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This piece was originally published on Medium.
An Unruly Mannequin
Like so many others, I saw the Nike Mannequin madness unfold on my social feed first.
“It’s just a woman in leggings, you ignorant fucks,” said the perfectly captioned meme as I scrolled through my Instagram feed. I rolled my eyes. Clearly, a big woman’s body somewhere had upset some people, and I had the feeling I’d hear more about it the next day. I was right.
The next morning a friend tagged me in a Facebook post published by one of Australia’s (increasingly desperate) morning shows, Today. “What do you think about this, Jen? You’re better with words than I am,” she said.
I sighed. I didn’t want to watch it. I didn’t want to give oxygen to a group of grown adults discussing the shape of a store mannequin, when our stores are already packed with alien-esque, oddly proportioned dummies already. We’re so used to it, it’s rarely questioned—and promptly dismissed the odd time the issue does grab a micro-headline.
The issue, of course, is bigger than a store mannequin. I get so fed up with the constant grind on women and our disobedient, unruly bodies, I almost didn’t watch. Then I changed my mind. Liam Bartlett, the only man in the discussion, played bad cop, blithely body-shaming the mannequin and its “blubber,” playing the misogyny card for Newscorp clicks. He wore his incredulity like a monocle.
Bartlett even concedes that “… some people have problems… like recovering from having a baby.” Hey Liam, how is "recovering" from having a baby a problem? Oh, you mean the part when the woman’s body dares to take on that whole postpartum shape (Eye roll.). Apart from that pearler, his indignant words actually made me snigger:
“… That’s not even a [size] 16*, like an out of control 16, that’s gotta be an 18 at least.”
Get out of town—not even a 16 (Australia 16 is a US 18.)? At least an 18—oh, horror of horrors. What might happen next?
Large women not having an invisible door slammed in their face when they want to find nice comfy clothes to work out in? Activewear which effectively wicks sweat, prevents chaffing, and supports their bodies when they exercise? Where on Earth does Nike get off empowering women like this to buy their stuff, and maybe even get active while they wear it? Apparently, this is a dystopia which defies belief. How very dare they.
Jokes aside, bad-cop Bartlett unintentionally says the words at the crux of the issue at play here. The real issue. Because how can a store mannequin, an inanimate object, inspire such rapture from the Body Positive community, and such vehement disgust from Concern Trolls and Body Shamers?
Does the Nike mannequin "promote an unhealthy lifestyle?" No, that’s not it, even though that’s the predictable line Bartlett and many other "anti-Nike mannequin" types were arguing.
"Concern" (i.e. trolling) is a paper mask cobbled together and slapped over the top of the real driver of body-shaming, which "overweight" women are disproportionately the targets of. In the main, "concern" is what people show when they want to medicalise their disgust; rationalise a hatred they may not be able to explain themselves.
Concern Trolls who say they "speak up" because they care so much about other people’s health are kidding themselves at best. Women who are "too strong" or "too muscular" disrupt female body stereotypes and can receive almost as much derision as women who are "too fat." The trolls don’t care if fat people die of said unhealthiness, or unhappiness. So what did Bartlett say, before looping back to the concern trolling line? Here it is:
“… like an out of control 16.”
All issues which attack the "wrongness" of women and their bodies start with two things. Control and domination.
Oh, and they’re both driven by patriarchy.
It's Not All Men... But
We live in a patriarchal society. It’s no coincidence in Western culture that it’s more acceptable for men to be "fat" than women, especially these days, when idealised feminine beauty resembles an untried and untested girl. In fact, most "fat" men, unless they are actually obese, aren’t called fat at all. They’re styled as being stocky, a unit—names with much friendlier connotations than the maligned word "fat." It wasn’t always so.
The artifacts of prehistoric, pre-patriarchal worship, goddess like Venus of Willendorf (circa 28,000–25,000 BC) show a beauty ideal very different to today’s girlish, hairless, slender beauty ideal. They were depicted with wide hips; large, mango-shaped breasts; round bellies, either in pregnancy, or even (gasp) sagging. They have heavy thighs, the legs of a body anchored to the earth, and anchored in her own agency and power. Throughout ancient history, female beauty ideas changed, coming closer to modern beauty ideals. You only need to see the idealised beauty of Greek sculpture of the Hellenistic period to know women with breasts, soft, rounded stomachs, and heavy thighs were still considered beautiful.
