FAIREST OF THEM ALL

by Larkin Vonalt

A few weeks ago I came across a tiny little object that left me feeling most vexed.  It was a bathroom scale the size of a postage stamp. Well, it was a miniature plastic toy bathroom scale, in pink. With the weight permanently set to read at 110 pounds.  Barbie’s bathroom scale.

I’m not militant about Barbie. I had Barbies as a child. They’d been given to me in 1968 by a friend of my mother’s when her daughters finished playing with them. My mother used to leave the whole black vinyl trunk of them on the front steps at night hoping someone would steal them.  I bought Barbies for my stepdaughters and I’ve amassed a vintage train case full of them and their silly outfits for our 4-year-old granddaughter to play with when she visits. I realize that Barbie sets forth an entirely unrealistic role model for little girls, but I give little girls enough credit for imagination and good sense to know not to base their life expectations on an 11″ plastic doll.

But a bathroom scale for the leggy blonde? That just struck me as particularly insidious. Barbie is designed on a 1:6 scale, what’s known in the industry as “playscale”.  The proportions for Real Life work out like this: she’d be 5’9″ tall, with a 36-inch chest, an 18-inch waist, 33-inch hips and a body mass index of 16.24, which fits the weight criteria for anorexia. A study at Finland University’s Central Hospital revealed that Barbie would lack the 17 to 22 percent body fat that women require in order to menstruate.  She does not need a bathroom scale.

Yet Mattel issued a play set “Barbie Baby Sits” that included a book called “How to Lose Weight” with a page that instructed “Don’t Eat!” Two years later, the play set “Slumber Party” included that same “book” and also a bathroom scale which permanently read 110, about 35 pounds underweight for a woman 5-foot, 9-inches tall.

Little girls do grow up hearing their mothers complain about diets and needing to lose weight. In fact, in Sweden (where there is no childhood obesity epidemic) a study at Uppsala University revealed that one-out-of-five seven-year-old girls believed that she needed to lose weight. In 2009, the British Journal of Developmental Psychology reported on a study conducted at the University of Central Florida which found that of the little girls studied, age three to six, half of them thought they were fat.

In 2008, the New York Times published a story on a study that had just been posted in the German medical journal, Deutsches Artzeblatt International that interviewed 7000 girls aged 7 to 12. The study asked the girls to rank themselves on a scale that included Far Too Thin, a Bit Too Thin, Just Right, a Bit Too Fat, and Far Too Fat. 75 percent of the girls were in a normal weight range, but half of those girls (of normal weight) thought they were too fat. It gets worse. Normal weight girls who felt they were fat scored as poorly on Quality of Life and Self-Esteem tests as those girls who truly were obese; and they scored worse than obese girls on tests regarding family relationships.  The same story noted a 1999 study by the American Dietetic Association that found 55 percent of American girls 7 to 12 years old wanted to be thinner.

It’s not much of a stretch then, to imagine a little girl playing with Barbie and the Barbie bathroom scale and telling her anorexic doll “Oooh, Barbie you’ve gained weight! No dinner for you tonight, you little piglet.”  This is seriously screwed up.

As a child I was pretty active, busy with dogs and horses, and by the time I was in my teens, sailing and skiing. I don’t remember thinking I was fat. I did have a friend in high school who was carrying a few extra pounds– and I mean a few– I look at yearbook pictures of her and she does not look significantly fatter than the rest of us. If she was teased about her weight, I don’t remember that either, but what I do remember is how hard she tried to diet, existing for weeks at a time on carrot sticks and Tab.

The anorexic daughter of friends lived with us for a while, while I was in high school. Ruthie was a few years older than me and her arms were as big around as the core of a paper towel roll. Her parents had put padlocks on the cupboards and the fridge. Still, Ruthie would manage to eat whole sticks of butter or an entire pound of raw bacon and then vomit it all back up again. She was always trying to kill herself by taking overdoses of aspirin.  She was trying very hard to look just like David Bowie in Aladdin Sane.

One of my worst and most-embarrassing moments regarding weight stems from an evening at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. I was writing for a cutting-edge punk rock magazine, Dogfood, and I was 20 years old. We’d just interviewed the headlining band,  Psychedelic Furs before the show and now I was sitting in the balcony with the band watching the opening act, Romeo Void. I was absolutely thrilled to be sitting next to Richard Butler, the raspy-voiced lead singer, replete in pleated trousers and silk scarf. On stage, Romeo Void was playing their hit “Never Say Never” (famous for 15 minutes for the refrain “I might like you better if we slept together”) Richard was enjoying himself immensely, shouting down repeatedly at the singer “Fat Chicks Suck!” What were the rest of us doing? We were laughing hysterically. Every time he yelled it, we all rolled with laughter. I was laughing so hard tears streamed down my face.  Now there’s no way that Deborah Iyall could have heard him across a theatre of screaming fans, and she was sort of Rosie O’Donnell plump. But when I think about that evening I am ashamed.

Payback would come for me sooner rather than later. A few months after that evening I moved to Boston.  I’d married in a rush (to get in-state tuition, we told everybody) and not surprisingly the marriage fell apart in pretty short order. Boston is a cold town, and I’m not talking about the climate. I may have been hip in the south but that didn’t count for shit in Massachusetts.   I was studying performance art, which is all about laying one’s self bare (sometimes literally) and surrounded all the time by people who were prettier, skinnier, cooler.  My nominal husband was staying out all night and I was staying home by myself eating buttered egg noodles.

