19 October 2020

Body Shaming and Institutionalized Contempt for Legs and Ankles

These days I always download the free sample before investing in a book by an author new to me or one I don't know well. In this case, the author was the highly praised thriller writer Zoe Sharp, the book, Killer Instinct, the first in the Charlie Fox series. Charlie is an attractive woman with martial arts skills who teaches self-defense and fitness and works as a bouncer and bodyguard. She's ex-army, drives a motorcycle, and, I'd infer, has developed a unique style as a result of her experiences. You'd think I'd like it—unless I found the violence too graphic or had finally reached my limit for female protagonists named Charlie, Sam, Alex, and Max. But no, that's not why I deleted the sample and crossed Sharp's series off my list. It was this passage, in Charlie's first person voice, that made me want to puke:
Clare's a mate...more my own age. Tall, slender, she has endless legs and a metabolism that means she can binge peanut butter straight out of the jar without putting on an ounce....I envied Clare the ability not to gain weight more than I envied her her looks, which were stunning. She had long straight hair to go with the legs, golden blonde without bottled assistance, and a sense of style I guess you just have to be born with.

Marlene Dietrich's legs
Zoe, you're killing me! Zoe, how could you? It's bad enough when male novelists bore us with the long blonde hair and legs up to here for the umpteenth time. I expect no better from hard-boiled authors like Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins. Here's a variation from Mike Hammer - Masquerade for Murder:
The hostess, a stunning redhead in a green evening dress with matching emerald eyes, intercepted me. ...She was ten curvy pounds the right side of plump and had cherry-red lipsticked lips with a bruised Bardot look that made her smile seem knowing and sly without even trying.
When I was 14, I would have agonized over which side was the "right" side of plump and known in my heart that flat-chested wasn't even in the running. I was too sheltered to have known that equating "bruised" with seductive and "sly" is a meta-message that women who are abused are asking for it. You get bruises from being beaten, not from any experience a real woman would enjoy—or at the least from "rough sex," a phrase I associate with psychopathic killer Robert Chambers's defense in the murder of a teenage girl.
My legs

How do we get from long blonde hair and Bardot lips to rape and murder? All too easily. I found a June 2020 article in The Guardian that reported that in the UK:

More than 60 victims have been forced to go to court over the past decade to deny that they consented to strangulation, assaults or violence, according to the campaign to end reliance on the “rough sex” defence.
Once the authors introduce the "blonde" (or redhead) and the "endless legs," they don't even need to develop her character. Back in July, Craig Faustus Buck wrote a SleuthSayers post on "it is what it is," calling it a "thought-terminating cliché," "figuratively avoiding creative solutions (a writer's suicide)." These non-descriptions of women are the same, bypassing the necessity of making the women characters real people.

Illusion: acceptable legs
Stuart Woods, in his fifty-eight Stone Barrington books, is a master of this. I found a typical example in Book 16, when Barrington walks into a restaurant. "An attractive blonde greeted us."

The character's literally a walk-on, and the sentence could have been deleted. But Woods commits crime after literary crime against women. In the same book, "the lights of Santa Catalina Island twinkled like the eyes of a merry whore." Now, there's a male fantasy for you, and not a very nice male at that. Woods wrote two fine books many years ago, Palindrome and Chiefs. Now who's Santa Catalina Island?

It's a short step from describing women in objectifying or shaming clichés to not describing them at all. In Book 56, Woods opens with a woman, Dame Felicity Devonshire, who's introduced as the head of MI6. What she's doing is not her job, but brokering a house deal for Stone Barrington and acting as a featureless foil for his insatiable lust.

Chapter 2 ends: "Then they went upstairs and went to bed, something to which they had both been looking forward."

Chapter 3 ends: "He followed her up watching her ass all the way."

The woman's the head of MI6. Woods has a gift for reducing potentially interesting women to profoundly uninteresting objects of his middle-aged itch.

Let's go back to Charlie Fox's friend who binges on peanut butter and doesn't gain an ounce. Clare's a compulsive overeater, a shame-based illness that's no fun even if your metabolism saves you from obesity. She may also be a bulimic paying for her slim figure and public admiration with private agonies kneeling over the toilet puking her guts out. These are not the "achievements" for which women should praise their women friends. If they do, it's because the shaming of obesity is so thoroughly institutionalized in our society. Listen to female standup comics and see what percentage of their shtik is based on body shaming of themselves.

