Cutting Women Down to Size

Is Michelle's victory in Pop Idol a sign that we're starting to reject the impossible beauty standards imposed on us? As much as she wants to believe, Jo Knowles isn't so sure.

Jo Knowles, 19 January 2004

In Helen Fielding's latest novel, Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination, Olivia outlines two groups of women: those who are on the Girls' Team, and Undercover Bitches - that is; those who support other women and those who subtly undermine them. It's a throwaway analogy, but also a useful one. Like most women, I want to be on the girls' team (although of course, even if I was an undercover bitch I wouldn't admit to it; that's part of the standard operating procedure for the role). I want to support other women, cheer on their successes, and claim them as a victory for women everywhere when circumstances permit. Nevertheless, there are issues where being on the girls' team brings up its own dilemmas, difficulties and suspicions that things aren't quite as we would like them to be. Michelle McManus's victory in the final of Pop Idol 2003 was one of these.

I'm concerned that she has won specifically for being the 'wrong' kind of winner

On a pro-female, anti-body fascism ticket, I was thrilled that Michelle won. I can say that speaking both objectively and personally; I myself am closer to Michelle's dress size than to Kate Moss's, and like the idea that one day the Michelles on my TV might outnumber the Kates. However, I'm uneasy about it on two grounds. Firstly, because I don't actually think Michelle's voice was all that good. Good enough, yes, but not outstanding, and not, sadly, the best in the competition. I don't think I'd identify Michelle as Michelle if I heard her singing on the radio, and while she may not be unusual in that, I don't think there's a need to add any more anodyne, indistinguishable voices to our airwaves. Secondly, I'm concerned that she has won specifically for being the 'wrong' kind of winner; that votes came her way because of the fascination, the freak value of seeing a larger-than-average woman win this competition - rather than a genuine desire to see Michelle, as an individual and a singer, emerge as the deserved winner. I've lost count of the number of times I've seen headlines punning on 'the show is over when the fat lady sings' since the final, which itself makes me think that lazy sub-editors clubbed together to avoid having to think of something to write about her unmemorable co-finalist Mark Rhodes. The assumption is that her win will be an unusual event - the expectation is that the size-10-or less status quo will survive and continue.

I've often struggled to sustain a consistent 'girls team' attitude with regard to supporting women in the media - especially in relation to the appeal of the female voice. I prefer the sound of male voices to female voices when listening to the radio, a preference which persists even through I'm aware it comes from years of conditioning, by way of the dominance of Sir Trevor Macdonald like male authority figures reading the news and announcing election results. While I was pleased that a woman finally got the top job on Radio One when Zoë Ball took on the breakfast show, I found Ball herself unbearably irritating and, frankly, vacant in her repetitive twittering about how great it was to be married and how lovely babies were. Sara Cox as her successor was no better; what they said made women sound stupid, and the sound of their voices grated on me (though I still felt guilty about it). I was proud of where these women had managed to get to, but hated what they did now they were there.

On the other hand, I also feel that relationships between women should be viewed realistically, and not have to be veiled with a layer of saccharine sister-worship. When writing an undergraduate dissertation on Angela Carter's fiction, I was dismayed by one critic's pronouncement that Carter blackened her own feminist credentials by depicting women's hatred and anger towards one another - why couldn't she have portrayed women as loving, community-minded and mutually supportive if she wanted to write feminist fiction? I immediately sympathised with Carter for telling it like it is: women are frequently badly behaved, bitchy, undermining and unsupportive towards their 'sisters'. You only have to watch a couple of episodes of Trisha to see that 'Undercover Bitches' are everywhere, and, while it's true that their existence means that men are able to get away with murder (sometimes literally), it's a facet of female experience that needs to be acknowledged and dealt with, not denied. Women are not always one another's best cheerleaders: own the problem, and maybe we can work on it. However, that leads back to the thorny issue of whether I, doubter of Michelle McManus and sceptic about her average-sized talent being enough, am being an Undercover Bitch myself by holding this opinion.