When I looked in the mirror I saw a fat girl-woman. It didn’t help that Bob would not touch me at all if he could help it. In retrospect I was probably twenty pounds overweight, but on the Boston art scene that meant I was invisible.  A friend of mine wrote recently about his time in Boston: “One of the things I hated the most was the absolute lack of positive energy, lack of drive and ambition, the lack of wonder about the world that always existed in that city. I have lived all over the world– that place just sucks the life out of people. I have never, for one second had any regret for leaving.”  He was in a band, for God’s sake, he was popular. Reading his message was like long-won vindication.

By 1986, Bob and I split and I moved across town. I’d finished with school and had a job with people I liked, and even found some kind of modicum of self-acceptance, and was doing my best to hold onto that with both hands. I hadn’t lost the weight, but I still looked fine in my little boots and black tights, vintage dresses and leather jackets. One afternoon I was walking through Kenmore Square, when a homeless man called out to me.

“Hey, hey, c’mere, I want to tell you something.”  As it happened this wasn’t just any homeless man, this was Mr. Butch, a minor celebrity in Boston. (Honest to God.) That didn’t matter, I tended to give money to panhandlers when I had some in my pocket, and anyway I was curious as to what he had to tell me. So I stepped towards him. He leaned in closer and pointed his finger at me. “I want to tell you that you’d look human if you lost fifty pounds.”

Twenty-five years have passed since that moment on the sidewalk, and I still vividly remember how I felt like I’d been physically smacked. I reeled away, angry and embarrassed. I kept telling myself “He’s a homeless jerk, why do you even care what he thinks?” but my own voice was not enough to quell the unsolicited opinion from a stranger.

The funny thing is that I did lose weight– fifty pounds and then some, and I was horrified at what a pig I’d been. I swore I’d never put that weight on again. I was working at a tony art museum, going to openings in tiny little black dresses and tall shoes and everyone was so nice to me.  Women wanted to be my friend, men wanted to fuck me. I had never been so miserable. I don’t have many photographs from that time, it seems I sent them all to my mother. But when I look at them I can’t really find myself there. I look gaunt, not slender. Even when my mouth is smiling, the rest of my face isn’t.

I didn’t make a conscious decision to gain weight, but I did find a man who loves me for all the important reasons and we had a child and we live in a culture that celebrates every occasion with food. Within ten years I’d gained back every ounce and then some. There are times that I am self-conscious about my size and shape, but I guess I don’t care enough to do anything about it. Last summer, I went back to Prince Edward Island, where I’d gone to high school, after being away for 31 years– and yes, I wish I’d been thinner. Not that anyone said anything, but you know, everyone wants to make a triumphant return.

There was just one thing. I was invited for drinks at the plush waterside home of a man who, when we were in high school, had been my first serious boyfriend.  Our parents were friends and our high school romance went on for three years. My parents were terrified that when he went away to college that I would run away to be with him, and indeed I did plot that for a time.  So, now decades later, we are having a pleasant evening over a glass of wine in his living room with him and his wife. At one point their adult daughter appeared on the scene, and asked “Who’s that?”  Her father responded “This is Larkin. She went to Three Oaks at the same time I did.”

I should have called him on it, but I didn’t. Instead, I went back to the motel that night wondering if I’d shown up looking like Kate Moss if he would have claimed me then. Really, though his inability to be honest with his daughter, and his dismissal of me says more about him than it does about me. It just makes me happy that I married the man that I did, and that all those fervent high-school prayers went unanswered.

We continue to be sold the message that thinner is better. Even some of  Sports Illustrated‘s swimsuit models look like they could use a meal or two or ten. Every few months the media reports the death of another fashion model from causes related to eating disorders. Britain has taken the steps of banning print ads that show women who are dangerously underweight. Milan, one year, would not let models participate in the annual show who did not have a “normal” body mass index. (You have to wonder if designers had to take to the Italian streets to find those women.) But that seems to have been a novelty for that year alone.  It’s a mystery why designers want to use women built like clothes hangers to show their season’s offerings anyway. I mean, why not just use a  hanger if that’s the look you want? Or why not design clothes for women of a healthy weight?

It’s worth noting that these models don’t actually look like women, they look like children. A size zero model (which is among the current industry standards) has a waist measurement of 56 cm, which is the same size waist as an average 8-year-old child. Isn’t using sexually provocative advertising featuring women that look like pre-pubescent children feeding into the burgeoning problem of pedophilia? Men are sent the message that this is what they’re supposed to be attracted to, and women are sent the message that voluptuous is grotesque.

For years it’s been rumoured that Marilyn Monroe wore a size 16 dress. While the rumour isn’t true, what is true is that the iconic actress, at five-foot five, had a weight that fluctuated between 118 and 140 pounds. For years, she had been the epitome of sex appeal, yet the scrawny Elizabeth Hurley (an English model most famous for being Hugh Grant’s one time girlfriend) is known to have said “I’d kill myself if I was as fat as Marilyn Monroe.”

How did we get to such a twisted measure for the value of a woman? Men aren’t judged solely by their appearance, and even when their appearance is considered, they can still be deemed attractive (especially by themselves!) even when they have pot bellies, thinning hair and pasty white legs. And that’s as it should be . Surely that kinder appraisal ought to be extended to the fairer sex too, using more important facets like intellect, compassion, talent, and insight as the measures of someone’s worth rather than just their physical appearance?

I know that there is an astronaut Barbie, and a NASCAR Barbie and Pillow Talk Barbie, and veterinarian Barbie. It’s amazing that she can do all those things while dangerously underweight. I just hope to God that our daughters aspire to share those achievements rather than Barbie’ body mass index and 18 inch waist. But in either case, Barbie’s bathroom scale has got to go.