Friday, July 29, 2011

Lucian Freud

Lucian Freud died a week ago. His death surprised me, somehow. I'm not entirely sure why I thought he'd live forever--maybe it's because his last name always had him pegged as someone who came after something else long gone. Maybe because his paintings did not age that much compared to other artists. His nudes, especially, do not date.

Like a lot of people, I have been a little drunk on Freud's paint and palette from looking at his paintings so much since his death. It's the nudes that want my attention.

There has been a lot of intelligent commentary on his paintings of the human body, but there still seems to be a sense at times that his paintings of large people were grotesque. Some of the more pointed phrases from obits and tributes:
  • "showing off the human figure in all its gorgeous, swollen, egregious fleshiness" (Independent)
  • "The flesh [of Freud's nudes] was mottled, lumpy and, in the case of his 1990s portraits of the performance artist Leigh Bowery and the phenomenally obese civil servant Sue Tilley, shockingly abundant." (New York Times)
  • "Almost all of us carry an image of a 'Freud' around in our minds – a gracelessly posed, grossly sagging woman, perhaps, or a face sculpted in paint that appears to fold and puff like a cauliflower ear." (Telegraph)
  • "Astonishment, even disgust, often greeted Lucian Freud’s paintings when they first appeared. In Benefits Supervisor Sleeping a mountainous friend lay snoozing on a sofa, one blubbery breast cupped in a hand, revelling in rolls of fat like a beached whale." (Economist)

I don't know much about how Freud's paintings of large people were received in their time, but I can believe that they shocked then. I can see that they still shock now.

I do not think of Freud as a fat person painter. He's not Jenny Saville or Botero. I think he painted the human body (and other animals) with complete integrity, in the sense that his view of things was whole and consistent from one subject to another, whatever their size. Other than one painting--Evening in the Studio (1993)--I don't see anything that particularly editorializes in the way he has his fat subjects posed, and even then I'd argue he does the exact same with smaller models, in works like Painter and Model (1987) and The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer (2005) (also featuring clothed/unclothed models). All his subjects are under the same eye, including himself at times.

The man really did paint what he saw as he saw it: veins, fat, skeletal structure, hair, flopping breasts and genitals, muscle mass, skin; most of his models lying, leaning, splayed, pitched over, bent, draped, slumped. Pushed or fallen over. Not many stand.

He famously said:
I'm really interested in people as animals. Part of my liking to work from them naked is for that reason. Because I can see more, and it’s also very exciting to see the forms repeating through the body and often the head as well. I like people to look as natural and as physically at ease as animals, as Pluto my whippet.
In the same show catalog from which that quote comes it was also written:
In the sense that they are at their most animal-like when resting or sleeping, those who sit for Freud trust him to bring out the animal in them.
I think his paintings of fat people shock only because of the subject matter and the fact that he chose to paint them--and because we are still shocked by images of fat nudes--not because of how he painted them. We're all animals in his work: all fleshy, hairy, mortal, pulled on by gravity and age, doing the hard work of being still as time passes.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

the voluptuous nudes of Norman Lindsay

There are many nudes by the prolific Australian artist Norman Lindsay (1879-1969) to be found and enjoyed! (This, despite the fact that he lost a lot of his work in a 1940 fire.) The dude loved naked women. And Sirens isn't the world's worst movie if you want to get a look at Lindsay's home (where they filmed it); a fluffy film, but not too terrible. Hugh Grant is extremely well cast as the earnest and blushingly pervy vicar.

p.s. This is my copy of Lindsay's children's book The Magic Pudding--I think it might have been my my mother's or her siblings; it's an American edition from the 1930s. The illustrations are great. Love the aminals!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"Is childhood obesity proof that not all parents love their children?"

Dr. Michael Katz came to my attention in April because of a thread he started at, entitled: Is the Childhood Obesity epidemic proof that not all parents love their children?

