UW Lecture: Kathy Najimy on Women and Body Image

May 20, 2015

Yesterday evening, I attended the last in the “Weight and Wellness” UW Graduate Lecture series. Director, producer, writer, actor, and activist Kathy Najimy joined us to talk about women and body image. An outspoken advocate for women’s, reproductive, and LGBTQ+ rights, she is a frequent speaker on issues like Hollywood, the media, and body image.

Najimy introduced her story by saying that, though she now lives in New York, she was born in San Diego and lived in LA for over 17 years. Growing up in that environment was very difficult for her as a young woman, because she was surrounded by tremendous pressure to look a certain way; she was patently aware of the cultural expectation to have a particular body type.

In fact, in third grade, the school nurse came to her classroom and called out the names of three girls—her, and two others. They were, in her words, “the roundest girls in the class”. The three girls were marched down the hallway to the nurse’s office, where she weighed them all in front of each other and told them that they were overweight. The school then put all of them on a diet. Najimy was 8 years old, and weighed just 76 pounds. This began what she referred to as a “crazy cycle of losing and gaining weight, based on what others thought I should be.”

In addition to the pressure to look a certain way, as she grew older, she noticed pressure to act a certain way. At age 11, she was spending time with a female friend when a boy walked into the room. In a split second, her friend morphed from a smart, funny, animated young woman, into a contorted, “absurdly Kafkaesque” caricature. “In fact,” Najimy said, “I thought she was having a seizure.” Her friend’s voice went from level to high pitched; she began giggling nervously, sucked in her stomach, and then grew very quiet. This was the first—though certainly not the last—time Najimy noticed how her female friends changed around boys. Where were they getting the message that they needed to be thinner, quieter, and different than their authentic selves?

Growing up, Najimy also began to observe that boys could be many things: funny, adventurous, and smart. But as girls grew older, their options became more limited: the ideal girl was “pretty, desirable, quiet, shy, and, most importantly of all, thin.”

She began to see how both cultural approval and the approval of boys and men overshadowed everything about herself and the personalities and selves of her friends. Moreover, thinness at any cost was the goal to be attained. It was the ultimate achievement, against all odds, against all threat to mental and physical health.

Hollywood, according to Najimy, is a “concentrated version of what society does to women and girls”. It distills every bit of body policing and shame down into a perfect science. Thus, it’s no surprise that, as an actress, Najimy never got a part with a specific physical description. However, she didn’t actually want anything to do with those kinds of roles. As she put it, ingénue characters were not interesting or exciting to her, and the fact that actresses must be younger and thinner each year to be both successful and beautiful seemed more frightening and sad than anything else.

What was interesting and exciting: having a character written specifically for her. When she was approached to do a sitcom called Veronica’s Closet, Najimy explicitly told the show’s creators that she didn’t want to be typecast as the fat, funny, single friend. So, they wrote a role for her who was as far from stereotypical as they come: a strong character in her own right (who even, Najimy recalled gleefully, got to make out with an Orlando Bloom lookalike for “weeks on end” while they were filming). The show’s creators worked with her to make her an integral part of the show. By doing so, they actively avoided reducing her role to one that used her body size as a trope—a rarity in the entertainment industry.

For the most part, Najimy was never directly pressured to change by the entertainment industry; however, she still observed this happening to other women, and she stressed how important it was that she became comfortable in her own skin, in spite of all the indirect pressures put on her by Hollywood. She had to block out the message that thinness is a prerequisite for success. This was the only thing that ensured her survival.

Nonetheless, her observations revealed how dangerous the industry is for many actresses. She recounted how directors, producers, and wardrobers pressure women to be a size 0, no matter how unrealistic it is for their body type. “Actresses in Hollywood,” Najimy said, “Receive a lot of blame, but little power and control. The only control they are given is over their bodies. So, they starve themselves.” Thus, these women chain smoke, skip meals, and even come close to suicide in the pursuit of the unattainable.

Worse yet, body size is blamed for practically everything: for example, if a show’s ratings begin to slip, the actress may be told to lose weight. One show creator even approached Najimy for a role and said, “You need to funny and fuckable. You need to appeal to 19 year old boys.” She walked away from him without a second glance.

Then there is the Hollywood body paradox, where no matter what actresses do or how they look, their bodies are criticized and ridiculed. In one example, Najimy mentioned a People magazine cover, which both said that Kirstie Alley was too fat and the Olsen twins are too thin. In short: no one can win, because they are held to an impossible standard. No one can ever be good enough; not for the media, and certainly not for themselves.

Hollywood, the media, and society as a whole are obsessed with women’s weight, to the extent that even the celebrity news of the year is how fast a starlet can lose her baby weight: “Jessica Alba lost her baby weight in 6 days! Instead of admiring the miracle of pregnancy, we’re obsessed with how quickly we can erase the signs that it ever happened.”

And this is what really gets to the crux of the issue: fat stigma is one of the few remaining acceptable biases. Fat is supposedly one of the worst things a person can be. In fact, Najimy mentioned that in a recent study, 7 year old girls were asked if they would rather be fat or have a life-threatening disease. They all preferred the life-threatening disease to being fat. Hitting even closer to home, when Najimy was at a salon in New York, the stylist’s 6 year old daughter declared that she wanted to eat a salad because she didn’t want to be fat.  Children pick up on cues from both adults and the media terrifyingly early, and the lessons they are learning are that your body is your entire net worth.

Najimy posited: “this unattainable quest [to be thin] prevents women from ruling the world. They waste time wasting away, because they are told that the less of you there is, the more you’re worth.” In fact, research shows that around age 12, girls stop getting good grades, because they become self-conscious, start dieting, and lose focus. Their emphasis goes from their brains to their bodies.

The powerful point is that our cultural body obsession redirects girls’ time and energy from studying to diets, and from science to body scrutiny.The brain power, talent, and potential that could be applied to solving some of the world’s most fascinating and complex problems is instead applied to body obsession.

There is no single, easy solution to this problem. Massive change will be necessary to shift the cultural ethos away from fat-shaming. However, Najimy did have suggestions for ways we can begin to fight against these kinds of oppression. Her suggestions included:

  • Valuing women’s minds, rather than their bodies
    • Teaching young boys and men to cherish girls and women for their souls, humor, and minds — not their bodies
    • Talking to young girls about more than their looks. Don’t just tell them they’re pretty, because this reinforces that their only self-worth is their physical appearance, a message they’re already receiving far too often.
  • Voting with your wallet
    • Supporting movies with women and actresses with realistic body types
    • Not buying magazines like People, which play into the media’s body-shaming circus
  • Making your voice heard: Writing letters of support (for media you love) and protest (for media that sets unrealistic standards, reinforces body shaming, etc.)
  • Helping girls’ voices be heard: Encouraging girls to speak up and be active participants in school and society (especially important because around age 12 is when they become more self-conscious and stop raising their hands in classes.)

Najimy left us thinking with a powerful Gloria Steinem quote: “Behave as if everything we do matters.” Without a doubt, she is a living example of that principle, and I’m immensely glad I had an opportunity to hear her speak.

For further reading on Kathy Najimy, body image, her LGBTQ+ activism, and her upcoming HBO TV series:

Photo credit: marniejoyce / Foter / CC BY

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