Pretty? Ugly? Or both?

Many years ago I visited a couple living on top of a mountain in the wilds of Maine. The husband had the reputation of being somewhat eccentric — if I recall correctly he was building a garage out of beer bottles, and on Sundays he played music at full blast out of huge speakers to, as he explained it, “educate the valley.”

Anyway, there were two kittens scampering around this couple’s living room, and the man snatched up one by the scruff of its neck and bellowed, “This is ugly!” Then he managed to corral the other kitten and announced, “And this is pretty!” Unable to see any difference between the two kittens, I murmured something like, “They both look nice to me.”

Two tiger kittens. Photo by 7prime

Which one is pretty?

“No, no,” he admonished energetically, “you don’t understand!”

Only at that point he looked a bit perplexed and amended his previous statements, “Wait a minute, I was wrong. This is pretty, and this is ugly.” It wasn’t that his esthetics were fuzzy, he was trying to tell me the kittens’ names. One was named Ugly, while the other was named Pretty, but since you couldn’t tell them apart, it was hard to know which was which.

I was reminded of that conversation recently. I watched the Emmy awards last month, and one of the women who was honored at the event came up onstage wearing a dress with a deeply plunging neckline. I have long assumed that women wear dresses like that to show off their cleavage, but in this case, what the neckline revealed were a whole bunch of ribs.

So, how did the press describe her appearance that evening? They used words like: “Lovely.” “Beautiful.” “Smokin’.” “Hot.”

Statue of emaciated buddha. Photo credit: Cea

Emaciated Gautama Buddha,
ready for the red carpet?

[As an aside, when I went to find a representative picture of this woman taken at the awards show I could not find a single one that showed what was so obvious on television. At first I wondered if my memory had exaggerated what I’d seen, but then I noticed a number of comments about her like, “looks to be in need of a cheeseburger” and “too skinny.” I suspect that air brush artists may have worked overtime on the photographs that were taken that evening.]

So is the Biafran look incredibly hot or a shameful thing to be airbrushed out? If she’d shown up inebriated, the press would have been all over it, but her state of emaciation was not noted in any write-up of the event that I’ve seen.

Meanwhile, it was only a week or two later that I heard a couple of television’s talking heads discussing whether or not New Jersey Governor Chris Christy was “too fat to be president.” Among the arguments marshaled was that his weight represented a “character flaw,” or at least a deficit in “impulse control.”

I cannot imagine them sitting down to discuss whether, for example, Michele Bachmann might be “too skinny” to be president. No, this kind of discussion is reserved for people who are obese or overweight.

As I listened to this, I thought, “Great. Another group that it’s now okay to hate.” Given that it was only five minutes ago that lesbians and gay men were in that position (and still are, in many parts of the country), it’s an issue to which I’m sensitive.

Photograph of NJ Gov. Chris Christie, taken by Bob Jagendorf

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie

And when times are hard, many of us seem to derive a kind of comfort in making negative judgments about other people.

There is this idea abroad in the land that people who maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly and eat a “good diet” cannot become sick — except with cancer. So, when people see a person who is obese or obviously not exercising or who is eating comfort food, they line up to take shots at him or her.

Meanwhile, one of the dirty little secrets about autoimmune diseases (which disproportionately affect women) is that most people who are chronically ill end up being overweight. Yes, there are chronically ill people who are as skinny as an Emmy-award-winning actress, but they are in the minority. For most of us, chronic illness brings along with it, weight, obesity.

The first couple of times I had people with idiopathic anaphylaxis or with inflammatory arthritis tell me that they wouldn’t take various medications to control their attacks or pain because they didn’t want to gain weight, I assumed that they mustn’t be all that ill. Since then I’ve come to understand that for some people, staying svelte is worth risking their lives. Come on, they can see how that actress’s emaciation is handled, and how that governor’s obesity is treated. They got the memo about how this society works. It’s bad enough that they have an incurable, life-threatening disease, but they refuse to add to that the social stigma of the side-effects of the medications they need.

Book cover: 'Unbearable Lightness,' by Portia de Rossi.

And many people want to believe that it’s “getting fat” that makes people sick. They don’t want to understand that an incredibly lean, healthy, energetic person can become overweight or unable to exercise because of chronic illness. It’s hard enough for a healthy person to find the motivation to exercise regularly, but when you add to that the pain and exhaustion that comes with chronic illness, it can be almost impossible.

I thought that Portia DeGeneres (nee: de Rossi) did an excellent job of explaining what it’s like to be caught in the pressure cooker of impossible Hollywood expectations in her book, Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain (Atria, 2010). I wish that someone could write as eloquent as book delineating the many aspects of the hell that is chronic illness.

I don’t know whether or not Christie’s obesity is the result, directly or indirectly, of some physical or emotional problem, but I think that assuming that obesity is a character flaw is both cruel and unfair. Anyway you look at it, it’s a pretty ugly thing to do.


Photo credits:


Copyright © 2011 by Candace L. Van Auken. All rights reserved.


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I am a writer and an activist for people who are disabled by chronic illness. I also interested in issues related to the LGBTI community and to women making music.

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Posted in Chronic illness, Women's health

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