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Queen-Sized Hole —

July 12, 2013

Trigger warning: Discussion of weight loss surgery.

Beauty pageants are wrought with problems. The whole idea that we line up a bunch of women and make them compete for the title of “Most Beautiful” is pretty fucked up. On top of that, the Miss America contest has been a bellweather for shifting beauty ideals over the decades, as the winners became taller and their weights dropped around 12% since the mid-1900s. Some recent contestants have even been in the underweight BMI range  (PDF).

Thanks to Fat Acceptance, a fat pageant backlash has risen in the past decade in response to the arbitrary thin beauty standard. Ranking fat women in order of beauty was supposed to give fat women hope that they, too, could be seen as beautiful and desirable.

Whether someone chooses to seek self-acceptance through beauty pageants is completely up to them, as bodily autonomy is one of the central tenets of Fat Acceptance. But a recent short-film documentary has given us a glimpse inside fat beauty pageants and it should give women pause before staking their self-confidence on a sash and crown.

“There She Is” follows the story of two fat friends, Allison Kopach and Jenny Flores, as they compete in the Miss American Beauties Plus Pageant.

Reunited

Allison (L) and Jenny reunite on their way to the pageant.

Directed by Veena Rao and Emily Sheskin, this documentary has the best of intentions, as seen in this Directors’ Statement, but the final product has some troubling aspects to it. First, Allison explains why she participates in pageants:

I think it’s important to have a pageant for plus-sized women because you try so hard to portray yourself as a positive role model, you try to portray yourself as being very confident in yourself and you’re comfortable in your own skin, where most of the time we’re not.

It’s quite foreboding to watch women with self-esteem issues turn to pageantry to fill the gaps in self-worth that have been eroded by an image-obsessed culture. Whatever confidence can be acquired from participation in a beauty contest is just a house built on sand. Yeah, I would imagine it feels great to be praised on stage while rocking your flawless makeup and gorgeous gown, but that momentary high may only last until your feet are back on the ground and some anonymous asshole calls you a fat slob.

That’s not to say that wearing makeup and gorgeous clothes is bad in and of itself. It’s not. Self-expression through fashion and makeup is completely normal and acceptable. But if your style and beauty are the only things standing between you and self-loathing, they can be a precarious crutch to rely on.

I’m also not saying that confident people aren’t hurt by the hateful words of strangers. They absolutely can be. But what distinguishes real confidence from the kind of facade confidence bestowed by a pageant is that real confidence helps you spring back from those comments sooner. Yeah, it may sting, but you can say “FUCK THAT NOISE!” with renewed strength, knowing that the opinions of assholes are meaningless. If your confidence is superficial and dependent on positive comments that counteract the negative, then the white noise of public opinion can drag you into despair.

For example, when we see Jenny on the catwalk, we hear her say, “I have had opportunities for people to tell me, ‘Oh, you’re so pretty, if you’d just lose a little weight you’d be so much better. It would be so much more enhancing. You could do so much more with yourself.’ And it really tore me down at times. But at this point in my life, I know that no matter what they say, I’m happy in my own skin.”

Pageant-Recovered

Click to see animated screencaps from the competition.

Jenny then goes on to explain how her weight has impacted her love life:

Being plus-sized, I haven’t had a lot of opportunities to date, but I dated Peter for approximately four or five years. He’s told me that I’m too tall and too fat to ever consider marriage, ever be any more than friends. His mom’s not a huge fan of me and those are words I could totally hear coming out of her mouth. “Well, you can’t marry her, she’s a big girl. You can’t marry a big girl.” And I’m sure that pressure was put on him, but he’s someone I trusted so much that it hurt me so deeply that I don’t want to go back there.

This is a devastating fact of life that Jenny has to cope with, while at the same time fighting for confidence in herself. She hasn’t dated much and the assumption we draw is that it’s because she’s fat. One of the few people she has dated, Peter, has told her that he would never marry her because she’s too tall and too fat. It would seem that this pageant is her way of shoring up confidence in the face of such brutal rejection. But there’s still hope that, as she said, “no matter what they say, I’m happy in my own skin.”

