Amy Schumer isn’t fat enough for some feminists; making feminism a parody of itself.
If you’re reading this and you’re a woman, then I probably don’t need to explain why the adage “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” is arguably the single most all-encompassing proverb of modern womanhood that is applicable to so many issues, from “asking for a raise” to the weekly internet tales of some poor girl being sent home from school for what she was wearing before she is old enough to know what it even means to dress sexy. However upsetting it may be to witness this kind of judgement administered by men, it’s a special kind of disheartening to hear it served by other women, within our own kind. Because we should really know better.
I’ve been a vocal feminist for over a decade, so I’ve been privy to extensive debate within feminism about what it is and what it is not. Some of this discussion is really helpful and ultimately serves to make better feminists; for instance white feminists should all learn that Intersectional Feminism is a thing, and a really important one to be conscious of as we go forth in life. Some of the debate, however, is really frustrating, petty infighting that can at times be little more than feminist dick-measuring. There’s also everything in between, and that’s OK. Feminism is a conversation, not a dogma. There is room for disagreement, but some of those disagreements are more frustrating than others.
This morning one of my feminist friends (who doesn’t wish to be quoted) shared an Amy Schumer clip and commented that it annoyed her that Schumer has become the “patron saint of body image”. She continued that, to her, Schumer was both “thin” and “conventionally attractive” and therefore had no right to “preach” about body acceptance, and that those feminists who praise her amazing and refreshing normalcy are effectively embracing Hollywood’s status quo on the grounds that Schumer actually IS the status quo. (NOPE) A debate followed between those who see Schumer as thin and those who do not, and those who view her as conventionally attractive and those who do not.
Those who agreed with the sentiments of the original post were uncomfortable with the idea that Schumer speaks for them while simultaneously failing to admit that frankly, if she doesn’t resonate with them, she clearly speaks for other people; decidedly not them. Those who disagreed, like me, stated that Schumer isn’t speaking for fat women because she isn’t fat, nor is she thin. She is speaking for the proverbial “normal” woman who is neither fat nor thin, and that her rebellion lies in the fact that normal women aren’t allowed in Hollywood.
It’s worth nothing that by their own admission, the women who agreed with the sentiments of the original post considered themselves “real” fat women and concentrated a fair portion on the argument that thinness is relative. The trouble is, it’s really not. Thanks in part to having a thinness-obsessed culture, we know exactly what constitutes as thin. Sure, you can certainly say that a person is thinner than you, and be correct. But you can’t then take that highly subjective statement and make the massive jump to declare that, ergos, that person is declaratively thin.
Especially by Hollywood standards, Schumer couldn’t remotely be classified as thin. But though there are different levels of what is culturally defined as thinness, from extreme (often-unhealthy) to “pushing it” (approaching normal) even in the overall culture (admittedly influenced by Hollywood) no one would classify Schumer as thin. In Hollywood, the already-ethereal goddess Lily James went on a liquid diet for a fucking family film in order to achieve a 17" waist for the iconic Cinderella character otherwise known for courage, kindness, and talking to animals. We ought to be outraged that 20" wasn’t enough. To put those inches in perspective, freaking Victorias’ Secret models —otherwise automatons of identical physical perfection — are contractually obligated to sport a comparatively gigantic 24" waist. I would personally describe Jennifer Lawrence, Scarlett Johansson, and Kate Winslet as thin. But in Hollywood, they are repeatedly thrown into the “pushing it” category of thinness with loaded descriptors such as their oh-so-rebellious “curves”. If you’re going to be upset about an actress getting praised for being slightly more physically normal, by all means, get upset that in Hollywood, these goddesses are considered normal. Schumer’s achievement is that unlike Lawrence, Johansson, and Winslet, she actually IS normal. Schumer is the patron saint of a normal body precisely because she has one. To claim otherwise is to invalidate the countless American women who see themselves in her, which is even more inspiring when those women are thinner than or fatter than or browner than Schumer. That’s the thing about body image that allows me to take heart in my own experiences: shared experiences do not have to be exactly the same to allow us to empathize with similar experiences; in fact they’re really best when they’re not.