I've wanted to throw up myself the many times I've read about a male character falling in love with a woman because she can eat like a horse and not gain an ounce. Ladies, is that really the trait you most want the man of your dreams to value you for? Gentlemen, how shallow and insensitive can you get?

Then there's the universal contempt for thick ankles that I've been coming across in fiction since I started reading novels many decades ago. I have thick ankles. Unlike "style," slim, breakable-looking ankles like those of a thoroughbred horse are something you "have to be born with." Does that mean I don't deserve love?


Alas, we're fair game and can be skewered mercilessly. Even Jane Austen took a shot at us. From Northanger Abbey:
Maria's intelligence concluded with a tender effusion of pity for her sister Anne, whom she represented as insupportably cross, from being excluded the party. "She will never forgive me, I am sure; but, you know, how could I help it? John would have me go, for he vowed he would not drive her, because she had such thick ankles. I dare say she will not be in good humour again this month…"

Brainwashing...identification with the aggressor...Stockholm syndrome...If women with slender ankles don't join in jeering at their unfortunate sisters, they might be thrown out of the carriage. And by post-feminist times, it's become unconscious.

Men, of course, have never questioned their right to pass judgment on women's looks. I found this in a short story in Cosmopolitan Magazine, November 1907:
"Don't be a fool, John. You must marry either a German or an English princess."

John Peters shook his head. "Impossible," he declared. "I have acquired your wonderful taste as regards the sex. To save my throne, I couldn't marry a woman with thick ankles." (Anthony Partridge, "The Kingdom of Earth")
The Queen's ankles
Queen Elizabeth has thick ankles, and The temptation to joke about this is almost irresistible—because we have all been programmed not to take women with thick ankles seriously or treat them with the respect we give women we consider beautiful. We've all read novels and seen movies about princes forced into loveless marriages with women who don't meet their standard of beauty who seek love with inappropriate but beautiful women. In America, the "princes" have all the advantages of class and money, while the inappropriate women have Audrey Hepburn's ankles.

There's a double standard at work here, and it's not disappearing any time soon. But there are a few things you can do.

Audrey Hepburn's ankles: remembered

Remember how wretched shaming feels to the person shamed, although you may never know they feel it.

Praise women for their interesting and admirable accomplishments—not for the length of their legs, the radius of their ankles, the color, texture, or provenance of their hair, or the shape and size of their other body parts.

Do not value women inversely by the pound. Love them, or don't, for their character, not for their eating behaviors, which aren't under their control and may not be what you think they are.


  1. A family I'm acquainted with is going through a different kind of shaming. They have three children in their early 20s, two boys and a girl. The girl and one boy are fine, but the other, while superficially charming, acts like an entitled rich kid. He was kicked out of his dorm, kicked out of his university, and after 5 days, kicked out of a friend's house for not following rules.

    A couple of weeks ago, he travelled a thousand miles to Texas for a concert, because that's what rich entitled kids do. Then things turned ugly.

    His father made a where-the-hell-are-you call, turning on the speakerphone so the mother could hear. Apparently the clod didn't realize that.

    He started boasting to his dad about screaming at the warm-up act, yelling at the musician to get his fat ass off the stage, calling him names like fatso, fatass, fattard, fat ƒ-er, etc, and that he, the boy, ƒ-ing hates fat people, useless blogs who ought to do themselves in, etc.

    In a shaky voice, the father said, "Your mother's here listening to this call."

    The mother for most of her life has battled obesity. She left the room trembling. I don't know what, if anything, the husband told the kid, but I have some good ideas what I might have said.

    I've read the most insidious prejudice is too often consciously (like this rotten kid) or unconsciously directed toward overweight people. I believe it.

    There's a weird irony fat-shaming happened at a concert. Anyone who's a fan of blues or opera or even Mama Cass, would realize music lovers hear– and see– the beauty.

    One last note: I don't have sisters so I'm clueless in many ways, but I've observed if a girl's beautiful on the inside, she'll find a suitor for the outside. The husband mentioned above– he was attracted to his wife because of her weight. So take that, idiot kid.

  2. You win a point or two, and you left out the cruel things said about Hillary Clinton, which makes me wonder about political motivations. But dear god, people are human. We all look at others and if we're immature we judge and comment. Women can now look at a man's tush without feeling embarrassed or judged. We make cracks about a crazy president with orange skin and tiny hands when we really mean tiny brain and tiny penis. But if 14 year olds are reading adult novels, what is the author supposed to do about that? Five years later that girl might read adult novels quite differently. I'm also shocked how the article misinterprets Mickey Spillane because he writes about people toughened and bruised by life, the kind sitting at the end of bars wondering where their dreams died. Spillane does not say Mike Hammer, sexist as he is, finds battered women attractive. And really now, with all due respect isn't it time to stop telling other women how they should enjoy sex?