The Changing Shape of Beauty Ideals
Patriarchy has dualism at its ideological heart: dark/light, full/empty, powerful/powerless, man/woman. Patriarchal dualism requires that if men have power, then they must have someone to have power over. This is usually a woman, but it’s encompassed things like feudalism, slavery, imperialism and racism.
The Industrial Revolution and the rise of the nuclear family began to erode patriarchy’s own potency. Man was expected to leave his home to work, taking him a step away from his traditional power base. This has continued to increase, and of course World Wars, and first, second and subsequent waves of feminism and women’s liberation, and the middle class realisation that property ownership isn’t a given, have made their marks on patriarchy, stripping it of it’s former glory as an institution.
There are many things which shape beauty ideals, including the wide availability of food in most Western countries: body fat was once a sign of wealth and abundance. Still, there’s no coincidence when patriarchy starts to show cracks, a smaller, more infantile female body becomes fashionable. See the noughties, when a woman’s vulva suddenly needed to hair be free, like a girl’s. The now infamous Kate Moss was at the forefront of the 1993 rise of the girlish and unhealthy "waif" look.
One of the foundation stones of patriarchy is a thirst for immortality. Immortality of a sort is granted to the patriarch through ownership of property and lineage. This makes it necessary for man to control his woman and the children she produces, to keep his property in his grasp. Just look to the USA, where a tide of fearful conservatism is eating away hard won rights of women’s bodily autonomy: women’s rights and bodies become political battle grounds.
So how can a "plus-size" mannequin dominate discourse and whip up hateful comments by the thousand? Because muscular women, fat women—any large woman, breaks the strong/weak, powerful/powerless, male/female dichotomy. And for that, she must pay a price.
Discipline and the New Asceticism
In a mostly secular country like Australia, Wellness and mindfulness are approaching religious fervor. The Wellness Industry (that’s the Diet Industry flying under the radar) promotes "clean eating": avoiding whole groups of foods like wheat, rice, potato, even some fruit—foods that have been cultural staples since a bunch of ape-like creatures decided it was cool to start walking upright.
Clean eating is not just about reducing calories and trip-wiring your "default" systems to reshape your body (yep I’ve been told that by a trainer before). One of its ascetic principles is the denial of pleasure in food: the pleasure comes from knowing you’re disciplined—and losing weight.
We’ve probably all seen memes saying things like “Sweat is your fat crying.” Have you worked hard enough to have a "cheat meal?" For the reward of knowing you were "good," not "bad"? The constant preoccupation of how women "should" look produces a psychological phenomenon called self-surveillance, a kind of disconnect where a woman views her own body as an outsider would. According to the Report of the APA Taskforce on the Sexualization of Girls, self surveillance and self objectification causes a range of ill effects from cognitive disadvantages such as under-performing in exams and a work environment, to eating disorders and self-harm.
The Real Problem: An Out of Control Woman is Taboo
It’s this simple. A woman at war with herself is a woman under control. She’s not asking questions, and might even lash out at other women who defy the norms she’s internalised and lost so much of herself attaining.
Then along came a Nike mannequin, disrupting the lean and mean middle-to-upper-class-female narratives on what discipline is, how fat women "should" behave, dress, where they should be able to shop, and yes—whether they should be able to see themselves in the store mannequins as they shop.
Even women look at artifacts like the Willendorf Venus and the Nike mannequin with distaste and disgust driven by fear. Like the goddess, she’s posed confidently, her body resembling a life-like woman, or a woman looks like she’s brought life to the world. I can see how a modern, entirely commercial representation of that old and feared deity might make waves; a woman out of control threatens the dichotomy of the patriarchy.
Despite the utter ridiculousness of the Nike mannequin story at surface-level, the latent issues of power, control, and the struggle to share are the real reasons a life-like impression of a woman’s body in leggings and a sports crop can create such a storm in the patriarchal teacup.