I’ve always been fascinated with the way our culture conflates nutritional health with the shape of one’s body. This cultural myth has facilitated the proliferation of diet and weight loss products and services accompanied by popular culture and mass media’s reinforcement of the thin ideal. After reading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, I decided to take a new approach to thinking about this issue. Kirstie Alley’s new reality TV series, “Kirstie Alley’s Big Life” will focus on her attempt to shed pounds and regain her self-esteem after she lost weight and gained it back again, appearing on “Oprah” both times to talk about the result. Far from her place as the spokeswoman of Jenny Craig, comments like “Fat ass. Turn around so I can shoot you,” from paparazzi have pushed her back into the public to serve as a spectacle and example for how people should discipline themselves.
Kirstie Alley may no longer be the spokesperson for Jenny Craig but she could easily be considered a candidate for the spokesperson for millions of Americans, particularly women, who are engaged in a self-imposed regimen of discipline in order to perfect their bodies. The perfect image that many of them are trying to obtain is a socially constructed model of beauty that often hides under the guise of a medically defined state of good health. Although Alley spoke of health consequences on “Oprah”, she made consistent remarks about the social stigma attached to being fat. For example, she asks her children in the preview for her upcoming show if they are embarrassed that they have a fat mother.
The practice of self-imposed weight loss regimen for largely aesthetic purposes is bound up in a multitude of institutions with aims of their own to consider. The increase in revenue to gyms, fitness clubs, personal trainers, and the massive diet industry are examples of the way in which old and new institutions have been set up to offer a multitude of goods and services in order to capitalize on millions of potential customers who are all seeking a perfect body. The trainers, fitness experts, doctors, instructors, etc. that provide the ‘expert’ knowledge and skill occupy a unique place within these institutions. They provide the information, the techniques, the knowhow and the inspiration that they claim is necessary for the disciplined to obtain the desired result. They command the body regiments of millions. Eat this, do this many crunches, don’t do crunches at all rather use this machine, by this product, use this service, take this pill, pay for that operation. These are the commands of the disseminators of knowledge.
[“Kirstie Alley’s Big Life” trailer from A&E clips]
What these masters of knowledge have in common is that they and the institutions they represent are all powerless on their own. Without the forces of mass-media advertising, the participation of celebrities, the presentation of bodies via magazines, commercials, award show performances, music videos, the popular culture (most explicitly in the jokes at the expense of “fat people”) these instructors and professionals lose their ability to offer that which is demanded. The body that results from this process of rigorous self-regimentation, enhanced by the expert advice of the aforementioned experts is a docile one, one that “may be subjected, used, transformed and improved.” This body is never complete as the perfect body is virtually unattainable and even when one seems satisfied, there is always the fear that they may becomes the next Kirstie Alley, the poster child for social failure rather than social success.
The desire for the perfect body and the shame of the imperfect body are the products of and reproduce the power embedded in the discourse on the body. Docile bodies self criticize discursively with other docile bodies. Kirstie says she is not full figured but “fucking fat”. They often hide what they feel are imperfect bodies. They are never aware of whether or not they are being scrutinized, as Kirstie never knew when paparazzi would snap a shot, nor do any celebrities. Their bodies under constant surveillance, they are inclined to enforce upon themselves or rather their own bodies, discipline and with it docility.
— Stephen Sharper
Edwards, Martha. “Has Kirstie Alley gained the weight back?”, http://www.thatsfit.com/, posted August 2nd, 2007.
Foucault, Michel – Discipline and Punish. New York: Random House, Inc. 1975
Voltolina, Vanessa. “Kirstie Alley Stars in New Reality Series ‘Big Life’”, http://www.thatsfit.com/, posted February 10th, 2010.