"Fat" Britney vs. "horror show" Madonna

Can't a lady celebrity ever win?

By Amy Benfer
Published July 28, 2009 6:29PM (EDT)

Hey, have you heard? Britney Spears is "fat" again! This "angered" and offended her German fans so much that they have dubbed her "Dickney" and "Speckney." (Both allegedly mean "fat" in German, though the former could probably do double-duty as a slut-shaming term in its English translation.)

But think twice before you order Spears to remedial gym training. According to the Daily News, Madonna's "stringy," "veiny" arms are "more like a horror show than something out of a gym." "Time to quit the gym, Madge!" says writer Nicole Carter -- you are working out too much! Fellow Daily News writer wonders, "Are Kate Gosselin and Madonna workout buddies?" Because guess what? Kate's too-sculpted biceps, while not yet veiny, are on a slippery slope to mimicking the Material Girl -- "time to soften the image and drop the dumb bell now!" (Clearly, neither one learned their lesson from the first lady). Perhaps both are just trying to stave off the dread "bingo wings," also known as "dinner lady arms" that, according to the Daily Mail, are nearly impossible to remedy without hideously painful surgery -- "for most women of a certain age there's little to do except slip on a cardigan."

Now I'm really confused. Do I make that afternoon yoga class, break out the barbells, or just sit in the yard and eat lettuce and drink cucumber water? Do they make cardigans I can wear in July?

OK, so tabloid writers are fucking batty. We all knew that, right? We can -- and should -- rage about body image all we like, but it may also be perfectly reasonable for the rest of us to conclude that if one wishes to avoid national exposure each time we gain or lose a few pounds, perhaps we should choose a career in which one does not quite literally make money off one's looks. Truth: Madonna's arms, unlike Michelle Obama's, do not look like the kind of thing one gets simply doing some morning bicep curls. They look more like the result of a 50-year-old woman in full-blown panic mode that she might finally be succumbing to the natural results of her age. And that does make me feel sort of sad and weird.

But what gets me is not merely the fat-shaming of women who, by no rational measure, should be considered "fat." It's also the inevitable miracle weight-loss success story, which every last Hollywood publicist insists their client achieved through old-fashioned diet and exercise -- even if we all know that no one has ever lost 10 or 15 pounds in less than a month without severely unhealthy calorie restriction, no matter how many wind sprints their personal trainer may put them through. And let's be honest: What we are calling the difference between "fat" and "thin" here is the difference between about 10 or 15 pounds; a concave stomach versus a bit of a muffin top when one is wearing the skinny jeans one bought 5 pounds earlier.

To get all academic about it, this tells us nothing about health: Even by the notoriously useless and often unfair standards of the BMI table the average woman can fall within about a 25-pound range, without ever veering into being officially "under-" or "over"-weight. By some estimates (calculated by the likes of Star magazine, so I'm not vouching for accuracy here): I've seen "fat" Britney listed at 125 pounds (which, at 5-foot-5 would give her a a low BMI of about 20) up to about 140 pounds, which would give her a BMI of 23, still 10 pounds shy of "overweight"; "thin" Britney was about 105 to 110 pounds for a BMI of 17 or 18, about 5 to 10 pounds "underweight"; "fat" Jessica Simpson was about 140 pounds, which, at 5-foot-3, would give her a BMI of 24 -- still within the border of a "healthy" weight. (If she's 5-foot-2, as other publications report, well, she would have been 5 pounds "overweight.")

Having not personally weighed and measured these ladies myself, I can't tell you if these weights are accurate, or merely the inventions of some tabloid editors or publicists. But they are, at the very least, the figures available to women and girls who wish to measure their own bodies against those of the stars. And what they do tell us is that, if anything, these women are likely closer to being a "healthy" weight when they are being maligned as "fat." Yet when Britney or Jessica starts to show a bit more flesh in their midriff-baring stage costumes or high-waisted jeans, everyone starts to joke about their alleged indulgence in barbecue, fried chicken and good old Southern food; when they get "back into shape" it's all about their fantastic workouts with their personal trainer and eating fresh veggies. (Never mind that it could just as easily be the Beyoncé Knowles "subsisting on lemon juice, water, cayenne pepper and laxatives for two weeks" diet plan; the Angelina Jolie "my mother died and that stressed me out" diet plan; or the time-honored cigarettes, coffee and cocaine diet plan. Or maybe just bulimorexia.) Unless, of course, they work out too much. Because everyone knows veiny biceps on a lady are, like, way unfeminine.

Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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