Body Talk in the Media

llustration by Ben Denzer. Photographs from Wikipedia Commons.

Written by Lily Offit, AB.

When Mindy Kaling agreed to participate in a feature interview with Vanity Fair editor John Heilpern in 2011, she probably expected that the article would be about her career. At that time, she was an actress, writer and director for “The Office,” a beloved show on NBC. She was an Indian-American woman in a tough business dominated by white men. What she didn’t expect from this interview, as she describes in her book Why Not Me?, was a comprehensive report on everything that entered her mouth. In this feature, Heilpern even includes this pointed question directed at Kaling: “Not too careful with the calories, Mindy?”

When artists gain celebrity status, their identity is enormously shaped by journalists’ observations, which are in turn fueled by public interest. Mindy Kaling has been dragged into the wave of the media’s fixation on the conventionally attractive female physique. Rather than evaluating Kaling by her absurdly long list of professional accomplishments, the media tends to focus on her shape. Because Kaling’s body type is not usually seen on screens and glossy pages, she has been urged to join the conversation on body image—to ‘take a position’ on her body.

Conversations about Kaling’s stance on her body extend beyond a comment by a snarky Vanity Fair editor. She is often approached with questions about how she manages to cultivate confidence in Hollywood’s hypercritical body conscious climate. Take for example the media’s reaction to her face being featured on the cover of Elle magazine: journalists bombarded Kaling with questions about whether she was offended that the cover featured just her face, rather than her entire body, which is more typical for Elle magazine covers. While Kaling was thrilled simply to be featured on the cover, the media conversation morphed this “controversy”; the feminist blog Jezebel referred to the magazine cover as an example of the “institutionalized inequality” of body types in Hollywood.

In an interview conducted by Parade magazine, Kaling explains that she recognizes the importance of embracing her body type, but this role detracts from how people perceive her work. In her book she jokes that when people think about her show, they must think “’Oh, that’s that show about body acceptance in chubby women’ because that’s all they seem to hear about it.” To Kaling, her body size is not a defining aspect of her art. But as long as the media highlights her body, she finds that she has to keep talking about it. She told Parade magazine, “while I‘m talking about why I’m so different, white male show runners get to talk about their art.”

Other actresses have taken a different approach to the body image conversation. Comedians and actresses Amy Schumer and Rebel Wilson have embraced the public’s fascination with body types and incorporated this into their on screen personas.

Amy Schumer recognizes that her body type (not “rail thin”) has become an important component of her comedy. In her stand-up comedy at the Apollo Theater (released in October 2015) she describes how she struggles with her body image. She includes a story about attempting to purge after eating, in response to a perceived pressure to lose weight. She uses comedy to try to relieve her tensions about body image, and to poke fun at the absurd beauty expectations of her industry.

Outside of her comedy bits, Schumer has taken a strong position against the damaging standards of beauty imposed by Hollywood. She believes that feeling confident about appearance is empowering, and she encourages women to make informed decisions about what kind of clothes flatter their body types. To this end, she is working with Goodwill of Southern California to “educate and inspire women through fashion.” Rather than entirely rejecting the notion that appearance is important, she explores ways to exist within our harsh body-conscious culture without feeling dejected—by seizing fashion as a constructive tool and not a threat.

Actress and comedian Rebel Wilson approaches the body image issue from yet another angle. As described in a recent New York Times article, she is the face of the “plus-size” movement. Instead of trying to ignore or overcome the Hollywood beauty standards, she embraces her body type. She even plays a character that calls herself “Fat Amy” in the comedy Pitch Perfect. She explains that that the “fat” persona is funny to people, and has decided to incorporate this into her acting career—to turn her body shape from a “liability to an asset.”

These performance artists share in a common experience—their bodies deviate from the (often unhealthy) Hollywood norm, and they have been urged to take a stance on their bodies. But each of them have responded to this tension differently—Kaling rolls her eyes at the ceaseless nagging from the media, and questions the notion that she has to take a ‘positon’ on her body. Schumer mocks our culture’s obsession with conventional body types, and suggests that women use fashion as “tool” to thrive within this harsh culture. Wilson embraces how her body type is considered as different, and utilizes it as an advantage in an oft homogenous pool of screen actors.

These three women have often been cited as champions of the media’s ‘body positive’ movement. While this movement has been inspirational to many, it misses at a fundamental problem. By encouraging women to fight the “body shaming” battle, we are sending a dangerous message: if you are a woman, and you do not occupy that narrow Hollywood BMI range, this becomes a forefront aspect of your identity.

What are we taking away from these artists by imposing this identity onto them, forcing them to integrate their body types into their brand? Instead of asking women to respond to the ‘negative’ commentary—the questions about calories, the “controversial” magazine covers, the pressures to lose weight—maybe we should listen to Kaling, and turn down the volume on the conversation about bodies. Or maybe we should strive, as Schumer does, to mock the media more than we mock ourselves. Or perhaps, like Wilson, we should learn to live with and above the Hollywood standards.

Ultimately, the fate of the media’s attitude about body image is driven by consumers. It is up to us to decide what to read, what to click, who to listen to, and what to perceive as beautiful.

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