By Milly Morris
This week, Tom Jones – veteran singer, TV talent show host and Welsh national treasure – spoke of one of his former client’s failures in the music industry. Like many before her, Lianne Mitchell had won The Voice UK under the premise that she would be embarking on a bright and bountiful future in the music industry, only to fade into obscurity. Jones stated that Mitchell’s short-lived career was directly linked to her weight-gain, a visual metaphor for her lack of drive and ambition:
“When she first came on, I thought about her trimming down a bit. Leanne had gotten comfortable singing in this holiday camp and she’d put on some weight (…) Rather than take the opportunity of winning The Voice and a having chance of getting a record deal, which she did, she put on more weight. She didn’t have the drive. It didn’t seem like she grabbed hold of it with both hands and say ‘This is my chance’.”
Rather than Mitchell’s career-flop being down to bad management or a lack of interest in the music she produced, her size gave her away as weak-willed and incompetent. If she can’t cut the calories, has she really got the grit to make it in the music industry? Here, Jones reiterates the mainstream narrative surrounding fat and femininity; fat women are out of control, lazy, gluttonous and untrustworthy. As Cooper notes, the fat woman is “not willing to commit to change or live up to the dictates of healthy living. She is a compulsive eater, she is hyper-emotional, she is a physical and moral failure” (Cooper, 2016, p.23). For example, the downfall and subsequent re-birth of female singers is often told through a narrative of weight. In 2015, The Daily Mail proclaimed that Janet Jackson, Britney Spears and Pink had all ‘triumphed’ in their ‘battle’ with weight ‘problems’ and successively ‘got their bodies back.’ (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-3096410/How-Britney-Spears-shed-pounds-got-body-Vegas-residency-help-celeb-trainer-Tony-Martinez.html). Another piece claimed that Britney is now able to ‘regain her former glory’ after beating the ‘bulge’, the implication being that Spears’ slimmer figure is a representation of her mental stability.
I do not mean to suggest that Tom Jones is a bad person or even that he had any malice in his comments; he is simply projecting ubiquitous ideas of what it means to perform ‘femininity’ properly. Likewise, Tom works within an industry that reserves sex and sexuality for the thin and heteronormatively beautiful. As a fat woman, Mitchell’s body represents asexuality that can only be viewed as sexual if it is through a comical lens. This is exemplified through characters such as ‘Fat Monica’ in Friends; her attempts to seduce Chandler and her sexuality in general are presented as laughable, deluded and repugnant. If a fat woman attempts to be sexual in a serious way, we are taught to recoil in horror. Remember the ‘cringed-out’ headlines after Britney Spears performed her overtly sexual routine on the MTV music awards with a ‘fat’ body? Recently The Daily Mail reflected on this performance, recounting Britney’s disgust at looking like a ‘fat pig’ and even quoting music mogul Simon Cowell as saying that he ‘wouldn’t have let her on stage’ (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-480947/I-looked-like-fat-pig-says-Britney-MTV-fiasco.html). Thus, rather than being considered a success because of their brains and/or talent, women in the limelight (and in general) are continuously stamped with a ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ mark based upon the tightness of their abs and thighs.
This association between femininity, fat and failure infects every aspect of women’s lives. Even some feminist activists cannot help but be submissive in the crusade against female fat. For example, Susie Orbach’s work ‘Fat Is A Feminist Issue’ is often held up as one of the best pieces of critical feminist analysis of fat and femininity. Yet Orbach still frames ‘fatness as the problem’, starting the book off by suggesting that self-acceptance may be the key to weight loss. As Cooper observes, weight-loss and a life-long fear of female fat are still being presented as the end goal for women, just in more ‘positive’ terms. Likewise, in ‘Shadows On a Tightrope’ – an anthology of articles and personal stories written by fat women – Mayer notes:
“In gatherings of the highest revolutionary spirit, you will see right-on feminists drinking cans of diet soda to avoid being fat (…)They are locked into that old-time religion promulgated by the eleven-billion-dollar sexist industry that has made the lives of fat women a living hell.” (Schoenfielder & Mayer et al, 1983, p.3).
This example suggests that even in spaces designed for liberation away from the connotations associated with female fat, the fear seeps in and takes over our actions. Here, I do not speak from an objective perspective. Despite considering myself to be a feminist, I understand and am fully complicit in the seductive nature of dieting and exercise culture. Nevertheless, I cannot help but wonder what would happen if we took all of our fear and pain caused by these body-based rules and turned them into energy and anger? It would be unstoppable!
For now though, fat women are failures. This is what we are told and this is what we tell ourselves. This is why young women pull at their stomachs and prod at their thighs when they are getting ready for a night out, sighing and saying “I wish I could get rid of this bit.” This is why so many women that I know drink black coffee instead of eating dinner, exercise until exhaustion, shy away from cameras and cringe if they have to buy clothes above a Size 8. This is why we consider fat to be a feeling, with the implication being that we feel ugly and undesirable. This is why we view these actions as normal, even as expected, in women. Yet, if fat represents failure, is this type of behaviour really what we consider to be a success?
(Cooper, C., 2016.) Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement. London. HammerOn Press.
(Schoenfielder, L. and Wieser, B., 1983.) Shadow on a tightrope: Writings by women on fat oppression. Glasgow. Rotunda Press.