It seems unlikely that I would look to television for affirmations about my body image, especially since just last Wednesday night I watched while a reality housewife got plastic surgery so she could get the “coveted” thigh gap.
A thigh gap, in its most literal sense, is a space between your upper legs, but it has evolved into a mass cultural delusion that suggests the presence of one means you are thin enough to be pretty, while the absence of one means you need to put the pizza down, fattie, and go for a run.
However, when you flip through your channels — network, cable, or otherwise — you aren’t always seeing the types of female characters that would waste precious time worrying about arbitrary beauty standards meant to undermine our images of ourselves. What you do see, instead, is a pushback against this inane delusion. Shows like Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black,” FX’s “Fargo” and Lifetime’s “Drop Dead Diva” feature leading female characters that have a far more healthy and evolved sense of self. These characters spend less time participating in ridiculous and illogical body hatred, and more time celebrating what makes them feel beautiful.
While even a discussion of a thing like the thigh gap could feel like the beginnings of the apocalypse, it has little to do with actual women and their concerns about how they look. This is because the cultural standard of beauty is starting to shift, thanks in large part to the changing types of leading ladies we see on TV, or in popular culture, for that matter. These characters represent a better-rounded woman, and promote an idea of “real beauty” that has been gaining momentum for years. Remember when a figure like Jennifer Lopez’s or Kim Kardashian’s would never been considered “ideal?” These shows are capitalizing on this momentum and offering characters that, like their real-world counterparts, have far more to be concerned about than being dangerously skinny.
Do you think Tastee (Danielle Brooks) from “Orange is the New Black” worries that her thighs don’t touch? Absolutely not. She’s in prison, for Pete’s sake. While the main character, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), looks like the stereotypical, upper-middle class white lady who would be concerned about such things, the genius of that show lies in the revelation that Piper is not the normal one. She is mocked, ostracized and even victimized for being “first class” while the other cast members are celebrated for their differences – even if that includes their size.
The majority of “Orange”‘s female cast members are women of regular build, and matters of size are not points of contention, nor are they meant to proselytize about being “real.” The characters of “OITNB” are meant to represent the nonissue of the issue; that size isn’t a prescriptive matter in our lives, and that it doesn’t dictate our self-worth.
In Season 2’s second episode, “Looks Blue, Tastes Red,” themes of appearance and self-worth run throughout the entire episode, but present most neatly in a scene in which a handful of ladies are preparing for a mock interview. The ladies must pick out their outfit and compete against each other in a contest that deems the winner most work appropriate, yet there are not enough clothes in “plus sizes” to accommodate all the interviewees. It means that Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) has to wear a shapeless sack dress to accommodate her curves, but isn’t apologetic or ashamed. She’s angry that there isn’t more to fit a woman her size.
Cindy’s reaction serves as a call to action that mandates we prioritize normal-sized women’s femininity just as we do that of models and size-zero actresses, and not hide them away as non-women, as the current establishment tends to do. Cindy’s outrage gives voice to the millions of American women that feel underrepresented in popular culture, especially on television. “OITNB” is criticizing the established system of beauty by illustrating the system is both arbitrary and antiquated. Women like Black Cindy and Tastee are what (at least some) women look like.
There are other female leads in popular series that are, perhaps, not as polarizing or political as “Orange Is The New Black.” Shows like “Drop Dead Diva,” starring Brooke Elliot, feature women that value a more realistic practice of self-esteem and appreciation. The entire premise of this show revolves around a former model waking up in a “plus-sized” body (belonging to Elliot) and having to negotiate the world without the help of a model’s face and a rocking body (although Elliot’s rack is pretty great in its own rite).
“Diva,” which just concluded its sixth season, acknowledges the differences between the two body types without ever passing judgment on one or the other. Jane’s body looks more like the typical American woman’s body, and we are meant to relate to Jane as a “normal” woman. She likes makeup and clothes and expensive shoes, and never once are we supposed to accept this “in spite of” her size. Just like Black Cindy, Jane demands acceptance as a woman, even though she is not participating in the standardized system of American beauty. She is written as the star of the show, the smartest and most successful lawyer at her firm, and has had love interests that include every hunky male character on the show. She is not running and hiding, nor is she sublimating her femininity because American culture tells her she’s too fat.
Television is beginning to celebrate all sorts of femininity, even a more nontraditional sort like Molly Solverson’s on “Fargo.” Newcomer Allison Tolman plays the character brilliantly and without a hint of self-consciousness: Molly holds a job in a male-dominated field, and frankly, is the only one who has her head on straight. She is the smartest, savviest, and most competent of all the police officers in her station; unlike Jane, she doesn’t adore makeup, or high heels or Prada handbags, but she is still valuable, as a woman. The show doesn’t spend time apologizing for Molly’s lack of traditional femininity, nor does it suggest she is anything less than a desirable woman — she has bigger concerns (such as murderers like Lester Nygaard and Lorne Malvo) than fretting over a homogenous body image that she had no hand in creating.
Molly, like her TV sisters, is shrugging off the forced mantle of idealized American beauty, and saying to our culture: “Even though I don’t look like those other women, I’m beautiful too! I matter for different reasons than my thighs.” Women are responding to this message in a big way. After all, don’t we dominate the ratings with our choices?
Networks willing to build a show around a normal-sized woman give the finger to fat-shaming, insane fads meant to demoralize us, and cartoon versions of characters who don’t resemble the woman holding the remote at all. And women should feel enthused by this. For while it is unlikely that we will routinely look to television for any sort of positive affirmations about our bodies, it’s no longer impossible.