Feminism | Posted by Janani B on 08/30/2010

Mad Men, Body Image and Feminist Critiques of Size-Positivism

January Jones / Betty Draper - not allowed to work out?

January Jones / Betty Draper - not allowed to work out?

A few weeks ago various entertainment blogs and news sites were running a series of stories about Mad Men‘s Producer Matthew Weiner. Feminist bloggers and health writers soon joined the conversation. Now Mad Men is no bastion of feminist drama and critical theory, but these bloggers were veritably showering praise on Weiner. Why? Because, reportedly, he doesn’t allow his actresses to exercise and encourages them to eat plenty in order to look “soft and voluptuous” like “healthy women.”


I’m going to make this as coherent a criticism as possible, but Weiner’s comments and the subsequent feedback from bloggers anger me as symptoms of much broader problematic conversations. So I’ll break the issues down systematically:

The idea of fattening up or slimming down for a role is nothing new in the acting world. But to imply that gaining weight to ensure continued acting success is somehow amenable to healthy living as well is ludicrous. These actresses have been asked to gain weight because doing so will allow them to better embody the aesthetic that predominated in the mid-20th century, one which favored hourglass shapes (the word “ample” comes to mind) over androgynous or boyish figures. Keep in mind that this was a body ideal of that era, not a standard everyone met by any means.

Furthermore, it is unclear to me what Weiner and these actresses mean by “healthy women.” Are we to understand that women whose figures do not fill out a 1960s girdle are ill? That women with curvy bodies cannot have eating disorders or exercise fixations? That women who rest up and do not engage in any activity–because of their obviously delicate constitutions–are somehow better off? This has all the tinges of old school sexism, 1960s style, appropriately enough. I say call a spade a spade, and say the actresses in Mad Men are being told to gain weight in order to appear like June Cleavers (albeit sexier ones), not that they are models for natural health.

Which brings me to my next point: the strong show of support for Weiner among women’s and feminist blogs. I can understand why–don’t get me wrong. I don’t have to rehash how the thin aesthetic endangers womens’ health. Sometimes, anyone who breaks away from such rhetoric seems a godsend. But why should it be the case that the feminist reponse to media filled with women who are unnaturally thin due to compromised physical and mental well-being should be a call for women to embrace being overweight to the extent that they are at increased risk of chronic disease? What happened to moderation?

Yes, moderation. Where we eat healthy, plant-based diets. Where we make ourselves tired (but not crazy or dead) through regular exercise. Where we enjoy peaceful time to ourselves and joyous time with those around us as a balance to busy lives.

I don’t mean to imply that everyone should start policing every lifestyle decision they make. I don’t think we should start analyzing each morsel, each epushup, each unchiseled ab. Instead, I simply feel that we should be careful not to conflate dialog on body image with medical advice. Greta Christina, on her atheist/feminist/sex blog, discussed this subject back in March. She wrote about some of the internalized backlash she felt as a feminist trying to lose weight, and the particular difficulties in negotiating this position without feeling she had to defend herself against fat-positive advocates. She offers steps for those looking to pursue weight loss in an image-obsessed society from an anti-establishment perspective. Similar guidelines would apply to weight gain or any other type of body transformation:

(a) Doing an honest, non-denialist, reality-based assessment of the costs and benefits of weight loss (including, and especially, the health costs and benefits);
and (b) Pursuing weight loss in a reality-based way if you think it would be right for you.

Simple but not simplistic, and worthwhile considerations, I think.

I have often found it uncomfortable and difficult to bring up this critique of feminist-grounded “fat acceptance” movements. Mine is not an easy view to articulate without fear of being misrepresented. Yet, I think this very questioning within the feminist arena, moving beyond the hackneyed “love your body” to a “love your body and seek ways to honor it, feel more vibrant, and pursue healthy longevity” is well worth our while. After all, do not fit and thriving bodies in themselves make it possible for us to be better feminists and activists?

Janani also writes for Who’s On Third Wave where this article was originally posted.

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  • SarahC @ at 11:26 am, August 30th, 2010

    How is this “a call for women to embrace being overweight to the extent that they are at increased risk of chronic disease?” None of the women on Mad Men are even significantly overweight. The tenuous tie between weight and disease aside, we should be focusing on our criticism of the no-exercise policy. A healthy woman doesn’t diet. She eats when she’s hungry, and doesn’t have to think about calories. As long as she exercises, she will then gravitate to a natural, healthy weight. Some of these will be heavier than others.

