Growing up, Sophia Loren was called the little toothpick, “stuzzicadenti,” starving as she was in her native Naples during wartime. And, then, she blossomed. She became a beauty: wasp-waisted, full-bosomed, hippy. Despite “a nose too long, and lips too wide” (according to Loren herself at a recent tribute in Schenectady, N.Y.), that body and the way she used it propelled her to international stardom. Watching Loren mambo in 1955’s “Scandal in Sorrento” (tagline: “So much WOMAN! So much SPECTACLE! So much EXCITEMENT!”), it’s clear that she’s no longer the toothpick. Instead, she’s a colossus whose body is a vessel of power for a future Oscar winner who knew how to deploy it — and didn’t underestimate its effect on the men around her.
Contemporary Hollywood would fumble with all that gorgeous flesh. That body is too powerful, too full: female but invulnerable. Perhaps only Sofia Vergara, consistently among TV’s highest-paid actresses, has become the exception that proves the rule: Viewers adore women with meat on their bones, but the vast majority of Hollywood stars conform to a fascism-of-size that somehow perceives anything larger than a size six, or over 125 pounds, as overweight. Pear-shaped? Forget about it.
Last summer’s Oscar-winning “Mad Max: Fury Road” lays out the matrix of cinematic body types — the grotesquely obese providers of mother’s milk, the stick-thin supermodel breeders and the isolated sun-dried crones. And then there’s Charlize Theron, the A-list beauty who could, according to one reviewer, “be playing forward for the U. Conn women’s basketball team.”
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Even in the dystopic future, it’s the drippy supermodels who are the most desirable, appearing like vulnerable gazelles on a desert populated with spotted hyenas. And yet costume designer Jenny Beavan, the woman who clothed all the adventure’s varied body types, got a huge taste of body shaming at the Oscar ceremony. How dare the 65-year-old, gray-haired professional choose to not conform to Hollywood expectations of female behavior by shellacking herself into an inappropriate evening gown? Instead, she dressed in biker chic like the majority of the team, in pants and vegan leather reminiscent of their movie. The below-the-line talent’s Oscar-winning achievement was diminished in the press and social media by what she wore and how she looked.
Beavan answered the criticism with a Max-ian boldness: “I’m short, I’m fat. I really would look ridiculous in a gown.” Bugger off.
Beavan’s I-don’t-give-a-f–k attitude is, thankfully, catching on. Margaret Cho talks about the torture she went through when she got her own sitcom, 1994’s “All-American Girl,” but ABC then harped on her to lose weight — to play herself. Melissa McCarthy is both a film star and a TV star, whose line of plus-size clothing, Seven7, is a hit. Plus-size model Ashley Graham recently graced one of three Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue covers (also on the covers were UFC champion Rhonda Rousey and a more traditional choice, model Hailey Clauson).
The outspoken Amy Schumer posed nearly nude for Annie Leibovitz, having proclaimed at an event last year: “I’m 160 pounds and can catch a d–k whenever I want. And no, I’m not going to apologize for who I am, and I’m going to actually love the skin that I’m in. I’m not gonna be striving for some other version of myself.”
And, in March, Danielle Brooks of “Orange Is the New Black” appeared on Ebony magazine’s “The Body Brigade” cover in a curve-revealing bodysuit alongside style blogger Gabi Fresh, and singers Jazmine Sullivan and Chrisette Michele, complete with more glam shots inside and a story about body image, black women and self-acceptance.
Diverse women of all shapes and sizes have also flooded the small screen with the rise of unscripted television, from “Survivor” to “What Not to Wear” to “Say Yes to the Dress.” According to Lauren Gellert, executive VP of programming and development at We TV: “Our standard is real women. When you look at our air, the body image there is as you’d expect — not tiny in every turn; not oversize in every turn. It’s regular women living their lives dressing for their bodies, and that’s what our audiences relate to.”
The cable network has succeeded with such unscripted shows as “Mary Mary” on Thursday nights. Gellert explains that its stars, Tina and Erica Campbell, are “Grammy Award-winning artists who are built how they are built….Tina puts out there when she’s grappling with her weight. What sets her apart is that she has to go on stage. She’ll say, ‘I’m in trouble now. These clothes don’t look as good as they did on the Emmys.’ She struggles, like many women, with the 5 or 10 extra pounds that they wish they didn’t put on.”
This strategy of appealing to real women is paying off for the network. We TV is consistently the No. 1 cable network for African-American women and adults on Thursday nights.
Still, the media’s objectification of women won’t end soon. It reflects how the majority of American men see (and idealize) women in our culture. As long as men continue to have their fingers on the greenlight of what enters production, these issues will persist.
According to Women and Hollywood founder-editor Melissa Silverstein, “We live in a world where it has become commonplace and normalized to discuss every single thing about a woman, from her nail polish to whether or not she has a baby bump. Women’s bodies have become a cultural war zone, and the effect it has is to make us numb to these most egregious and constant aggressions on our everyday lives.”
And, yet, returning to the liberating image of Loren dancing the mambo around a helplessly besotted older man, we must keep in mind that it’s as critical to recognize the virility of the female form as to decry its objectification. The challenge is to regain control of our bodies and their sexual potency, to reshape our notion of body image and resist seeing ourselves through the limited gaze of corporate mass media.