Sadly, by the end of the documentary, we see just how fragile her confidence really is.

SPOILER ALERT!

By sheer coincidence, Allison wins the Miss American Beauties Plus Pageant and is crowned the “Elite Queen,” while Jenny is the runner-up. If participating in pageants is a viable solution for regaining self-confidence, then taking second place in a beauty pageant seems to be the ultimate vindication that you are beautiful and wonderful just the way you are.

Winners

Allison and Jenny pose for pictures as crowned Elite Queens.

But one year later, when Allison and Jenny return to the next year’s pageant to present their crowns to the next winners, Jenny has undergone a radical transformation.

WLS

Jenny after Lap-Band surgery.

We’re informed that between the two pageants, Jenny has gotten weight loss surgery and we’re told that she has lost 52 pounds from her original 292 pound body.

Jenny tries to explain that she got the surgery for her health, not her looks. “I think that if you asked any plus-sized woman if she wanted to be healthy and a side effect would be getting skinny, any girl would be like ‘Count me in!’ but when I made the decision it had no impact.”

Clearly, Jenny agrees with the public consensus on weight (fat=unhealthy : thin=healthy), which is fine because there’s no expectation set in this documentary that Jenny is aware of Health at Every Size® or the idea that behavior, not weight, determines health. Like most fat people, Jenny accepts the common wisdom that when diets have failed her in the past it was due to her personal failure and so a “permanent” diet (in this case, the Lap-Band) is the key to health. This is why it’s so easy for her to claim that she chose the Lap-Band for her health only, and that losing weight was just the sugar-free icing on the fat-free cake.

As I thoroughly outlined in my post on Chris Christie’s Lap-Band, the Lap-Band is hardly a healthy procedure, even though bariatric surgeons will tout the metabolic benefits as though its definitive proof of the solution that Bad Fatties have been looking for. But setting aside the objective health problems of the Lap-Band, Jenny continues to explain her decision in such a way that she admits health was not the sole deciding factor:

After making the decision about having the Lap-Band surgery, I confided in my best friend Peter, who, at the time, we were just friends, and he was very supportive. Peter had said some hurtful things to me in the past, but I love him and we are engaged just recently. It’s been a week and two days. His family is actually really supportive and I’m really looking forward to having a future with him.

With this admission, we now see that when Jenny places much importance on the support Peter, who previously told her she was too fat to marry. What influence did Peter’s opinion have on her decision to clamp an unreliable medical device on her healthy stomach? Would she have made the same decision if she were aware of HAES? Would she have made the same decision if she were truly “happy in my own skin”? Or was the confidence expressed during the first beauty pageant simply a facade propped up by the prospect of being named an Elite Queen?

Again, bodily autonomy is central and if Jenny wants to participate in beauty pageants and get a Lap-Band, that’s her choice to make. But by examining her choices, and her own words, we glimpse the underlying motivations that prompt her to make certain choices.

It seems that Jenny’s confidence suffers because she had a hard time finding love and the one man who said he loved her (and his family) also told her that she was too fat to love forever. Not wanting to surrender to their hurtful words, she participates in pageants to gain validation that she is beautiful the way she is, and she asserts comfort in her own skin, as though saying it makes it real. But after the pageant, her confidence wanes and she decides to get weight loss surgery. She confides in the one man who has shown her love and he supports her decision, and as a result of her surgically-altered body he is finally willing to marry her.

Now, her confidence is soaring once more from the validation of love. But like the validation of a pageant, it’s a facade. This new confidence is not bolstered by the pageant judges, but by her fiance, Peter, whose love seems to hinge on her weight. But what happens if the Lap-Band fails, as it has for countless people, and Jenny regains the weight? Will Peter stick with her through thick and thin, or will he begin to say hurtful things once more? If the Lap-Band fails, what happens to Jenny’s confidence?