    If Weiner intends to hire women who fit a certain size requirement, he should look for healthy women (women who exercise) that fit that weight range, not expect naturally (or unnaturally) thin women to put their careers in front of their health by not exercising.

  • ellecarter @ at 12:39 pm, August 30th, 2010

    I just flat out disagree. It makes since for the time period and the average women of that time. It’s impossible to represent every type of woman on every single program. We are all so different. I look at pictures of my grandmother’s during the sixties who were in their 30’s&40’s and that’s what they looked like. And let’s get real for two, it’s refreshing to see women in the entertainment industry being encouraged to eat real food and not stress about working out.

  • Hope Springs Internal @ at 1:51 pm, August 30th, 2010

    GREAT article. No matter where you stand on this issue, you can’t disagree that this a thought-provoking piece. I’ve linked to it on my site, Hope Springs Internal.

  • K8 AH @ at 5:31 pm, August 30th, 2010

    Thank you for this! Being “fat-positive” is about as helpful to women as being “anorexic-positive”. I am athletic and a conscientious eater. As a healthy women it is getting so old to hear that “real women” have curves; like I have to stop being active and get a boob job to be a “real women.” Why can’t we just realize that diversity and being healthy is beautiful. This seems so common sense to me.

  • Toongrrl @ at 7:32 pm, August 30th, 2010

    Excellent. I wonder if that’s also have to do with how some of our toning techniques didn’t exist at the time. I watched “Beach Blanket Bingo” with my brother and cousin, and besides us exclaiming over how stupid the plot was, they pointed out that hardly anybody had abs (men and women), not even the skinnny actors. Here’s a peek:

  • Jordan @ at 6:01 pm, August 31st, 2010

    Totally agree with K8 AH. Women should be happy with their bodies, whether skinny or curvy, but this sudden ‘fat-positive’ concerns me. Being overweight is a health issue for many things like diabetes and heart disease. We shouldn’t be promoting super thin ‘anorexic’ women as the ideal body to have but then we shouldn’t try to counteract that by saying that fat women are the ideal body either because neither are healthy. Balance is definitely the way to go.

  • A @ at 9:59 pm, September 1st, 2010

    I agree with SarahC. The women on Mad Men are not overweight, and while the “fat-positive” thing is worrysome, these actresses should not be the reason for bringing it up. I understand why Weiner wants those women to have those body types, but the fact that they are not allowed to exercise is definitely bad and unhealthy. Also, it is true that not all women fit the ideal body of the 50s, but it seems that Weiner wants the quintessential woman of that decade portrayed in his show. So I guess, artistically, I agree with what Weiner wants to do, but his method of going about it is all wrong.

  • Charlotte @ at 4:26 pm, September 3rd, 2010

    This piece frustrated me because at the beginning, it looked to be making a good point, and I was waiting for it to be said that if you just fatten skinny actors that’s not much better than just hiring skinny actors and why can’t they just hire fatter actors who are already that way? But then I realized this was going along the “oh no obesity epidemic!” kind of lines, and I just have to point out that first of all, even if you think being overweight is unhealthy, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t show it on TV: would you do the same thing with, say, people who have cancer? And the second thing is, why are we policing women’s bodies on a feminist blog? First of all, their health is none of our business, and second, don’t you know that it’s possible to be genetically fat which in and of itself is not unhealthy? The bottom line is, this is still policing women’s bodies, and I don’t understand how that could possibly belong on a feminist blog. I’m disappointed because I didn’t realize a feminist blog would be so unaware of thin privilege.

  • Charlotte @ at 4:28 pm, September 3rd, 2010

    Also, I have a question for KA 8H because something she said confused me. First you say being fat-positive is bad, and then you say we should embrace diversity of body sizes. Being fat-positive IS embracing diversity and not being so is clearly saying that women’s bodies must be within a certain range to be viewed as acceptable.

  • Charlotte @ at 4:29 pm, September 3rd, 2010

    This sentiment kind of reminds me of people who say things like “women and men should be equal, but women still shouldn’t work out of the home”. There’s just a disconnect which seems bizarre on a usually feminist blog.

