Are we allowed to talk about women's bodies?

The Hotness Box, moralism of healthism, and Natalie Portman's arms.

Are we allowed to talk about women's bodies?
Julien Vallou de Villeneuve, Étude d'après Nature [nude study], 1854


This is the paid Sunday Ask A Swole Woman edition of She’s a Beast, a newsletter about being strong mentally/emotionally/physically.

The Question

I feel like I’m seeing more and more comments that we shouldn’t talk about women’s bodies. Even celebrities are saying we shouldn’t talk about women’s bodies now. I feel like celebrities can be oversensitive about being talked about a lot of the time. We all see them; they are hot; we talk about them. I know the way some people talk about them is toxic. But if they are exhibiting signs of an eating disorder, or seem like they are going through a hard time, and the expression is one of concern, I’m not sure I see what’s wrong with that. —Tara V.

The Answer

I’ve been noticing an uptick in this type of comment online. The internet at large—media, a podcast, an Instagram account—will be recreationally talking about some woman’s body, as is our often-unfortunate cultural custom. Anne Hathaway gained weight; Adele lost weight; Lana del Rey gained weight; Ariana Grande lost weight; Natalie Portman has huge arms after training for her Thor movie; incels think Abby from The Last of Us 2 is on steroids. Are they dying? Are they making Dangerous Choices? How much should we worry? And then, someone will step in with: “I don’t think we should talk about women’s bodies.”

So let’s explore this, with me, your host, someone whose brain is about as broken as it gets in the respect of “noticing people’s bodies.”

I don’t know how vividly others remember this, but growing up between 1995 and 2010 and having access to tabloids and women’s magazines was basically like being ritualistically neuro-linguistically programmed to evaluate bodies for aesthetic value with absolute laser precision. There was not a fat roll, not a wrinkle, not a skinfold that those bastards missed. It was crazytown. Even publications that would run “love your body! This woman overcame her self-hatred through jiu-jitsu and world travel” stories would run them right alongside a photo of Britney Spears getting out of a car with a zoomed-in inset photo of her stomach folding over the top of her pants with the frowny-face caption “looks like Ms. Spears has gained some weight. We asked Dr. Jagoff, M.D. to evaluate these images, and he told us that Ms. Spears should lay off the chips and alcohol and get back to the gym to lose! those! pounds!”

I don’t want to project my brain damage onto everyone, or absolve myself of the effects of simply having a bad personality or impoverished environment for building self-esteem. But I do think, media-climate-wise, things were worse than they are now in that very specific way, and it had a profound effect on us all. And I do think it persists. It’s important to keep in mind that anyone who may be looking too closely at anyone’s body in the year of our lord 2023 is like a reanimated corpse re-enacting the trauma they experienced reading Just Jared/Page Six/Cosmopolitan/Vogue/Teen Vogue/Perez Hilton/Lainey Gossip/Women’s Health/Self/People/Us Weekly, etc. (the list goes eminently on) as a vulnerable teen. I hope we can all be cured someday, but it’s not easy work.[^1]

Does Nothing Taste As Good As Skinny Feels? — Ask A Swole Woman
We should throw everything that models have ever said about body weight, food, or exercise into the garbage.

The Hotness Box

And then zooming out, there is the broader issue of how we “do” celebrity. Often, our celebrities are famous in part because they are conventionally hot, or sometimes entirely because they are conventionally hot. This often means that, because everyone collectively decided this celebrity was hot, their hotness is perceived as something like a community resource. We put them in a Hotness Box.

As humans, we are constantly chipping away at the shape of the Hotness Box by selecting new hot people. This person is hot; that person, unfortunately, is not. This person maybe doesn’t perfectly fit the bill of hotness, but they test the boundaries in ways that are just barely challenging enough, such that the definition changes a little bit. It’s an iterative process that it’s easier to see in the bigger picture, reaching back to times like the 1950s, the 1850s, 25,000 BC, or looking across the way at different cultural frameworks, when or where bigger bodies were “in.”

But every time a celebrity is selected as “hot,” they become, however wittingly, part of the hotness vanguard. Their hotness becomes part of their cultural capital.

In a perfectly ideal world, hotness would be a neutral quality. It would be as equally valuable as any other quality; we would all accept that it is transient. We’d realize it’s all in how we define our terms; anyone or anything could be “hot,” at any time or age or height or weight or skin color. But that wouldn’t make for a very good impossible standard to make the rest of us paddle hard to fill the void. We have to narrowly define it, or else most people won’t be unhappy with themselves.

This also seems to mean that, when we see people do something we perceive as “throwing away their hotness,” challenging the limits or shape of the Hotness Box in ways that we didn’t anticipate, we freak the fuck out. It does not matter if the person wanted to be hot in the first place, or has no actual control over whatever conditions produced their hotness, or whatever conditions are challenging their hotness now. We were invested in them, and now we are compelled to fix them, because hotness is not just something you throw away. They were like outfielders standing right under a pop fly, only to bobble the ball right off their glove and now they are chasing it around on the ground, and we are all throwing up our hands in dismay. Why couldn’t they have just caught the ball?

Healthism on steroids [derogatory]

And then there are the healthism times that we live in. In our current ongoing cycle of hotness standards, being fat is not “in.” But we also live in an era of policing ourselves on a moral level about maintaining health, nearly as religiously as we policed being skinny around the millennium. This means that when a celebrity, or anyone, really, is aesthetically “off,” we couch the criticism in “health” concerns. She’s too thin; I’m worried for her health. She’s getting fat; I’m worried for her health. The Dr. Ozes and Gwyneth Paltrows got the dollar signs flashing in their eyes when they realized concern about health gave them a nearly airtight excuse to neverendingly police bodies about their size. There is a near-panic that sets in to rush to point at any non-normative body that we’ve anointed with the symbolism of celebrity, and point out its non-normativeness and worry about its fitness. As above re: our unfortunate tabloid body-policing era, I think a large amount of this pointing says more about the person who feels compelled to do the pointing than anything else.

Still: Sure, not every fat person is unhealthy, just as every extremely skinny person is not healthy, goes a favorite argument of people who are capital-C Concerned about the obesity epidemic. But by and large, the statistics are tipped in favor of body weight playing a role in a larger health issue. So what is so wrong with playing the overwhelming odds and just worrying about their weight?