As a child, I used to watch grown-up ladies writhe in envy for the skinny supermodel Twiggy, who weighed 90 pounds when she became the celebrated "Face of 1966." At the same time, I watched the same grown-up ladies chuckling with delight over the self-deprecating antics of Totie Fields, a plus-size comedienne whose plumpness was the main topic of her stage routines -- and of comedic "diet" books such as The Official 8-1/2 Oz. Mashed Potato Diet and I Think I'll Start Tomorrow. After her left leg was amputated following a failed blood-clot surgery in 1976, Fields quipped on national TV: "I've waited all my life to say this ... I weigh less than Elizabeth Taylor!" By laughing at her own full figure, Fields gave others "permission" to laugh at it too. But so many women in the slim-centric '60s and '70s identified with Fields, feeling (and perhaps being) chunky themselves,that "enjoying" Fields' shtick or her books was an exercise in hating one's own body. In those days, Totie and Twiggy exemplified how the media turned famous females into fat-and-skinny caricatures: Size was the main feature of their fame, and the media played it so relentlessly that hundreds of millions of regular not-famous females -- our grandmothers, mothers, aunts, sisters and selves -- felt hideous and ludicrous.
That was ages ago. Yet virtually nothing has changed. The media still obsesses over the size of famous females, only now it does so behind a vaguely feminist false mask of concern, with studiedly sympathetic ponderings a la "Are the Olsen Twins too thin for their own health?" and "Does Jessica Simpson's wildly fluctuating weight reflect relationship woes?"
On the homepage of the Daily Mail right now as I write this are no less than four typical stories with typical headlines and kickers and typical photographs to match:
"Rolling Bones: Keith Richards' daughter reveals her Size Zero figure on beach holiday -- Theodora, 23, looked worryingly thin with her sister in Miami"
"Victoria Beckham dines out in an optical illusion dress that makes her look EVEN thinner"
"Has former Steps star Claire Richards fallen off the diet wagon already? Singer appears to be losing her hold on that slim new physique she unveiled on DVD"
Sure, the premise is that health matters most and balance is best. But within all this tsk-tsk-ing clamor -- Is she fat? Is she thin? Gaining weight or losing it? Too much or too little? Too slowly or too quickly? -- beats the same secret message, a liturgy as old and as poisonous as women's insecurity. It is: However free you feel, however many times you carol "I am beautiful," we're watching you. Women's weight remains a mainly public, not private, matter. And even though the media ostensibly lampoons 21st-century Twiggies -- Victoria Beckham, say, or the new and reduced Nicole Richie -- while ostensibly warning the rabble not to try that at home, the transparently veiled disgust with which the media often addresses weight gain or women of size still strikes fear in the hearts of hundreds of millions.
Just like back then.