I thought it was a joke at first, but it turns out Katz is a doctor who runs the--let's get this out of the way now--unfortunately named website, the K of which is seemingly capitalized to discourage the sense that the site is about the best way to sautee toddlers (I'm not sure it helps). EatingKids is devoted to childhood eating issues, "created not only to provide information, but to create a collaborative community of parents, doctors and educators who could fuel each others' passion to eliminate Eating Disorders & Childhood Obesity."

The dude seems well-intentioned, and the site includes, for example, a lot of good ideas about managing the onslaught of damaging media imagery for young girls with eating issues. But the parts of the site devoted to childhood obesity demonstrate the same thinking that fueled the TED question:
Obesity is a disease. It is also totally avoidable. While there do exist some genetic and thyroid deficiencies that can contribute to obesity – these are extremely rare.

As a rule: you show me an obese child and I’ll show you parents who are not doing their job.
Katz's question--can parents of obese children actually love them, given that they are fat?--makes a certain horrible sense in the context of our culture's current understanding of fat and especially children who are fat. It is the natural next thought in a world where body size is always and ever the result of what you do or don't do, and what you teach your children to do and do for them. If fat is a failing, then fat children are their parents' failure. If fat = death, then parents who 'let' their kids be fat are killing them. They do not love them.

So Katz tries it out on TED. Here are some of Katz's comments, taken from the thread. He wrestles with the do-they-love-them question as he considers the fact that this cannot all be an issue of information/knowledge:
Considering how many children are obese in the USA we can safely assume that not ALL the parents are ignorant of these factors. In fact, I think it is safe to say that most parents DO understand them - which is why I asked the question in the first place.
- - -
First, I TOTALLY reject the notion that a parent could truly LOVE their child, yet somehow NOT be able to feed the child a healthy diet on most days. ALL the stories you hear about fruits/veggies being more expensive than fast food are lies and I can prove it on any trip to the supermarket. I don't mean to be aggressive here, but I am truly SICK of that kind of false "meme."
- - -
I see this same thing happen time after time in these online "debates" and I'm beginning to get annoyed. I said what I said and there's no reason to cook up some false extrapolation about what I said. So, let me be clear: Based on what I've seen in my life, as a physician and as a person on this earth, I do not believe that all parents really love their children. I was interested to know if Childhood Obesity could be seen as a proof of that. That's about as far as I wanted to take it.
- - -
...If you love someone I believe you will stop [harmful] behavior . . . the abusive husband who beats his wife out of frustration with his life could still actually and truly love her. I think that is NOT true. So if a mom feeds her kids pizza and potato chips and the like on a daily basis, with the kids growing ever fatter (and sicker), can we say she really loves them? I think not.
Not long after the TED discussion, Katz posted this page on his site under pretty much the same headline/title--"Childhood Obesity Epidemic: Do all parents love their kids?"--incorporating some of the responses he got at TED (including, in a few cases, quoting them word-for-word with no attribution in his "points," "questions," and "answers"). He quotes, by way of answer to his question, a line from somebody else's post: "It’s not as easy as yes or no."

But it's clear he still does not seem to know what to think about it all--how to reconcile his ideas and the facts. I think he's honestly trying to understand it. He goes back to the idea that people just do not know what they need to know. He wonders if perhaps institutions should step in if parents "would not" feed their children properly. In one of his points he wonders, if a parent's schedule is contributing to their child's obesity, whether or not they should quit:
Assuming that one’s finances make it possible, then “Yes,” quitting is probably reasonable. This may seem extreme, but my answer is “So is diabetes" [emph his]. Love for your children requires you to make certain sacrifices if they are really in the child’s best interest. In fact, if the decisions you make really ARE best for your child, then they probably shouldn’t be considered sacrifices at all. If you love someone I believe you will stop hurtful behaviors, and leaving your kids a frozen pizza as an after-school snack IS a hurtful behavior. So…if a mom feeds her kids pizza and potato chips and the like on a daily basis, with the kids growing ever fatter (and sicker), and this is a result of the fact that she’s at work and doesn’t have time to cook a healthy, nutritious meal, then can we say she’s really doing the best for her child? I think not.
Dr. Katz seems to have created an extremely narrow definition of healthy and normal at I have to wonder how his treatment and understanding of eating disorders is informed by his understanding of obesity.

