we secretly despair of ever looking great in even Bermuda shorts and therefore focus our venom on a culture that values sexual attractiveness? Aesop told the story of the fox who tried and tried to grab a bunch of grapes off a vine, but they were too high to reach. Giving up, the fox concluded that those grapes were probably sour anyway, and goes away hungry. How much of our attitude about impossible sexual ideals is just “sour grapes” which leave us going away fat?

I imagine a story Aesop didn’t tell, of another fox in the same vineyard, who for one minute took his focus off the unattainable, looked around and saw some grapes well within reach, ate, and was satisfied (pretending of course for the sake of the story that foxes eat grapes).

As long as the first fox kept his focus on the unattainable goal, even if that focus was a focus of resentment, he was never going to find what he came into the vineyard looking for in the first place. Maybe this is why I have never yet met a woman who brought up the unreasonableness of our cultural ideals (as represented by Baywatch Babes and Barbie dolls) who ever succeeded in losing weight and keeping it off. Maybe it’s time to let go of that resentment. It’s only keeping you fat.

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There are certain instinctive drives that all human beings share. Hunger is one of them. Eating is necessary for our survival as individuals, so we eat. We can't live without eating, so the drive to eat is hardwired into our psyches. As individuals, we can live without sex, but as a species we cannot, so that drive is also hardwired into our psyche.

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