Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson and Beth Ditto:
Why can't we have a happy medium?

195 pounds
I have been wanting to write about the Hollywood pressure to be thin for a while, ever since my friend Mystie asked me what I thought of Beth Ditto after reading my blog. I had not heard of Ditto when Mystie asked me about her, so I was forced to Google her like a common criminal (or, if you prefer, a long-lost high school boyfriend).

Turns out Ditto is the lead singer of indie rock band The Gossip. She's 5'2" and weighs 220 pounds, which makes her BMI just over 40.

It's obvious that Ditto is at an unhealthy weight and needs to improve her lifestyle and drop some pounds if she wants to live a long, healthy life. But couldn't the same be said about me? Or so many of us?

My goal on this blog has never been to criticize people like Ditto. Instead, my goal is to help people who are struggling with their weight feel good about themselves in order that they can gain the self-esteem necessary to be healthier while also helping those people—and everyone—understand that being curvy is not a bad thing and that there are better ways to lose weight than dieting. (See my What is a Diet? post if you want to know why I think diets are unhealthy and not effective in the long term.)

What's most interesting to me about Ditto is not her BMI or her weight, but the fact that she is trying to demystify "fatness" by showing off her body despite her size. Because what's so surprising about Ditto is that she regularly poses naked for magazine covers, has been known to strip down during concerts, and often wears revealing clothing.

On the one hand, I admire her for not being ashamed of her body. At the same time, I'm not sure that the way she displays her body is intended to send the message that she feels good about herself (which is what I promote) or sees herself as attractive. I worry that, instead, she is just using her body to create a type of circus sideshow. The reason I raise this question is that, unlike other larger women (Queen Latifah comes to mind), Ditto does not always try to look attractive when she is photographed. Instead, she often poses in intentionally in-your-face ways that seem designed for shock value. I worry that these images reinforce the wrongheaded notion that being curvy is unattractive and that there is no middle ground between being underweight and overweight. I also fear that Ditto is only doing this in order to raise her public profile and sell records. I guess, for this reason, it's seems a bit hard to take her seriously.

On the other hand, I'm completely disgusted by Ditto's critics. One critic in particular, Kyle Bove, attacked Ditto on his Shameless Conspiracy website for what he sees as her attempts to teach people that it's okay to be unhealthy by "glorifying her gluttony." That reading of Ditto's performance (because it clearly is performance) seems a bit narrow, and my skepticism about his critique of Ditto is reinforced by the fact that Bove goes on to compare Ditto's BMI to the BMIs of a group he calls some of the "sexiest women alive":

Scarlett Johansson—18.0
Kiera Knightly—17.2
Angelina Jolie—18.8
Beyonce Knowles—24.0
Jessica Alba—20.2
Halle Berry—19.3
Jennifer Aniston—18.3
Eva Longoria—19.8
Charleze Theron—19.6

According to the NIH, a BMI of under 18.5 is considered unhealthy, but Bove's only comment about this group is that "Keira should probably gain a few pounds," a very glib take on a really frightening fact: nearly half of the women on this list (Scarlett, Keira, Angelina, and Jen) are underweight or dangerously close to it (not to mention two of Brad Pitt's significant others), and yet these are the women we glorify in our society.

There's something really wrong with that fact, but rather than focus on this much bigger problem, Bove goes on to attack Ditto. He says, "You wouldn’t put a naked anorexic on a magazine cover, right? That would be sending the wrong message to the youth. So why should it be okay to put a fat girl on there?" (Note: Bove's use of the word "fat" here is completely unacceptable.) What's crazy about Bove's assertion is how dead wrong he is. We put naked anorexic women on the cover of magazines A L L the time, and putting one naked overweight woman on the cover of a magazine is not going to hurt the kids he claims to be so worried about nearly as much as these underweight celebrities surely will.

And this brings me to Michael Jackson. By now, we all know that he died this afternoon. Despite the controversy surrounding Jackson later in life, it's been a surreal and sad day for those of us who grew up with his music.

Still, as I watched the news coverage of his death today, what I was most shocked by wasn't his super successful music career or his odd relationships with children (we already knew about all of that), but rather his weight. I learned today that at one point in the past few years, Jackson weighed only 110 pounds even though he's 5'10". That means his B.M.I. was only 15.8, far below where it needed to be in order for Jackson to be healthy.

When you hear about someone weighing that little, you can't help but wonder how something like that could happen. But it only takes a few minutes of thinking about the King of Pop to solve that puzzle. Jackson was obsessed with fitting into the American model of beauty all his life: he bleached his skin, went through painful plastic surgery to reduce the size and shape of his nose, and straightened his hair. Is it any wonder that he was starving himself too? The people we glorify most in our society are primarily pale-skinned, nearly anorexic women with long blonde straight hair, and it seems more than obvious that Jackson was trying to make himself over in their image.

On a day like today, it's a little bit easier to answer Mystie's question. Yes, I think Beth Ditto should try to lose weight in order to be healthier and to be a more positive role model for young girls. But more important is the fact that I think we need people like Ditto pushing the envelope and challenging the notion that overweight women should be hidden from view.

Obesity is a fact in our society, and I applaud Ditto for bringing it out in the open. Even though I wish she'd talk about obesity in more helpful ways, I still recognize her work as crucial in the political fight against idealizing rail-thin runway models. In truth, I'd rather see Beth Ditto on the cover of a magazine, all cellulite and bravado, than see an American pop star so gaunt that he looks like—and apparently is—on the verge of death.

But what would be even better is if there was a happy medium. I don't want to encourage anyone to be overweight, but I don't like that our society teaches us that being underweight is beautiful either. So ultimately I think we'd all be better off if some of the ladies in my Gallery of Gorgeous Women (see sidebar) were featured more often on the cover of our magazines instead of all the underweight women we see time and time again.

Then maybe we wouldn't need Beth Ditto to flaunt her figure in order to prove a point.


  1. I read an article that mentioned MJ's willingness to try any fad diet, which is reportedly terrible for your heart--another reason they aren't the answer.

    No idea if there's any credence to that, however, as there are a lot of rumors flying around.

  2. Yes, that's a good point about fad diets. And apparently anorexics are at a much greater risk for cardiac arrest too. Another reason to appreciate curvy women!

  3. I've had curves my entire life... a started taking a medication at 25 that helped me go from 5'3 and 130lbs to 98lbs. I met my husband that year who told right before our wedding that he wanted me to be real not super skinny. I stopped the medication and started eating food for the first time in my life. I am 26 almost 27 now and weigh about 140lbs. Granted more than I have weighed... but happy and healthy!

    1. Thanks, Anonymous! Be sure to check out our new site!