And it may "make sense" in our world, but it is still appalling to see this guy wrestle with the idea of the amount of love in a child's life--love--trying to get his mind around and explain body differences. Let me answer the question for him, by the way: no, actually, childhood obesity is not proof that not all parents love their children. It's proof of a lot of things, including socio-economics and genetics, which Katz dismisses, as well as food choices. If the standard statistic that one in three children is obese is true, that means he is honestly wondering if one-third of American children are not loved. That right there--the fact that he is positing the question at all--should tell him this is more complicated than the factors he sees at hand. He's answered his question already. The fact that he persists in it at all seems too appalling and dehumanizing to believe. But that is the world we live in.

Katz has also written a book about orthorexia; would be interesting to check it out.

check it out

The Museum of Obeast Conservation Studies!

...created by Rachel Herrick. "Her installation-based work spans a wide variety of media including sculpture, video, photography and performance. Herrick’s pseudo-scientific museum exhibitions document the field of study around the North American Obeast, a genus of mammals she invented to satirize fat bias and the cultural panic surrounding the obesity epidemic."

Monday, July 11, 2011

On Megan in Bridesmaids

I don't know what to say. I saw the movie twice. I took notes. I tried to keep an open mind. I didn't read any articles (because I'm weird like that sometimes, but also) because I wanted to have an unshaped reaction to it all. But ungh. Megan still kind of broke my heart.

I hate calling out Melissa McCarthy, who is great, gets a lot of screen time and in some ways steals the show. I love her--I think she's a great actress and comedienne. And I liked that Megan turns out to be the "together" character. And I liked the movie all right (Maya Rudolph is just wonderful).

But what the fuck. Is this the only way we can let a fat person into a mainstream movie, by making them as out of it, as weirdly-dressed and outsider as possible--arriving in the form of some weird stereotype? Does it make us that nervous to have a fat actress as just a another character?

Megan is definitely the Zach Galifianakis of this movie--the giant clueless toddler with no sense of social norms. McCarthy being a very pretty woman, effort is needed (and expended) to make her to look weird. Her makeup is handled differently than the other female characters--she's made up (or not at all) in harsh ways. Her clothing is unflattering and full of ZG-like touches--arm braces, etc.--as well as being strangely mannish (paired with pearls) and tailored in awkward ways. She gallops around, flops over couch backs, is sexually rapacious in unwanted ways as only fat people are in movies.

Okay, she's weird. Her character has a right to be weird. McCarthy's good at it! But it feels, watching it, as if the makers of Bridesmaids were so nervous at the thought of McCarthy on the same footing as the other actresses who, while all having personality quirks, were allowed to look semi-normal in Hollywood ways, that they make her a freak. The only scene in which McCarthy's makeup and wardrobe is treated as the others is the final scene when she is in bridesmaid wear and it suddenly becomes clear on what a different footing she has been treated through the movie because she looks gorgeous.

The absolute worst part of the movie is the little coda during the end credits of a videotaped homemade sex scene between Megan and her boyfriend. It's a lame sight gag involving a sandwich that makes it clear that people think fat people fuck food, not people. It was just miserable to watch (twice).

I feel like my original guess about the movie was right: McCarthy is miscast. She would have been a great lead and Kristen Wiig would have been a good Megan. I like Wiig a lot, but didn't feel like she had the emotional range needed for the character, ultimately. McCarthy would have been great.

The best thing to come out of Bridesmaids with regards to McCarthy is that she is getting more high-profile work: the Knocked Up spinoff, and another Paul Feig movie with she and John Hamm as "unconventional lovers," about which I don't even know what to think. From where I sit it would make sense to just cast them as lovers, but you know--we'll see.

