Madonna: Crazy for sinew

Reading Madonna's body.

Rebecca Traister
June 1, 2006 1:16AM (UTC)

Meghan Daum's Los Angeles Times column was pretty interesting on Saturday, exploring as it did the powerful messages sent by the body of one Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone Penn Ritchie, aka Madge.

The conceit of Daum's piece is her effort to become Madonna for a day. "Not," she writes, "the Kabbalah part, or the singing and dancing part, or the part where you lapse in and out of vaguely European accents." No, the new new new main attraction, as the singer kicks off her "Confessions" tour, is her super-attenuated, wickedly wiry bod, which, as Daum elegantly puts it, "has been carved out of 47-year-old flesh by sheer force of will."


Daum tries to live like Madonna, short the personal assistants, chefs, rabbis and Donatella Versaces; she just wants to exercise like the star, who reportedly does two hours of ashtanga, a session of Pilates or gyrotronics (I wouldn't know a gyrotronic if it hit me in the gluteus maximus, but a search turns up something that involves an alarming exercise apparatus-cum-synthesizer drum kit), a couple of hours of cardio and an evening StairMaster session every day. Daum's attempt to replicate this fitness plan, unsurprisingly, fails: She is foiled by a beguiling snooze button, a demanding pooch and some mildewy sneaks.

But she concludes that the Madonna workout, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, is "not impossible, it's just impractical, even boring. Kind of like Madonna herself these days." She also quotes from Daphne Merkin's Elle interview with the star, zeroing in on a line that I'd missed when I read it a couple of months ago. In Elle, Madonna had said, after discussing Anne Sexton and the fact that she doesn't "get how people get through life without reading," "I wish I were comfortable enough to look zaftig ... but I choose men who like carved-out women, the can-you-run-for-the-bus kind of guy." Yack! How did I miss that? So she's doing this Evenings on The StairMaster routine (Anne Sexton in hand, no doubt) because her husband likes her looking unnaturally sculpted?

As Daum writes, "What happened to Madonna as a symbol of take-it-or-leave-it self-assurance? How is it that even as Madonna's fans have grown older and more comfortable with themselves, the Material Girl has become ensnared in the kind of tyranny she once opposed? How come she had more moxie as a cherubic twentysomething in trashy leggings than she does as a woman with a reported net worth of $315 million?"


The funny thing is, it hadn't occurred to me, as it has to Daum, that in Madonna's current incarnation, "her career is merely a vehicle for her body." In fact, last week I'd shaken my head in bemused appreciation when she managed to get a photo of herself hanging on a disco crucifix into newspapers and magazines around the world. "That Madonna," I'd chuckled as if I were my own grandmother, "she never stops trying to get a rise out of people!"

But Daum is right, in a way I hadn't considered. There's something weird about Madonna's body thing -- her current body thing, that is -- that can't be explained by talk of her various incarnations or Kabbalah or even a respect for her own fitness. What feels so bizarre about this desperate focus on her limbs, her muscles, her form is the way it seems to project something we've never (or I've never) associated with Madonna before: insecurity.

Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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