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Crowning Miss ‘Fat’ Israel

“My name is Heli Buzaglo, I’m 24 years-old from Afula, a fat girl, FAAAAAAAAT but beautiful (or at least that’s what everyone says, including the mirror on the wall.” Thus opens the blog of one of the contestants in the 2009 Fat Beauty Pageant in Israel — or, what I have come to think of as the best and the worst of women’s body culture.

The pageant, held last week in Beersheva, was open for women weighing 176 pounds or more. In advance of the voting, the Internet was swamped with homemade videos of self-described beautiful fat girls posing in heavy make-up, sexy lingerie and suggestive poses. In yet another “American Idol” transposition, young women beg their viewers to “SMS Yarin, number995! I love you all!”

When I first saw the full-page advertisement for the pageant in the local newspaper, I was excited. After all, “fat” and “beauty” do not often occupy space in the same sentence in Western culture.

It felt refreshing to see women whose hips are wider than their shoulders being photographed and called beautiful. Perhaps this is another signal of change, I thought, a follow-up to trends like the plus-size fashion reported in The New York Times article earlier this year, “Fashion First, Whatever the Size”. Although that article was seen by some readers an overdue admission of social discrimination against large people, others interpreted it as a decadent concession to fat people’s bad eating habits. As if making nice clothes for fat girls is akin to providing drugs for addicts.

A little self-esteem boost is certainly great for women, especially those who are portrayed by society as lazy, uncontrolled and, perhaps, even a bit slow or stupid. (Tellingly, dietitians are among the staunchest adherents of these stereotypes, according to a study reported in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.) Still, I’m not sure that a beauty pageant would be my first choice for such a self-esteem boost — especially one with the word “fat” emblazoned in the title.

For one thing, the pageant has the feel of the Special Olympics. The message is, these women are “different” from “normal” women, a bit disadvantaged or perhaps “thinness-challenged,” and thus need their own category so they don’t go through life, you know, feeling bad. (Large women don’t even merit a euphemism such as “special.”) Of course, it would be a whole different message if women of all shapes and sizes were allowed to enter the “regular” beauty pageant. But I guess society is not ready for that at all.

Beyond that, though, it seems that the contestants are adopting the worst tool to boost their own self-esteem. Even the skinniest of women will likely feel self-conscious and inadequate under the microscope of beauty pageant judges. And I certainly would not recommend that any woman or young girl make a video of herself in lingerie and suggestive poses, unless she is seriously considering a career as a porn star. The prevalence of this kind of self-promotion signals not only the debasement of women, but the debasement of our culture generally.

That said, I am happy for 22-year old security guard Moran Baranes, weighing in at 205 pounds, the crowned winner. I’m glad she had her day in sun — a day in which girls who see themselves as large could look in the mirror and see themselves as beautiful.

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