Sunday, May 28, 2023

In Praise of Thighs: How Pop Culture is Slowly Shifting the Beauty Norm

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There are have been a lot of very good think pieces about WAP, the fantastically filthy song by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, and this isn’t going to be one of them, really. While I am pro every aspect of this song, it was very early on in the music video – maybe the third or fourth ‘whores in this house’ – where I thought “If thighs like this had existed in pop culture in my teenage years, maybe I wouldn’t have had such shitty body image for half my life.”

As a teenager in the late 90s to early 00s, Thighs – yes, with a capital T – didn’t really exist. Two of the biggest shows from that period were Friends and Buffy, The Vampire Slayer and upon re-watch, which I have been doing  a lot of in this pandemic, it has become glaringly obvious just how much heroin chic had filtered into the mainstream.

I will be a Phoebe Buffay ride or die for life but it’s fair to say that a lot of Friends hasn’t aged well – the jokes about Chandler’s transgender parents, the fact that there was one non-white character in a million seasons, the fact that money was really the invisible seventh character.

But the very worst part is how much of a punchline Fat Monica was – and how painfully thin ‘Good’ Monica was in comparison. When the show starts, they all look like normal-looking hot people and by about halfway through the show, you see the female characters get whittled down to mannequins. Same with Buffy. I guess they were all 20-somethings playing teenagers but it has a very ‘let’s keep the Olympic gymnasts so small they look like children’ feel about it.

The only Thighs on display in my youth – other than my own, of course – were Jennifer Lopez’s and it seems the very height of noughties insanity that Jennifer Lopez’s body was once offered to us as ‘curvy’.

And I get that Cardi B and Megan B Stallion still aren’t what we would call an achievable body type – and as a white woman, I’m watching my language veeery carefully here to make sure I’m not getting fetish-y – but holy shit. Those Thighs are a thing of beauty – and they are a great thing for girls to see (even if, yes, okay, the NSFW video is for grown women only).

Compare this to the pop stars of my youth where there was the battle of the size zeros, where it was imperative for famous singers to be a NZ size six. As someone who came out of the womb a size 12-14, this was endlessly depressing to see.

When I worked for Creme magazine – aimed at tweenage girls – we worked SO HARD to try and make our magazine as size inclusive as we could. Our fashion editor would hire the biggest models she could find, we tried to include as many body sizes in the stock images, we never, ever featured photos of celebrities where they looked incredibly thin.

But even with our best efforts, it was slim pickings (that pun just couldn’t be helped). Jennifer Lawrence was basically as ‘realistic’ as it got. There was so much pressure on these girls; in her Netflix documentary, Taylor Swift talks about how being told ‘it’s so great you’re a sample size’ at photoshoots helped trigger her eating disorder; she wanted to stay ‘easy’ to fit clothes onto, so she stopped eating. And this was at the 1989 peak of her career – with all that power, she still felt like she had to keep up the thin ideal.

I think about how freaking jazzed we would have been to feature someone like Lizzo in Creme, someone who manages to make a two-hour performance of dancing and flute playing look effortless, while also singing like an opera star. It’s not so much body positivity with Lizzo as it is body freedom – she looks totally free in herself.

That freedom is represented so perfectly in Neon’s new show Shrill, where the main character Annie goes with her best friend to a ‘Fat Babe Pool Party’, to write about it for a magazine.

Show me a better pool outfit that Lolly Adefope’s sunshine number

She turns up in jeans and a shirt – with a long history of not feeling comfortable in togs behind her. But the Fat Babe Pool Party is exactly what the title suggests: a lot of fat women in the SICKEST, brightest, jazziest swimsuits you’ve ever seen, just dancing and swimming and sunbathing and chatting up a storm with each other. I’m including a clip here for you to look at, because I think all female eyes need to see the abundance of flesh and joy on display at this party.

Thighs, Thighs, Thighs, as far as the eye can see. May we keep seeing more of them!* And may we think of the above scene the next time we inadvertently stumble across some bullshit messaging about ‘getting your beach body ready for summer’.

*I will not link to the WAP music video because my mum reads this site.

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