Olivarius: Rejecting the Hollywood standard

Culture Quotient

This month in Redbook, “The Office” star Jenna Fischer talked about weight fluctuations in Hollywood. She said, “In a normal job, if you gain or lose a few pounds, it’s no big deal. But in my business you have to tell someone so that the next time you go to a fitting, the clothes are the right size. It’s really embarrassing to have to say to your manager, ‘I’m now a 6 pant instead of a 4.’ E-mails go out, and they cc the agents … This is why actresses obsess about their weight. It’s not a private affair.”

Fischer is understating the problem. For a celebrity in the midst of the glamorous award season, with starlets in Versace flaunting their svelte silhouettes down the red carpet, it is not just embarrassing to gain weight in Hollywood. It can make you tabloid fodder and it can even lose you your job.

Fischer is wrong about another thing: weight is a public issue for the rest of us too, whether we like it or not.

Mae West, the 1940s icon, famously said, “The curve is more powerful than the sword.” Measuring 38-24-38, the five-foot-one starlet championed a different era in Hollywood. There are very few examples of fat, successful women in Hollywood. “Curvy,” yes. Actually overweight, no. Every woman on Forbes’s “Top Earning Actresses” list — Angelia Jolie, Jennifer Aniston, Sarah Jessica Parker — is desperately thin, and earns in the $20 million-dollar range for it.

Why is the list so homogenously thin? As Tina Fey wrote in this week’s New Yorker: “The definition of ‘crazy’ in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to f–k her anymore.”

But the deeper problem is that celebrity standards apply to us plebs, too. A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology last year found that women who weighed 25 pounds less than the group norm (their sample was more than 12,000 people) earned an average of $15,572 more. But women who weighed 25 pounds more than norm made $13,847 less than their average counterparts. Weight gain did not have the same effects for men in the study.

$13,847 is not chump change. Beyond money, there is the obvious point: thin people are treated better.

Thinness is a standard in American beauty. Apparently, it translates to success and happiness. We buy Cosmopolitan, Glamour and Self because they tell us how to attain the ”better” versions of ourselves: 10 pounds thinner, ”healthier,” sexier naked, younger-looking. And while saturating us with headlines like “A Beach-Ready Body” and “Look Great Naked,” these magazines also say, “You are perfect just the way you are!” “Stop stressing about what men think of your body!” “You are beautiful!”

In other words, the celebrity-industrial complex tells us to worry about our weight, but don’t worry about it too much ’cause nobody likes women who fret. After all, Beyoncé said in an interview that true beauty is from within! Look at Christina Hendricks, who is “curvy and proud.” She has big boobs! Should we talk about the obesity-class problem in this country? Actually, let’s talk about Cameron Diaz’s bikini body instead.

I went to an all-girls high school in London. Girls were skinny, and if they weren’t, they wanted to be. Eating disorders were common, but parents generally saw them as “just a stage,” or even a rite of passage.

My best friend started to lose a lot of weight junior year of high school. At first, it was just a diet to “be more healthy,” and people would say to her, “Alex, you look AMAZING!”

Her diet quickly consumed every aspect of her life. She would run for two hours in the morning and would come into school with a tray of perfectly decorated cupcakes. She would press them on people, saying, “I had like 15 of them last night. Oh, and like, FIVE servings of lasagna. I just couldn’t stop.” Everyone saw through the lie. Girls laughed about it.

Do I think that Alex’s eating disorder (which she’s gotten over, thankfully) can be blamed on Women’s Fitness headlines like “Feel sexier on Valentine’s Day” and “Fight Winter Weight Gains?” Not completely. It would make her struggle seem frivolous.

Fat, no matter who you are, is a feminist issue. Celebrities are paid to be thin, but the truth is, we are, too. But until we demand more realistic standards for our bodies from Hollywood and the media, our society won’t change.

Kathryn Olivarius is a senior in Branford College.


  • River Tam

    Hollywood is not setting standards. It’s pandering to them.

  • RexMottram08

    Jenna Fischer COULD have auditioned for the role of Phyllis Vance and then her weight gain would have been irrelevant.

    There are plenty of normal and obese sized people on TV.

  • Goldie08

    Sort of agree with River’s comment – we don’t see any 2000 year old greek statues of tubby men or women.

    “Thinness is a standard in American beauty. Apparently, it translates to success and happiness.” Correlational – not causal. Successful people exercise, eat right and have positive attitudes, all of which affect happiness on a chemical level.

    If someone was offering you (or me) $20 million to complete a number of tasks while satisfying certain agreed-upon conditions (among them, remaining a size 4) I would say it’s something most would do. I don’t like the wall street standard of wearing a tie and uncomfortable shoes, but for the change they’re paying, I’ll do it 5 days a week.

    Additionally, sad people fill their emotional void with fatty, sugary processed foods like cupcakes. These are not good to eat, ever. Processed fats and oils are like drugs, and I don’t think it would make sense to tell an addict that it is ok for them to continue their self-destructive behavior, and that “society” has created and upholds the standard of being drug free. You can eat, and eat a lot. Vegetables, fish, turkey, fruits, grains. Real food.

    Finally, the hollywood standard applies to men too. I live in LA – it’s difficult to go out and compete with unemployed “actors” with perfect stubble and chisled bodies from all the free time they have to spend at the gym. I was finally able to change my diet, drop a few pounds, and it has definitely improved my lifestyle.

  • RexMottram08

    nothing about one of the most body conscious groups: gay men?

  • faun

    The timeliness of this piece is astounding. Well done, Kathryn.

  • Goldie08

    I should also point out that I consider Christina Hendricks the most beautiful woman in America.

  • Leah

    @RexMottramo and Goldie08,

    Standards of female beauty have varied a LOT across times and cultures, and Hollywood and fashion and art definitely all have an influence, even though no single work shifts the perception of attractiveness definitively. Christina Hendricks’s voluptuous build is different from Twiggy’s skinny androgyny which itself is different from the more coltish androgyny that was common in men and women’s fashion shows until recently.

    It’s a feedback loop, sure, but someone has to start promoting out of the mainstream ideas of beauty for them to ever take hold.