A few weeks ago a friend asked me if I thought the waif look, popularized by Kate Moss, which has now morphed into the malnourishment look was losing steam. Honestly, I told her, I have no idea, and more importantly, I don't really care.
What's really concerning me, yes more than a baseline BMI (body mass index) for models is how weight is discussed in the media, over drinks, and at brunch. As a culture, we are involved in a dysfunctional conversation about weight. It becomes the first thing we address about a woman. "Did you see...? She looked great. She must have lost some weight." Or conversely, "When did she put on all that weight?"
The conversation vacillates between two extremes: Ogling over rail-thin models, actresses and socialites, splashing them on magazine covers; and then, overcompensating with a bizarre brand of body empowerment that seems gratuitous.
For example, you can't read an article about Jennifer Hudson or Tyra Banks without the piece editorializing, "You go, girl, with those great curves!" Sometimes the "You go, girl!" is subtle, as it was in the March 2007 issue of Vogue. Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue, who many revere as the gatekeeper of the fashion industry, wrote in her letter to readers about Hudson, "(She's) also a style icon whose happiness in her own skin is something we can draw strength from." Yes, it's generic enough of a comment to applaud someone for being "comfortable in their own skin," but it's worth asking, would Wintour have chosen those same words to describe the types of models and actresses who usually (read: not a size 12) grace the cover of Vogue?
In some ways, our cultural dialogue about weight resembles yo-yo dieting. On one hand we indulge our appetite to talk about weight, ad-nauseum, and then loudly and all too conspicuously applaud women, like Hudson, who aren't a size two.
Why can't someone, like Hudson, be on the cover of Vogue without a plethora of media coverage drawing attention to the fact that she looks like a normal woman? Or why can't an ex-model, like Tyra Banks, add on fifteen pounds without a three-day news cycle about her weight gain that gets more analysis than the war in Iraq?
Many in the popular media speculated that Hudson's appearance on the cover of Vogue heralds a new era for fashion, one that will embrace (well, probably not embrace, but at least give a tepid welcome) to women of all sizes. Whether that pans out or not is irrelevant. What is relevant is how we can't seem to stop talking about weight--who is losing, who is gaining, and why you should and shouldn't feel great at any size.
I have a radical suggestion: Let's stop talking about it. It's boring and unproductive, the kind of conversation that we should all be aching to get out of. If this sounds akin to censorship, remember that on February 13th the Associated Press declared its plan to boldly go where no wire service had dared to go before: the no-Paris Hilton Zone. The Associated Press set a standard that they would not pander to another one of our cultural dysfunctions--talking about Hilton who is not only a poster girl for negative self-esteem issues but, as described aptly in Rebecca Traister's December 2006 Salon.com article, is nothing more than a spoiled party girl who launched her "career" by posing for photos on banquettes in the late 1990s.
And if anyone is concerned that ending the conversation about weight will leave millions of women bereft of places to turn for information about how to feel good about their bodies, have no fear. When the Columbus Dispatch wrote an article about Jennifer Hudson's appearance on the cover of Vogue, it noted a 2002 study from the Journal of Counseling and Development which found that many girls rely on magazine and TV advertisements for information on weight loss and appearance. Those who value those media sources possess the most-negative body images, according to the study. Not only will ceasing our conversation about weight make room for more newsworthy stories, it will enable the most radical of changes--the opportunity for women like Chandra Wilson, a character on Grey's Anatomy, to be acknowledged first by the description "Emmy-nominated actress" not "healthy-sized actress." Only then, will women from Hudson to Wilson to Banks be recognized first and foremost for the weightiest of things--their enormous talent.