Week after week Michelle's appearance was the main focus of the judges when assessing her performance

As Simon Cowell has emphasised throughout his chairmanship of the Pop Idol judging panel, vocal talent is not the only factor, or even the most important factor, in the competition. The 'package' that makes up a pop star is paramount - looks, figure and image all rival actual singing talent in determining who gets a record deal. The contest acts as a microcosm for the whole music industry, and replicates the way in which female singers are under more pressure than male singers to conform to expected notions of attractiveness. It was appalling to see how, week after week on the Pop Idol series, Michelle's appearance was the main focus of the judges when assessing her performance. It was usually indirect but clear enough to spot: her choice of clothes, for instance, was frequently criticised, something that didn't seem to happen to other contestants (and believe me, it should have), while repeated remarks about how Michelle 'deserved' to get this far and had every right to be there, had an all-too-obvious, unspoken 'but' hanging over them, to the effect that the judges clearly hoped she wouldn't be there next week. Michelle defied these expectations, rising in popularity to the point where she was a clear favourite in the week before the final programme. Nevertheless, many people - including me - were sceptical, right up till the announcement, about the possibility that the viewers would actually choose someone of Michelle's size as the winner of this kind of competition.

After the final programme, speculation began about how difficult it would be for Michelle to maintain long-term success; about how she would inevitably give in and slim down to 'normal' celebrity size; about how she declared herself to be 'sexy', reflecting amazement that any woman of above-average size would dare to stake such confidence in their own appearance. Many people are waiting for Michelle's failure - something which in today's pop climate, with the ever-shorter tolerance spans of record companies, is all too possible - in order to be able to pronounce that they were right all along. It will have been proved that oversized women can't be successful pop stars, and that, as Paul Weller once sang, 'the public wants what the public gets': skinnier and skinnier female singers.

It's hard to establish good female role models in pop music - something emphasised by Michelle's critics. They are quick to point out the scarcity of larger women as successful pop stars (Alison Moyet is usually named as the only one), using this as proof that Michelle herself will fail. This argument is flimsy for a number of reasons, not least that our concept of what 'large' (and therefore 'too large') is has changed over time and in extreme in recent years. It's often pointed out that Marilyn Monroe was a size 16 to show that Western society's idealisation of the impossibly skinny figure is a recent development in terms of film star success. Though this analysis is seldom applied specifically to pop stars, it's quite easy to do so. A couple of hours watching VH1 Classic will demonstrate two things about pop music made more than ten years ago: one, that it was acceptable for female performers to be significantly plumper than is the case now, and secondly, that they were allowed to wear much more clothing (and not necessarily to cover up the excess stomach either, though at times that may have been useful). The baggy mohair jumpers Tiffany wore when on Top of the Pops in 1988 would be unthinkable as outfits for a 16-year-old female singer now. Kim Wilde, Bananarama, and even Madonna had hits while being healthily rounded rather than dauntingly stick-thin. By the time Britney Spears became famous for prancing around in a school uniform and (just as importantly) demonstrating a perfectly toned midriff while doing backflips in her 1998 video for Baby One More Time, physical expectations of female singers had radically changed. A photographic representation of Kylie Minogue's career would demonstrate this beautifully. It's much harder these days that it was even a relatively short time ago to succeed as a female singer without having a washboard stomach and being willing to display it at every opportunity.

However, it seems that when the public get their chance to have a say, they don't choose the 'obvious' candidates.

However, in contrast to the promotion of increasingly un-average female pop stars by record companies, it seems that when the public get their chance to have a say, they don't choose the obvious, simpering, straight, skinny candidates. This year's winner of the BBC's reality talent show, Fame Academy, was Alex Parks, an openly gay teenager who has been adamant in her refusal to change her tomboyish style, wear short skirts and conform to media expectations of how a young female singer should be packaged. In the USA, Ruben Studdard, a considerably larger-than-average male singer, won this year's American Idol 2; now Michelle, as one of two contestants considered unacceptably fat who made the final ten in spite of this, has emerged as the British pop idol for 2003. Some views are that this demonstrates the public's enthusiasm for more realistically-sized pop stars, which is only coming out now they have been given the chance to choose. I wish I could believe that was true, but it seems optimistically contrary to the cultural dominance of idolising thinness perpetuated by the media. Magazines get mileage, week after week, out of sneering at celebrities who in a particular photograph seem to have a bulging stomach, or who have worn an unflattering outfit - or who - shock horror! - have been caught on camera having undeniably put on weight. I'm willing to believe that the voting public might have turned to Michelle in exasperation as an alternative to what else is on offer, but it seems to me that her value was in being just that, an exception. To imagine a world in which every artist in the singles chart was Michelle's size is a heartwarming thought, but not one that I think her voting public would actually be prepared for or ready to swallow.

