This is my kind of street photography!
“I’m 86 pounds! Does this look fat to you?” The petite blond hiked her shirt up so I could admire her visible ribs and taut tummy. “I mean, look at it! There’s not a speck of fat anywhere!” It was one of the few moments I have considered actually using any of my kickboxing skills on another human being. But then she added, “And they benched me! For three games! Until I lost two pounds!” And I’ll admit it, I felt kinda bad for her. The girl was a professional cheerleader and she was complaining about the popular but seldom acknowledged (at least by the teams themselves) stringent standards for body shape and size for the girls who choose to be the ones dancing every Sunday on TV.
Strangely a lot of cheerleaders have been talking to me lately. (My high school self just had a heart attack and died.) And not just your run-of-the-mill cheerleaders but your paid, seasoned pros. In the past year or so I’ve interviewed girls from three NFL teams and one NBA team. I hung out with a girl who was a professional cheerleader and then got kicked off the squad. (They said she wasn’t a team player, she said it’s because she gained weight.) I watched another one struggle to find her new identity as “just” a girl after ageing out of the career. (At 30, by the way.) I met an actual honest-to-goodness male cheerleader. (They’re like Yetis – I kept hearing about them but it took years to finally see one in the wild!) And then there was this one, standing right in front of me, and daring me to find fault with her body. It was almost a challenge, the way she threw it out to me. I dare you to find an imperfection!
I couldn’t blame her; it’s a known hazard of the job. And one that was brought into sharp focus this past week when a Houston radio station took the liberty of critiquing an Oklahoma City Thunder dancer’s body, calling her “pudgy” and “chunky” before polling all their listeners to get their take on whether the poor girl was a hottie or a nottie. (One of my great TV shames is that I remember that show. Regretality TV at its finest!) They (who at first was anonymous but later turned out to be a woman – egads, we can be cruel to each other!) wrote, “We’re not trying to be ugly. We’re just discussing what men like in women. Particularly in NBA cheerleaders.”
They added, “Either way, I just wish she had a little more up on top, if you know what I mean…”
Oh yes, we know what you mean. You just said she’s fat with small boobs. Got it! (In case you missed the memo: Women are supposed to be preternaturally skinny everywhere except with two extra large fat deposits on the chest. Just like God intended… for flamingos.)
But this cheerleader brings up an interesting point: In a job where she was admittedly hired for her body is it unfair to then get mad when people talk about it? And if so, what other places legitimize open body commentary – the beach? A beauty pageant? A PTA meeting?
It’s a legit question. For myself the answer is still – and always – that people are people first, before any position they may hold, looks they may have or abilities they may possess. Kindness first. And while this is not surprising, this was definitely not kind. But while this may be the most recent egregious example of our penchant for red-circling other people’s bodies, it’s certainly not the only one. Celebrities have long been targets of long-range lenses zoomed up on their cellulite but the scrutiny has been settling down to the rest of us as well.This general lack of seeing people as people but rather as objects for our scrutiny is no more apparent than in the phenomenon of “street fashion.” It used to be you’d have to buy a copy of glamour to read their “Do’s and Don’ts” list every month with the black bars over the fashion criminals’ eyes. But now every city sidewalk can be a runway. And you don’t even know you’re on it.
Remember this from The Sarorialist a couple of years ago?
The Sartorialist proved that even when it’s meant to be complimentary – and he is very clear that he fines the Italian woman to be beautiful – it can still be cruel. Can you imagine having thousands of people on the Internet debating whether or not your legs are fat? Or if you’re too chunky to be a cheerleader? I shudder.
It feels unsafe to me. By far most of the subjects of the “street fashion” pictures are women, many unaware they are even being photographed. Some bloggers ask permission before they take a picture but many don’t. I’m pretty sure that 90% of the People of Wal-Mart got up there without their knowledge. So when does it become inappropriate to comment on a woman’s body if we are fair game even picking up a package of cold medicine in our jammies at 10 o’clock at night? Do we need to pull a Dita Von Teese (side note: I covet her closet) and glam up to shop for lettuce?