Big-boned in Berlin

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25 Jan, 2010 Updated Mon 25 Jan 2010 18:12 CEST
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Faced with post-holiday bloat, Roger Boyes, the Berlin correspondent for British daily The Times, parses the decision by German women’s magazine Brigitte to stop using skinny models.

It is a curious fact that men only read women’s magazines when they are in pain. Waiting for a tooth to be extracted or a stomach ulcer to be examined, you catch up with Brigitte and cannot help noticing that something very strange is happening on Planet Woman.

The popular German magazine is offering a special calories table "for your purse." No surprise there, of course – it's January, the time when women are urged to become skinnier after gorging ourselves over the holidays. But, wait, isn't Brigitte launching a revolutionary "no models" campaign to use women that do not look like Dickensian street urchins?

Sure enough, the pages are full of normally-sized, attractive women – a teacher, a caterer, a sales clerk – who are conveying a rather different political message from the free Brigitte caloric-intake tables: namely that women should not have their body shape dictated by the fashion industry, or diet doctors, or plastic surgeons, or makers of anti-ageing cream. Strong women are not afraid of a few additional kilos or wrinkles.

Confused? So am I. The editorial logic of Brigitte, should surely be to persuade women to start a diet to gain weight. It cannot simultaneously urge supposedly fat women wanting to lose weight so that they can fit into a size 38, while championing women who don't want to to lose weight because they refuse to be manipulated by Glamour Inc. The whole paradox of female self-image is tucked into the magazine's pages, between the advertisements for Dove and the slim-girl ads for Otto’s mail-order pseudo-leather skirts.

Now I have nothing against Brigitte, which is a good read even when you have tooth ache. Its tangled thinking simply reflects the whole discussion of feminine body image since the 1950s. In those days women’s bodies were lighter-framed than nowadays: they were about three centimetres shorter, their waists were more slender, their bones less heavy. Yet the most desirable women of the age were stars like Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe, neither of them particularly thin.

Thin was poor. Well-fed women were healthy, potential child-bearers with milky breasts. The body mass index of Playboy playmates has dropped on average from 19.2 in the 1960s to 17.6 now, while the BMI of real women over the same period has risen from 22.2 to 26.8. Men lived a similar paradox. Fat politicians were potentates; it was unusual to find successful businessmen weighing in at less than 90 kilos. Now fat men are seen as losers.

Brigitte and other campaigners against size zero models argue that we have to restore a balance between what we see in the mirror, how we are seen by others and how we are told to look in the media. They seem to believe it boils down to the salesmanship of fashion companies and their advertising muscle on the media market. Their power has to be broken: if women stand up and demand large-sized clothing, the companies will have to surrender, to bow to demand – and remove the anorexic waifs from the catwalk.

But this is making things too simple. Fat people are treated with disdain nowadays because they are seen as endangering their own health, either out of weakness or out of some inexplicably self-destructive act of free will.

A recent survey showed that a large majority of people do not want to sit next to a fat person on an airplane journey – not just because they take up space, but because of an aesthetic repugnance, a sense that there is something wrong with a person that has let him or herself become fat. This is a primitive reaction as irrational as Islamophobia. Fat – though not obese – people often live longer than thin people; they live happy fulfilled lives.

In America, where two thirds of the population are officially overweight, they have a Fat Pride movement and a National Association to Aid Fat Acceptance. When Brigitte hires a fat columnist and profiles successful fat businesswomen and promotes fat celebrities, then I will start to believe that it really is trying to change popular perceptions rather than just rolling out a marketing gimmick.

As for me, well, my jeans are getting tighter, probably because of washing them at too-high temperatures. One of my first expeditions after Christmas was to Nike sporting temple in central Berlin. Surrounded by athletes and hard-core joggers smelling faintly of embrocation cream, I bought a pair of training trousers. Not just baggy-Harz IV-I-don’t-have-a-job-to-go-to trousers, but a proper black training uniform with zippers at the bottom. They do, however, have an elastic waistband.

"For use at the gym or for jogging?" asked the attentive sales assistant.

"For McDonald’s," I replied. Sometimes we fatties have to make a stand.

For more Roger Boyes, check out his website here.



2010/01/25 18:12

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