Michelle's critics, then, are variously predicting both her commercial failure and also her moral failure in that she will inevitably concede to the demands of the pop industry and slim down. She's already been seen to have made some concessions by preparing to have dental work done on her less than perfect teeth, which have apparently been altered in her image on the cover of her single, with a row of perfect teeth appearing where there is actually a gap. Like a pro, Michelle fended off enquiries with the statement that the picture had been taken from an angle that didn't show the gap in her teeth. But whatever the form of enhancement used, it has raised questions about how open she is to refining her image in order to edge closer to the pop world's supposed ideal. At the moment there is no value for her in slimming down, because her larger size is what makes her distinctive, and what made her a winner. However, some months down the road, when her advisers decide that a new image is needed to revitalise her career, what will they focus on at the element for change? Will they be willing to stop at minor adjustments to her teeth? I doubt it. However, the crucial point is, what will Michelle herself be willing to do?

An alternative viewpoint put forward by some critics of Michelle is that she is in fact morally obliged to slim down; and reading their views makes me feel that this is the line of argument where 'Undercover Bitches' are profitably operating. A prime tabloid example is a column by Dawn Neesom in the Daily Star on 1 January, which claimed that to elevate Michelle as a role model for children (excuse me, when was it decided that that was now her job?) was 'dangerous' because she was overweight, unhealthy and therefore courting an early death. 'Idols, by definition, are people we look up to', says Neesom: 'Michelle McManus is no more an idol than the daft cows who snort drugs, throw up, starve and exercise like maniacs to stay ridiculously skinny.' In that case, why don't we remove all the improbably skinny people from TV shows too, if they're equally unhealthy role models? Is there a weight limit on being an idol? Are we only permitted to look up to people within their healthy weight range, for fear that otherwise children might be led astray? We'd better get out the history books now and start deleting references to anyone who looks a bit podgy in the pictures.

Girls as young as six talk about needing to diet and disliking their fat thighs.

The giveaway remark in this piece is when Neesom says: 'Why should a young woman in her twenties be happy to be, possibly fatally, unhealthy?' The truth is that most young women are their twenties would be ecstatically happy to be glamorous ands beautiful and would cheerfully pursue that at the expense of their health. In fact Neeson's final image of bingeing, starving young women proves this point, showing that unhealthy behaviour exists at both ends of the weight spectrum. Young women are happy to take the risk of being 'fatally' unhealthy in return for being thought attractive, both by men and, sadly, by their peers, often their harshest judges. The prevalence of eating disorders in young women in our society has been acknowledged for some time, but 2003 was the year in which attention to childhood obesity exploded, and the discovery of children's obsession with being overweight emerged. Growing number of studies showing that significant numbers of children, well short of reaching puberty, think they are overweight. Girls as young as six talk about needing to diet and disliking their fat thighs. It's not hard to see connections between this and the near-anorexic image of female pop stars to which they are frequently exposed. Kylie Minogue apparently employs staff to remind her to eat, saying that she 'forgets to eat' in stressful situations; Natasha Hamilton of Atomic Kitten gave her method of losing weight after pregnancy as 'not eating' Beyonce Knowles of Destiny's Child revealed that she kept her weight down by eating six slices of tomato and four slices of cucumber for lunch, and that she constantly battles with her weight because it's important to the industry and photographs add pounds (in that case, I dread to think of what Kylie and Natasha must look like in the flesh). Pop stars are censured for making these remarks, but by then the damage is done and impressionable young women are aware of what extreme measures are expected of their pop star heroines and therefore themselves.

Meanwhile, Michelle lost three stone on a Weight Watchers diet during the making of the Pop Idol series, but has now said she doesn't want to lose more weight. She is now 15 stone and a size 20 and plans to stay that way, saying 'I think it is positive that people are voting for me because of my size. Although all women pop stars look good, people want something different, something to represent them'. Even Michelle herself, though, seems aware that being rare as well as being representative is at the core of her appeal, and that she is popular because of her size rather than because of her talent first and foremost. She may succeed, but as the exception rather than the rule.

