The Newspaper and the Pin Up
When will we stop judging women only on their looks?
Earlier this week, This Is Us star Chrissy Metz jumped into the spotlight because of a series of pin up style photos published in Harper's Bazaar.
She looks happy and confident. Perhaps because she is. You know, successful TV show, critical acclaim, those sorts of things.
She told the magazine:
When I first heard Harper’s Bazaar wanted me to be sexy, I was like, ‘Who, me?’ I knew y’all were edgy but this is incredible — it’s validation. I can get into this now because I finally have the confidence.
Now note here, she's not saying that you personally have to want to bump uglies with her. She's saying she has the confidence to do a fun, edgy photo shoot that confronts traditional notions of women's sexuality.
That would be pin up style.
A bit of history here. As Maria Elena Buszek points out in her wonderful book, the pin up has traditionally been used as a form of female empowerment. Yes, men liked to look at the sometimes-sexy models, and certainly pin ups like Betty Grable adorned lockers and plane noses during World War II.
But going back to the mid-1800s, when the pin up first emerged, women subverted the style as a way to insert their sexual agency into the public sphere. Burlesque performers used calling cards that were pretty damn raunchy for the time as a way to promote their performances. During World War II, women made DIY pin ups not for their boyfriends overseas, but rather to share with each other.
In other words, the pin up is all about confidence.
So back to Chrissy Metz and her pinup photo shoot.
The publication of the photos was met with almost predictable response, including one published on March 17th by Linda Stasi of the New York Post. Of course, what she's really “worried” about is the message that these photos send to other women:
In real life, those who are morbidly obese and anorexic have eating disorders and body dysmorphia. Neither condition should be celebrated or condescended to — and certainly neither are sexy.
She says that the magazine is just pandering to fat Americans, and calls the “celebration” of Metz, who wears a dress from Pin Up Girl Clothing in the shoot, a type of perverted political correctness:
A morbidly obese woman is no more of a pin up than are horrifyingly underweight models. Neither version of the female form should be celebrated, because both are conditions that can lead to severe illness and premature death.
I've been working on a feature film and interactive documentary about pin up culture for the better part of three years now. The women involved who, for the most part, self-describe as feminist, say they're drawn to vintage stylings because of the diversity the culture offers. Black, white, Asian, Latinex, straight, gay…. it’s all a part of pin up. I’ve met girls who like boys, girls who like girls, and boys who like boys. I've seen super skinny pin up models. I've seen women who have the same body type as Metz. And I've seen everything in between.
The whole point about modern pin up is that you can be yourself.
When Metz talked about her photo shoot and her newfound public fame, to me she sounded a whole lot like a modern pin up.
There’s more room for all of us now — no matter our sexuality, race, body size, gender or whatever else.
And the complaints about her photo shoot remind me of people who preface racist stereotypes by saying, “I'm not a racist, but….” It's disingenuous. Stasi says that Metz isn't sexy, but it's not about the weight:
Cute, yes. Sexy, no. Would they call those outfits sexy if Metz wasn’t obese?
Of course it's about the weight. Metz “can’t” be sexy because she’s fat.
Television, and specifically television comedy, has a history of pairing overweight — yes even morbidly obese — men with exceedingly thin women. Think Jackie Gleason. Kevin James. The men look like schlubs and the women like models. Their obesity is never a part of the storyline. It’s normalized, and the men are considered desirable.
When we do see an overweight woman on television, she's either a comedic foil (funny because she's fat), such as Roseanne Barr, or she's in a drama attempting to lose weight through drastic measures.
While Melissa McCarthy’s Sookie St. James was allowed a rich personal life on Gilmore Girls, she was nonetheless a secondary character. Metz’s Kate on This Is Us is one of the show’s ensemble cast leads. She's messy, complicated, trying to figure out how to be in a relationship, and is considered sexually attractive by two different men. She's also trying to live in a world that judges her because of her weight.
In other words she's human.
Here's my question: what exactly is Metz supposed to wear if she's the subject of a profile in a high fashion magazine? A caftan? Some sort of stretchy pants and a flowing shirt? An outfit that does it's best to conceal her body?
Why can't she be comfortable in her own skin?
Of course I know the answer. She's not trying to lose the weight. She should be embarrassed. No one could possibly want to have sex with someone who tips the scales at the number she does. She doesn't fit into our preconceptions of what successful and confident should look like.
She's being judged on her appearance. Just like any woman. And this judgy bull shit has to stop.
Because the critics can’t see beyond her weight, what they don’t realize is that Harper's Bazaar isn't celebrating Chrissy Metz because she's “morbidly obese.” They're celebrating her because she's confident.
As she told the magazine:
I’m on this journey to inspire people, and to encourage them. If you can’t love who you are now, you can’t get to the place you want to be. It’s a daily lesson for all of us. I’m paving the way for other women and men who know they’re destined for greatness but they don’t believe it yet.
And that's sexy.