The Media Machine and the Bodies It Feeds On

There needs to be a new word for the editorial point of view demonstrated in the constant rotation of articles in the UK's Daily Mail devoted to the excoriation of the female form. Dysmorphomaniacal. Celebricorpusrabidity. Hyperbodyhyperactiviscrutiny. I used to take screengrabs in open-mouthed shock to document articles such as this:

or this:
or this:
...until I realized that the Daily Mail looks like that every day. Truly, every day of the year. It's a microscope! Photos catch female celebrities from multiple angles while chiding them for their clothing choices (too slutty, too demure, too fancy, too rumpled), their footwear (they went after Nigella Lawson for her bunions recently), their hair, their panty lines, for sweating while exercising--anything. Women intrusively photographed with telephoto lenses "flaunt" their (either) Perfect Bikini or Somehow Wrong--fat, old, thin, wrinkly--Body in their bathing suits. Every (transitory, misleading, temporary, sustained) facial expression or bit of body language captured in any still photograph is valid evidence of and captioned as part of whatever narrative about their love life the Mail is pushing--jilted, spinster, happy, cheated on, cheating. You can not win.

In a perverse way I almost (almost) admire the Daily Mail for its insanity. It's so thoroughly superficial, in the literal sense. It's only about how things look: an insatiable Gargantua of body scrutiny. It's not admirable, of course--it's awful--and I feel terrible for anybody caught in the papp's sights in the UK, for good or for ill. It all sucks, although in a kind of equal-opportunity way. Everybody/everything gets put out there.

Also, weirdly, humanity shines through sometimes--at least to my eyes. Bodies are just bodies, and you show enough of them, even with all the commentary, they just seem like...bodies. And in the meantime the Mail looks stupid, like a bully jumping up and down harassing somebody on a bus while no one pays attention. They make themselves look ridiculous.

I found a few recent articles chastising otherwise looks-sanctioned female celebrities for evidence of their age especially mean, even given the Mail's usual MO--although it proves this point. Both of the articles criticized the women's hands and arms. One was about Kirstie Alley:

and one was about Meg Ryan:

Their arms are a dead giveaway! The bracelet only brings more attention to Alley's 60-year-old hand! The summery dress only shows Ryan's bulgy veins! They're not getting away with their grand plan to...

...wait, what are these women getting away with? Nothing. Yes, they are aging female celebrities who engage in the dance of beauty ideals. WE ALL KNOW HOW IT WORKS. We all know what they--and we--are supposed to look like, what the requirements are and when people don't fit them. Being thinner (as Alley is for the moment) means she is OK, as is Ryan, but they both sadly, stupidly, forgot to magically de-age their hands. Boo-ya! Failure. The Mail grinds these women through the body ideals machine and finds them wanting, cleverly exposes the tests they don't pass, but the only 'weaknesses' it exposes is the machine itself. Because Christ almighty, old hands age. Bodies age.

It's shitty journalism and pointless crap and it does harm, but I can't help feeling that articles like this mostly point out the flaws in the media's body-scrutiny machine. Rather the way that this article in People does:

The article is about a dancer on "Dancing With the Stars," Cheryl Burke, who gained (she estimates) five to ten pounds a couple years ago while on break from the show (some estimates by other helpful people put it closer to 20); she also said at the time she went from a size 2 to a size 4. When photos of her in a bikini surfaced at this time she started getting a lot of flak. There was a story at that time where she defended her weight, and then this story in January detailing the the heartbreak of the original story...

Ungh, I can't keep up. Whatever. She gained weight, spouted the party line about "loving her curves" in public while panicking and dieting in private, then talked about it all later again. The point is that this is all this story is about: ten pounds. That's it. The media machine is fucked--because it exists, but also--if a ten pound-change triggers this kind of journalistic need (and note: there were two cycles of stories about this). You can see the spectre of money in it all--Burke gains attention for her autobiography and for the show--which creates its own impetus, but still. This is all we're talking about. Ten pounds. And 60-year-old hands. That's it. That's all. The trigger is filed down insanely low.