There are some glimmers of hope, however, that values other than appearance are starting to be increasingly valued by the young female audience for pop music. Christina Aguilera was named as the top role model for young at the end of 2003 in the "Inspirational Girls" poll for the teenage girls' magazine Sugar, whose readers praised her for being 'open', 'truthful', 'strong-minded and independent', and 'not afraid to be herself'. While Aguilera operates within mainstream pop, and seems at times to play to stereotypical expectations by dressing in revealing stage clothing and projecting a sexy image, she nevertheless represents something closer to a feminist figure than most other young female pop stars. Her latest, Critically-acclaimed album, Stripped, features 'Can't Hold Us Down', with lyrics about female sisterhood and empowerment, and the single 'Beautiful' which strikes back at the appearance-orientated culture that makes women insecure and unhappy. Having said that, Britney Spears, whose abilities have now been entirely reduced to being a rejected girlfriend of another pop star and for displaying herself as a sexual object at every opportunity, came fifth in the poll. There's still some way to go.

Michelle is the public's revenge for the rarity with which they get a say in choosing their own idols

It's always been the case in the pop industry that personality (either genuine or constructed) is used as a marketing tool. The trouble with reality talent shows is that they trivialise this even further, making defining characteristics out of a few unguarded moments at an audition, and making people's personalities into novelties of the moment, to be consumed and quickly discarded by the audience. The audience for these shows like the quirkiness and oddity of contestants who provide something unexpected - such as the contestants who perform so spectacularly badly that they can go on to have a career making fun of themselves in TV adverts. Michelle is the public's revenge for the rarity with which they get a say in choosing their own idols: when able to vote, they seem determined to reject everything they're expected to choose. The winners are chosen for being different, not for being realistic.

So I'm happy that Michelle won. However, I hate to hear patronising comments from TV presenters, columnists, or pundits who say how great it is that the fat girl won, thus confirming her freak value. It's a bit like inventing a special prize for the fat kid at a school sports day, completely failing to recognise that the concept of a sports day is itself a barrier which excludes that child's personality and talents. Of course all of life is not like a sports day, but more and more of life is becoming like a Pop Idol contest, with the result that token victories like Michelle McManus's do little to solve the problem; rather, they make people feel that things are now fair and square. A vote for Michelle, from many supporters, was very like a conscience-soothing ten pence in the charity box at Christmas. Now we can all go back to our old preferences and routines for another year.

I wish I could say how great it was that a talented female singer won, and that her size wasn't a barrier to the public recognising her talent. Unfortunately, I fear that the opposite's true and that Michelle's size was the vehicle for the public to recognise her as this year's flavour, and the 'something different' they are briefly looking for before the next big thing in pop comes along to take her place. How likely is it that another woman of a similar size will win next year? I'd say very unlikely, because of the unspoken assumption that Michelle won because she was 'different.' Once the public, or the record industry, become jaded with this difference, her sales will fall, Simon Cowell and his ilk will start saying 'I told you so', and larger-than-average women will have had their allotted quota of talent show winners for the next twenty years.

Would I prefer Michelle not to have won because then she wouldn't be able to fail? No, I wouldn't. I applaud her victory and the resulting discussions about the value of having more representatively-sized women in the pop world. But wouldn't want the public to think that this is a great victory for being fair, open-minded and representative, or that Michelle represents the greatest talent that plus-size women have to offer. There's a long way to go before it's the norm for a size 20 woman to win a talent contest; this will, I hope, be a first step and not a cul-de-sac. In part, this will depend on how determined Michelle is, as time goes on and pressure from her record company increases (as it surely will), not to slim down significantly from her present size. In the meantime, I feel that her wisest career move would be to release a cover of Christina Aguilera's 'Beautiful' as quickly as possible, and drive the message home.

About the author

Jo Knowles

Jo Knowles is no relation to Beyonce Knowles of Destiny's Child. If she was, Beyonce would be forcibly taken to Burger King at lunchtime.

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