UPDATE: This is now also posted at Jezebel, where the comments section is much more active.
In last Friday’s Guardian piece on sexualized rebellion, I briefly touched on the media-driven discourse of “compulsory individuality”. As contradictory — and as familiar — as it sounds, compulsory individuality requires women (and teen girls in particular) to navigate the paradoxical demands to “fit in” while “standing out”. This isn’t novel — but as I wrote last week (following Marjorie Jolles), the ever-more-sexualized nature of compulsory individuality is transforming young women’s self-image, not necessarily in helpful ways.
A related point can be made, of course, about skinniness. It is not new to point out that “thin is in.” The longing to be slender and the obsession with dieting goes back to the 1920s, and is due in part to radical changes in fashion and culture brought on both by World War One and pre-war innovations in style. In the USA, five generations of young women have now come of age surrounded by diet books, and what were once considered problems for middle-class white girls only (poor body-image and eating disorders) are now found in every racial and class demographic.
The key change in the past decade around skinniness is the explicit recognition of thinness as a marker not only of status, but of proud isolation from other women. Adolescent girls whose bodies come close to the fashion ideal have long been aware that they are, at least at times, the object of other young women’s resentment. “You’re so thin… I hate you!” is a phrase that many slender women have heard, with the only variation being the degree to which the second part of the statement is said with genuine loathing as opposed to mild, teasing envy. Lots of thin girls grow up being called “anorexic”, regardless of the presence or absence of an eating disorder. The mix of jealousy and resentment and pity often includes the refusal to believe tha a “skinny girl” has any problems about which to complain. (Think about what often happens when the most slender young woman in a room remarks that she “feels fat”.)
In the past decade, we’ve seen the appearance of what we might call the “mean girl narrative”. In addition to the now canonical (for millenials, anyway) Lindsay Lohan film, books like Queen Bees and Wannabees, Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, and the newest media darling, Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships all make the popular case that girls are, well, mean — meaner, certainly, in ways that boys simply could never be. It seems likely that this “discourse of female cruelty” works in tandem with the narrative of compulsory individuality to suggest to young women that theirs is a hyper-competitive world where success is a solitary and sexualized pursuit. Whether it’s chasing grades or getting guys, even your sisters are nothing more than “frenemies” at best.
The positing of thinness as a competitive tactic shows up in books like Rory Freedman’s Skinny Bitch. Freedman’s title reflects (or, one suspects, subtly reinforces) the reality that achieving the ideal body will invariably invite animosity from other women. It is taken for granted that it is better to be envied than to be liked. One imagines that the subtitle could have been this brutal but unmistakably powerful false dichotomy: “Would you rather be fat and liked or skinny and hated? Is that even a question?” Freedman uses this discourse of inter-female hostility to market a plan for success in this brutal, mean-girl world. (I like Freedman’s emphasis on a plant-based diet. But as a vegan, I’m not interested in using women’s fear of fat in order to transition people away from animal protein.)
The latest manifestation of the marriage of women’s enforced competitiveness and the cruel dictates of fashion comes from Bethenny Frankel, like Freedman a chef and animal-rights advocate and now a reality-tv sensation. Frankel, whose marketing term is “Skinny Girl” (slightly less confrontational than Freedman’s) just introduced a onesie for infants with the slogan “Future Skinny Girl” emblazoned across it. Frankel wanted it for her own daughter, and in a statement, insisted that she was motivated by concern for her little Bryn’s health. The pushback has been obvious and expected, and all of it drives attention to Frankel’s books and merchandise.
Leaving aside the false notion that healthy and skinny are always synonyms, one of the key problems with the onesie is that it introduces female competitiveness to the not-yet-toilet-trained set. Other little girls won’t be able to read little Bryn Frankel’s onesie — but their mothers will, and their various reactions of scorn or shock or admiration will quickly be transmitted to their daughters. Their daughters will grow up unaware that the much-ballyhooed competitiveness of girls with one is socially conditioned, and that this relentless social jostling over sexiness and slenderness and status doesn’t come automatically with double XX chromosomes.
Research on girls with eating disorders has shown that those who are perceived as very slender often tend to suffer from social isolation. This is due in part to their own choices (some anorexics tend to have an off-putting grandiosity in their belief that they have more self-control than their classmates who eat regularly and to satiety), but more so to the socially reinforced envy of and hostility towards girls whose bodies come closest to the unhealthy fashion ideal. Again, this isn’t new. What’s new is that rather than seeking to strengthen young women’s bonds with each other, the dominant cultural message seems determined to fray them further. The relentless reminder that other girls are mean and manipulative combines with the suggestion that success (good colleges, good boyfriends, good jobs, good praise) is scarcer than ever and requires ever more competitive effort.
If you’re gonna make it, the discourse of competition says, you’re gonna have to make it on your own. Who cares, the discourse says, if other girls call you “selfish”, or a “slut”, or a”skinny bitch”? The point is, you’re hot and you’re thin. And for those titles, no price is too high.