  • Charlotte @ at 4:31 pm, September 3rd, 2010

    And pursuing weight-loss as an end in and of itself does much more harm than good and this is why HAES was created.

  • Elise @ at 11:05 pm, September 4th, 2010

    I’m in a situation like this at my school. I am on the varsity tennis team, and we were just informed that we are to buy one skirt for the rest of our years at my school. the athletic director specifically told us to always have that skirt no matter what. so what, we can’t gain or lose weight? just pissed me off.

  • Sissy @ at 2:38 pm, September 5th, 2010

    I know you didnt mean too but, “Where we eat healthy, plant-based diets. Where we make ourselves tired (but not crazy or dead) through regular exercise” Sounds like your saying people who are vegetarian are into that “must be rediculously thin” mindset.

  • The Raisin Girl @ at 11:25 pm, September 7th, 2010

    Okay, Charlotte, I’m all for not policing women’s bodies, but I have very little patience with most members of the fat acceptance movement. Sure, genetics can determine that you will be heavier or lighter or built differently or proportioned differently, and you can be healthy well outside the bounds of socially acceptable ideas of health, beauty, fitness, etc. However, most of what I see in fat acceptance are people whose weight (judging from my own weight, which is roughly 240 lbs.) I would estimate at around 280-320 lbs. And genetic or not, that is not healthy. The human heart is not equipped to support that much weight. It’s not even solely a FAT issue, it’s a weight issue, and includes muscle weight as well. Past a certain point, it puts a strain on the heart. If there are people in the world who want to lobby for fat acceptance, that’s fine, but I do wish they’d stop pretending that a person who’s 5’3” and weighs 300 lbs. is perfectly healthy the way he/she is.

  • Weight Loss Workouts Expert @ at 6:20 pm, November 7th, 2010

    Awesome post

    There’s nothing like being healthy. In today’s world, we mustworkout occasionnaly and throw off our unhealthy diet habits. It’s not extremely hard. You only need to stick to a workout program and keep going until you reach your objectives.

    Thank you very much for sharing this with your readers.

  • Alonzo Cabell @ at 6:03 am, January 22nd, 2011

    Hello! Just wanted to say good website. Continue with the good work you’re doing!

  • heather @ at 5:19 pm, February 13th, 2011

    OMG! Thank you!!! I have been so frustrated with the fat-positive movement and I never know how to bring it up. i always think of like, pro-alcoholism movements (there aren’t any). I am a recovering alcoholic (sober since November 2008) and I would be so mortified if there was a movement to support alcohol addiction!

    I was around 155 to 160 at 5’4″. I was considered overweight and I wasn’t happy. I felt sluggish and gross, honestly. I started working out last summer and now weight between 130 and 135 and feel so much better. I also am more active for my daughter, continue bicycle commuting, and work out 3 to 4 times a week. I struggle with mental health issues and this has helped me a lot.

    Great article, thank you.

  • DalaRose @ at 10:52 am, June 24th, 2011

    I think when he says “don’t exercise”, he means more “don’t work out to the extent that you have totally ripped biceps” because women of that era just didn’t do that. I’m pretty sure the ladies still do some cardio and aerobics, yoga and whatever. Clearly none of them are at unhealthy weights. I look at pictures of my grandma, and she was fit but not ripped in the 50’s. She walked, swam, and played recreational sports with.

    Honestly, this isn’t a lot different than an actress being asked to get buff for an action flick. It’s modifying yourself for a role, and it’s part of being an actor. Look at Charlize Theron in Monster. She modified her usual look for a role, as did Whoopi Goldberg in Girl, Interrupted (loved the ‘fro, by the way).

    But the pro-fat thing? Yeah, not a fan. It’s one thing to be accepting and respectful, but I hate hate hate the “real women have curves” blah blah if you’re under a size twelve you’re anorexic, etc. While I’m a curvy 6/8, my best friend is a tiny 2, and that’s just how she is, she’s perfectly healthy, and people will ask her if she’s sick or make jokes that she needs to eat more. It’s just as rude as telling a fat person to eat less. And when someone says “real women have curves” she gets pissed and declares “I have a vagina. Does that not make me a real woman?”

    that’s all folks. sorry for the rant.

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