I don’t say any of this to degrade Jenny. I’m genuinely concerned that she may be setting herself up for a great disappointment when the Lap-Band isn’t the magic bullet she was no doubt promised. And if it fails, the blame she will no doubt place the blame squarely on her own shoulders, despite the fact that even Allergan admits it’s a crap product.

Facade confidence is false confidence, and no beauty pageant or medical device can replace the long, hard work it takes to truly love your body, regardless of whether it’s “beautiful” or not. My hope is that “There She Is” will get people talking about how democratizing beauty pageants or reorienting beauty ideals will never be an adequate substitute for the kind of inner confidence that withstands rejection and hatred. My fear is that “There She Is” will perpetuate the message that the best way to shore up your confidence is by being “pretty” and finding love by whatever means necessary.

As Allison says toward the end, “Learning to love yourself is a hard, hard thing because it’s a hard world out there.” This simple truth explains Jenny’s desperation, but it also points the listener away from the pageant and toward a deeper examination of self.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. Elizabeth permalink
    July 12, 2013 1:46 pm

    Great column, Shannon. I believe that confidence can never come from how we look; confidence comes from a sense of competence and mastery, and from getting to deeply know ourselves. This is such a sad story and I cannot imagine why Jenny would want to marry this guy. It doesn’t seem that there’s a shortage of husbands for fat women!

  2. vesta44 permalink
    July 12, 2013 2:17 pm

    Great post, Shannon. I really hope things work out for Jenny and her fiance, but with the track record of the LapBand, it’s an iffy thing at best. I really don’t understand how she could go back to a man who said she was a great friend but was too fat to marry (is he going to divorce her if the LB doesn’t work and she gains the weight back?). If she thinks she was hurt when he told her she was too tall and too fat to marry, how hurt is she going to be if he decides to leave her if/when she regains the weight?
    I spent too many years trying to validate my worth by trying to meet the expectations of others. After years of trying, and failing to meet their expectations (the bar kept moving every time I was close to success), I sat down and took a long, hard look at myself and what I wanted out of life. When I realized that what I wanted was not what everyone else expected of me, I was able to say “Fuck this noise” and start working on me, liking me, making the improvements to me that I wanted. I realized that what I thought of myself was more important than what others thought of me. After all, I have to live with me 24/7, they don’t.

  3. Theresa permalink
    July 12, 2013 2:29 pm

    Oh Jenny.
    Jenny Jenny Jenny.
    I am so fucking depressed right now.

  4. July 12, 2013 2:42 pm

    People can do what they want, but I find it troubling that the response to crippling and narrow standards of beauty is to set up another pageant, to assert ‘see! we’re beautiful too!’. It’s just perpetuating the idea that women’s intrinsic worth is about how they look. It doesn’t matter how many more different styles and shapes are ultimately allowed under the ‘beauty’ umbrella, it’s still women being judged by their bodies.

    • Theresa permalink
      July 12, 2013 4:12 pm

      Co-signed. “But I can be beautiful too!” makes me a footnote. I am not a footnote. I am on the goddamned title page, or at the very least the topic sentence of an important paragraph.

    • July 12, 2013 8:12 pm

      So much this. It’s still keeping the conversation about beauty, and not in a healthy, helpful, or deconstructive way.

    • July 13, 2013 5:52 am

      Yeah, that’s true. I did include the comment in my reblog that its kind of necessary to counteract the fat equals ugly stereotype, but seriously, it’s so depressing to live in a world where a person’s worth, particularly a woman’s worth, is tied to physical attractiveness.

  5. July 12, 2013 9:24 pm

    Ditto, Theresa. Peter isn’t the prince Jenny hopes he’ll be. I hope she has a support system in place when he fails her.

