Rants & Raves
LIFE IN THE YO YO LANE - KIRSTIE ALLEY'S "FAT ACTRESS" SHOW ON SHOWTIME
By Lynne Murray
Women in the entertainment industry are the canaries in the coal mine of our national toxic self-image. The canaries are dropping left and right and the rest of us are coughing like mad. The movie industry consumes youth and beauty and offers few opportunities to women who are not thin or young.
The Road to Bulimia
Eating disorders in Hollywood are what homosexuality used to be—an open secret that is only mentioned when a performer falters and crosses the line into disposability. Just as closeted gay actors used to be described as "confirmed bachelors," the unnaturally thin women we see on television and the movies damage their bodies, starving, bingeing, purging behind closed doors. Once in the spotlight, they tell interviewers, "I'm just naturally thin."
Joe Gillis: You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.
Norma Desmond: I am big. It's the pictures that got small.
Joe Gillis: I knew there was something wrong with them.
(William Holden and Gloria Swanson, Sunset Boulevard)
Originally I had meant to start this essay by saying something like, "Kirstie Alley is not a stupid woman, although she plays one on TV." A plus-sized actress over 50 with a new television series of any sort is practically miraculous. But the self she is reinventing brings its own soap opera. It's the Oprah game—the eternal dieter. In Alley's case she's playing, the continually backsliding diet "cheater."
Alley's public persona is what you might call militantly shallow. She appears to have a slightly shorter attention span than a butterfly on amphetamines.
In her book, written to go along with her "Fat Actress" show (I'm purposely not naming it—to avoid polluting my website), she lists the 12 varieties of diets that she has used many, many times in the past to lose weight only to regain it. This is called yo-yo dieting. The more often you do it, the more likely it is you will regain whatever you lost—frequently more. Yo-yo dieting is known to be less healthy than staying at a stable, higher weight.
As a Jenny Craig spokeswoman, Alley is selling the popular fantasy that fat is only a momentary failure in an otherwise "successful" life. The repeated diets that resulted in regain don't count.
But Alley isn't even pretending that this is about health. And our national insanity on this subject is so widespread that it's rare for anyone to point out that hating your body is not a road to health and happiness.
Some fat activists felt hoodwinked by Alley because she first began to talk about a "Fat Actress" show she did it in the context of protesting how she was being stalked for "fat photo ops" and then cruelly ridiculed in the tabloid newspapers. It must be particularly horrible for someone whose primary skill is looking pretty, flirting and acting cute to be constantly ridiculed in the national press simply for being fat. Everyone can relate to that pain. Alley appeared to demonstrate some rudimentary peace with her body. She said she had gained weight while taking several years off to take care of her young children, and that was just the reality of the situation. At that point, the "Fat Actress" show sounded as if it might shine a tiny ray of size-acceptance on national television.
If Alley had any shreds of self-acceptance, they disintegrated completely when she emerged as the new Jenny Craig spokesperson. Her book suggests that she might have considered going with a cookie company sponsor if the money had been right—but there's a bigger paycheck from diet companies. So even her current diet endeavor was a commercial rather than a personal decision.
On reflection, I can see that it's unlikely Alley would have been able to sell her show if she had been accepting of her body. The show would only be mass marketable (particularly with a diet company sponsor) if she despised her body.
The tactic Alley has chosen is a familiar one—put yourself down first. Tell the fat joke before they can. Unfortunately, here she's dishing out self hatred as a "how to lose weight tactic" and stories of self-abasement are offered as lame humor and twisted motivator.
I almost didn't watch "Fat Actress." Others have reported being offended and unamused. I did watch an episode, however, and laughed once or twice—not at the wall-to-wall, lame fat jokes, but at the undisguised crassness, coarseness and total self-absorption that every character displayed. This is the Hollywood we all know by repute. The polished, shiny surface covering a hollow interior.
Norma Desmond: All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up. (Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard)
Alley's "Fat Actress" teeters constantly on the edge of a nervous breakdown. She cycles between grandiose plans of a newly resurrected perfect body, and a major comeback to popularity. Her desperate attempts to become thinner include starving and bingeing, vomiting, using laxatives, trying any diet—no matter how bizarre.
In the show and in the interviews to promote it Alley says that she doesn't want to have sex as long as her own body disgusts her. Anyone who might like her in her present fat condition is unworthy of sex with her, simply by virtue of accepting her physically.
Translation—fat is ugly and anyone who can accept it is by definition inferior. This is the kind of opinion that keeps admirers of the larger figure in the closet for fear of ridicule, unless they are people of unusually strong character.
Subliminal Size Acceptance
Is there anything positive about the "Fat Actress" series? I detected some evidence that size acceptance has made a dent in some people's minds—in spite of themselves:
It ridicules the use of vomiting and laxatives as weight loss aids. (Unfortunately, past experience teaches us that some young girls will take away the message, "Wow, vomiting, laxatives. What a cool idea, I gotta try that.") The "Fat Actress" is shown actually getting some acting jobs. Not after losing weight, but just as she is.
And yes, Virginia, there are admirers of the larger figure. Alley is still a beautiful woman, despite her opinion of herself. Some of them report watching the show with the sound turned off, the better to admire Alley's mega-curves, decked out in gorgeous clothing.
Even I enjoyed watching her dance around a smiling Kid Rock to the strains of Sir Mix-A-Lot's Baby Got Back. The irony was very clear when Kid Rock remarked during that episode that he'd had it with skinny girls and Alley had "the perfect body." This echoed Alley's earlier remark that her goal was to have sex with Kid Rock but only after she lost weight so that he could say, "she has the perfect body." He was already saying that, but she refused to hear it.
Our commercialized culture craves to make a product out of everything. It also fosters the idea that if you are fat, any persecution you suffer is your own fault.
Body-hatred is so ingrained and conditioned now that Alley's handlers can easily find the button to push to create sick parody of sisterhood. Alley will be your diet buddy, and Jenny Craig will take your money in exchange for a fantasy of beauty, wealth and the kind of power that is only given to the young and lovely.
Teaching someone how to value his or her body and treat it with respect is a much harder, longer road. Self-esteem has to be built one struggling day at a time. It can be done, but it takes work to get back in touch with a body that has been numbed and scorned. The pay-off is in the bedrock certainty that you are building real health, mental, physical and spiritual in yourself and others.
© Lynne Murray