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

Posted on August 21, 2010


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?