On the surface, the semantics argument frustrated me because these women seemed unwilling to admit that we don’t live in a world where everyone who isn’t thin is automatically fat. We live in a world of a wide variety of body shapes, sizes, and abilities. The extreme left of that is known as thinness and the extreme right of that is known as fatness, bookended by the words “obese” on one side and “anorexic” on another. There are a number of words between thin and fat that could be used to describe Amy Schumer, and many of them are loaded, like “chubby”. I personally prefer “normal” or “average”. But the experiences of those who are shamed for being somewhere in the middle are just as valid as those of being too close to either end of the fat/thin spectrum.
So specificity of language aside, why on earth are we saying, as feminists, that any one woman has no right to be part of the discussion on body image — even a significant part? — when clearly we’re all affected by it in different ways? The pain of body image isn’t a prize to be suffered by the fattest or ugliest among us. Due to great differences in perception and esteem, I personally know plenty of confident fat women who are getting laid and giving zero fucks, and I know plenty of thin women who are lost in obsession and utterly unable to enjoy their bodies.
Lily James has the right to have a voice about body shaming, if she wanted it, because we effectively tortured her before we allowed her to play Cinderella. Kristin Scott Thomas has that right, because she went from playing Ralph Fiennes’ love interest to playing the mother of Ralph Fiennes’ love interest and quit acting; several other actresses of her generation have remarked upon how fucking boring it is when the only role available to an exceptional actress is the proverbial bitter old woman archetype. Lupita Nyong’o has the right to discuss body image issues of her growing up feeling worthless for not being lighter-skinned, even while she clearly possesses the thinness, high cheekbones, full lips, and beautiful eyes of culturally-praised beauty. We are all affected when the standard is so specific, so narrow, and so unattainable. Feel free to discuss how your pain is unique, but not at the expense of others and not while feeling the need to invalidate others.
I’ll always remember when my first boyfriend told me, at 21 years old, that my arms were fat. “It’s weird” he casually observed, “it’s like you’re disproportionate” At the time I was about 115 pounds, 5'3.5" tall. Before he said that I had never really assessed my boyfriend’s physical worth. We had grown up together, and I had slowly grown attracted to his soft-spoken, bookish nerdiness. But now, for the first time, I really looked at him, and found that he was short, skinny, weak-looking, regularly filled his lungs with toxic, stinky smoke, and had a prematurely-receding hairline. I remember looking at him very seriously and saying “Sweets…PEOPLE…aren’t proportionate.” which was the crux of the irrationality of his comment, if not the arrogance of his presumption. Most people are so “disproportionate” that we pay proportionate people millions of dollars to literally stand around and look proportionate because they’re just so damn unusual. We call them “models” and we predominately use them to display how clothes won’t look on everyone who isn’t them. Yet even they have a right to discuss how it feels to be valued for that above all else about them that is unique.
I’m now 36 years old, and tend to fluctuate back and forth between 120–125 pounds. On paper, I’m thin. Inside, I always feel a little curvier than I would like due to wearing it on a moderately short frame. I’m busty; I’m soft and curvy rather than lean and athletic. But despite having a *few aspects of the ideal, I still have enough deficiencies as to warrant countless appraisals of my body’s imperfections from men and women alike. One boyfriend told me I’d be “perfect” if I “worked out more” and given that I already worked out I guess that meant I’d need to do it for two hours a day. And women? I brought a size zero dress into a fitting room once at Ann Taylor, where a zero is equivalent to what a size 4 would have been in 1995 before “size inflation” fucked everything up. The fitting room attendant, a middle aged woman, threw some shade at me and asked to let her know if I “needed a larger size” so when the dress was too baggy everywhere by about an inch, I made sure to come out of that fitting room wearing it, and asked her “Does this come in petites?” It didn’t, so I put it back on the rack. I honestly have no idea where genuinely-tiny women shop because I’m not one of them.
Shit like this happens all the time, to all of us. Which is why all women experience at least some form of a reminder that the culture’s idea of an ideal body is a narrow and highly specific level of unattainable perfection. Yes, some experience it more, or differently, than others, but our experiences are similar enough that we have zero excuse to focus more on the differences than on our common experience. Amy Schumer is popular because we didn’t have a version of her before she came along. She is funny and talented as hell, far from perfect, and has an imperfect body to match. Hollywood always needs more diversity. Thank goodness we have something in between a “thin” Tiny Fey or Jessica Williams, and a “fat” Melissa McCarthy. Because there are millions of American women who strongly identify with something in between.