  3. It's a matter of degree, I suppose. I do objectify women, all women. To me they are beautiful until proven otherwise. [Except for Betsy DeVos. She can take her butt-ugly soul and retire to an isolated cabin (or jail cell) for the rest of her life.] Give me a sense of humor, a spark of intelligence, and a tilt toward empathy anytime and I'll show you a beautiful woman.

  4. The best passage (imho) in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn:
    “Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.
    "Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain."

  5. No generalization covers everyone, and of course I'm not writing about compassionate men or how women enjoy sex that is both truly safe and truly consensual, but about how writers perpetuate stereotypes that deeply affect societal attitudes. As a shrink who's seen how thousands of women feel about shaming on the inside in addition to what I know as a woman who's lived a lifetime among other women, I stand my ground. As for the hostile son, I know of at least one school of psychoanalytic therapy in which they'd put it bluntly: "He wants to kill his mother."

  6. I resisted commenting on this posting since reading it early this morning but since I cannot get back to work on my novel because of it, I will address it.

    “It’s bad enough when male novelists bore us with long blonde hair and legs up to here for the umpteenth time.”

    Long blonde hair and legs are not boring to many of us. Sexual attraction is subjective and why should it be ignored or repressed it in our fiction? Especially in crime fiction. Love and sex and suspense and violence, hard men and pretty women have been part of crime fiction – forever.

    “How do we get from long blonde hair and Bardot lips to rape and murder? All too easily.”

    I was a sex crime detective and long blonde hair and Bardot lips do not easily lead to rape and murder. Rape is a crime of violence and victims are not always attractive. They come in every size, age, color, gender. The fault is in the mind of the perpetrator, not in the appearance of the victim.

    Fictional characters come in every size, age, color, gender.

    “Woods commits crime after literary crime against women.”

    What the hell? Male fantasies (and female fantasies) are fantasies. Human sexuality is far too complicated to be repressed in fiction. Sex is important in our lives. We have over seven billion humans on this planet and I’ve only heard of one immaculate conception. What some may find a “shaming cliché”, others may not find shaming at all but revealing something of the mind of the characters involved in the scene.

    As for “ … watching her ass all the way.” – I’ve been watching women’s bodies since before puberty. We are attracted to beauty. It’s automatic.

    And don’t jump on me about my view of women. I am a life-long progressive democrat, a militant supporter of women’s rights, including the equal rights amendment. My wife is a feminist and so is my daughter. I believe I influenced both in their views. I praise them for their “interesting and admirable accomplishments.” A man can support feminism and find pretty women attractive at the same time.

    In the first private eye story I wrote (in the late 70s) I said of the femme fatale’s entrance into the story – “ … she strolled into my office like a blonde cliché from a bad detective novel.” Maybe I should have described her as “ … she strolled into my office and I wondered what were her interesting and admirable accomplishments.” That story has appeared in print in five different publications over the years in the US, France and Denmark.

    I like Mickey Spillane’s writing and Max Allan Collins as I like Adriana Trigiani and Fanny Flagg’s historical fiction. And I like Marlene Deitrich’s legs.

    “ … featureless foil for his insatiable lust.” Uh, don’t read any of my novels. Don’t even peek at the covers.

    Ankles? Give me a break.

  7. Mr. Elizabeth isn't much of a reader but I suspect he must have read Mickey Spillane at some point, because recently he told me my legs "go all the way up" ... he is more interested in sex than I am & that's all I'm going to say about that.

    I used to know Mama Cass when she lived next door to the KFC in Alexandria, Virginia. She was a lovely person & the story that went around about her choking to death on a ham sandwich, is completely untrue. Didn't stop her from posthumous fat-shaming. The fact is she suffered a massive MI & the sandwich on her plate was untouched.

  8. O'Neil, I'm glad my post caught your attention. I'll continue to read your short stories. :)

  9. Elizabeth, good example of the way myth overshadows reality.

  10. Elizabeth,
    I try to read one story a day. I'm behind on my reading from AHMM and EQMM and saw your story "Reunion" in the issue of AHMM I started and read it and like it very much. Nice, subtle story with a cool ending.


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