  6. Dizzyd permalink
    July 12, 2013 10:19 pm

    Nice thought, but it’s still the same failed pageant idea. It’s sad she thinks this guy truly loves her ‘cuz now he (and his family) are more than happy to accept her now that she’s conformed. And why’d she go and get lap-band surgery if she was truly ‘happy in her own skin’? It just goes to show the pageant baloney is just another way to make women base their self-worth on just their looks.

  7. July 13, 2013 5:50 am

    Reblogged this on The Cheese Whines and commented:
    On one hand, I think it is necessary to show images of attractive larger people to counteract the fat equals ugly bullshit. On the other hand, nobody owes it to anyone to be perceived as attractive, and in the long run, physical beauty is a rather meaningless attribute. A well written post as usual by Atchka.

  8. lifeonfats permalink
    July 13, 2013 10:25 am

    I really hope things work out for Jenny but I don’t see it happening. When someone you’ve dated for five years won’t commit intimately because of weight and height (makes me wonder how tall Peter is anyway) and then his own mother can’t see past weight, those are two glowing red flags to run and don’t look back! Sadly, I think Jenny is settling because she feels she can’t find someone else and a lot of fat people fall into that trap. My mom once told me my standards are too high, well it has to be unfortunately because of the crap that gets said about me and other fat people everyday about how worthless we are simply because we have larger bodies. Settling is not an option and can lead to emotional, verbal and physical abuse. I can’t do that to myself, nobody should regardless of appearance.

    • Elizabeth permalink
      July 13, 2013 2:04 pm

      So much truth in your comment. I wondered how Jenny dealt with the fact that she’s too tall.

  9. Dizzyd permalink
    July 13, 2013 6:45 pm

    Is it me or did anyone else notice how “happy” (sarcasm) Jenny looks after she got lap-band surgery? (That miracle cure that will make all your dreams come true!!!) Umm, no.

  10. July 17, 2013 1:51 am

    Oh thank you for not reducing the subject of weight loss surgery to a hurtful pejorative. I’ve already been told I’m a “stomach amputee”, something I didn’t think would ever happen among the Fat Acceptance crowd. But it did, and boy did it devastate me.

    I find the implication insulting that I must be convinced that my weight dictates my health. Luckily, its only been made by a couple of people. Truthfully, I was in ill health because of my efforts to lose weight. I had congenital problems and made myself worse by lifting weights and giving myself a slipped disc. Since I couldn’t magically wish away the pinched nerve, and since I was promised permanent disability because of it, I chose to undergo extreme weight loss. I knew I could have a healthy, mobile, vibrant life. I’d already been handed the “morbidly obese” line, which I responded to with an immediate “fuck that bullshit”, excuse my french. But to live that life, I had to be able to walk. Which is why I don’t regret having the gastric bypass. It was a small price that I PERSONALLY had to pay. Anyone who doesn’t have pay it definitely shouldn’t. Because, as you’ve said, it just wont magically make things better.

    I feel for this girl. Mostly because I’ve been there. I was there even after I lost weight. It didn’t make me attractive, it just made me a flab bag. Then I discovered that, actually, I really do love myself. I must because when I started to date online, I realized that I had REALLY high standards, and had no qualms against rejecting guys who didn’t meet them. Too bad I couldn’t have sat down with this girl before she got the LapBand. I would have told her my story, because what is most important for girls like her and just like me is not pretending self-confidence, or faking the feeling of beauty. It’s taking that first step, which is admitting that we deserve better than the way we’re being treated. I waited until I got my body positive boyfriend and I love that man. Every time I feel down he presses me to remember, by myself, that the issues that the guys I dated before him had over my body were THEIR issues, and nothing to do with me.

  11. November 17, 2013 9:50 pm

    I know this is really, really late, but, oh, how that story breaks my heart,. All I thought, when I read that Peter and his mother said that Jenny was too fat to marry, was that it’s good she was no longer tied to the loser. And now she’s marrying him? Oh dear. Love with qualifications isn’t really love.

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