Unfortunately stories like this and the Daily Mail insanity are more convincing proof of a flawed system than the scrutiny tendered to people who "deserve" it--Alley, for instance, when she gained 90 pounds. Then somehow it's okay. Merited, even if we won't admit it. But lets take the proof where we can find it: if the detectors start blaring when there's very little to detect, maybe the machine is broken.

no "fat lady sings" puns in this post (from me)

Opera is a fascinating place to look at issues of size because sometimes fat people just have to exist there. That is not true everywhere, despite what fatphobes might think about this world in which fatness creeps ever upon us. It is easy to watch TV or pick up a magazine and find it curated free of fat people. But singing opera is a rarefied skill and sometimes size goes along with it, for reasons that are not well understood, including in their necessity.

As opera continues its fiscal quest to be relevant to modern opera-unfamiliar audiences and leverage its plots to fill seats (rather than turn people off), there is a lot of conflict about Looks. Creating a digestible, artistic, Thing. Deborah Voigt's dumping by Covent Garden and subsequent weight loss surgery, and Daniella Dessi's fight with Zefferelli after he berated her for her size, are obvious examples.

Opera's conflict over fat people on stage is different than the battle that goes on in other media, though, because to some degree, sometimes, fat singers have clout. Not the final word, and not enough clout, probably, but you cannot sweep--for instance--Stephanie Blythe under the carpet. The contralto of a lifetime cannot quite be dumped wholesale because you are uncomfortable with the fact that she is fat.

And still there are people who would do that. This piece about Lyndon Terracini, the artistic director of Opera Australia, is the most elaborately unchallenged defense of looks-related prejudice in opera I think I've read:
The fat lady has sung. And if Lyndon Terracini continues to get his way, she won't get an encore until she at least shifts some weight.

Lest the man charged with overseeing the future of opera in Australia be accused of sexism [whew], he is quick to point out that his shape-up-or-ship-out message applies to all performers, regardless of gender.

''If you're seeing a couple making out and one of them is obese, who wants to watch that?'' he says with a theatrical grimace. ''It's obscene. You just think, 'Jeez, for Chrissakes, don't let the children see that'.'' [emph. mine]

. . . If casting ''triple threats'' who can sing, act and look good helps spark an interest among people who think opera is only for the old and rich, then he makes no apologies for upping the unemployment rate of overweight singers.

''You go to a movie and you see people who look exactly right for that role,'' he says. ''They're consummate actors and they're completely involved in what they are doing, so their performance is totally believable.

''That's what I'd like in opera: for people to be fabulous singers, look wonderful and be completely and totally absorbed in their character. If you can't get off the seat, if you've got to sit on a rock all night, who believes that?''
His circular argument, boiled down, is basically: fat people are gross and we should not have them on stage to interfere with our suspension of disbelief that the world does not have them in it. So we won't. It's horrible, but refreshingly open, in a way, in the workings of its prejudice.

I can't help thinking that artistic decisions like this will bite people like Terracini on the ass. People who love opera adore good singers, and functioning prejudice like this can alienate even standard issue opera fans who would prefer thinner singers to look at. It's just not that simple. The reason? Opera happens in 3-D. You don't just look at it: you take a bath in it, listen to it, feel your body vibrate from it. Good singing is good singing. Nobody appreciates that taken away from them.

[Link via Brian of Red No. 3]

some ladies

Illustrations by Arthur Watts from Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield. "Cousin Maud" hung on my bulletin board for years...I especially love her.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

"Fat Kills"

I was reading Marilyn Wann's wonderful commentary in SFWeekly today when I found out Betty Rose Dudley had died. I didn't know her, but I knew her piece, "Fat Kills," quite well. It was much reproduced and still holds up as a beautifully shaped piece of short fiction. It's worth a read. I am so sorry to hear she's gone.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


...luv the bottle for Damiana liqueur, that is, which is reportedly based on an Incan goddess of fertility. I find the bottle design interesting for many reasons, including the fact that I think she looks rather pugnacious. Those look like fists--or almost-fists--to me, held low so she won't lash out, maybe, while you say something stupid. A powerful little woman. I wonder how she felt about being hoisted in the advert (below).