Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Till the Fat Lady Sings

I hate to link to the New York Times two days in succession, but do go and read this thought provoking article about famed operatic soprano Deborah Voigt, and her return to a role from which she was once fired for being too heavy to wear the little black dress that was supposed to be her costume:

To recap the controversy: After Ms. Voigt was fired from the production, she kept quiet about it for several months. When she finally went public, her story provoked infuriated reactions from opera buffs around the world and widespread coverage in the mainstream news media. A leading dramatic soprano, especially acclaimed for her singing of Strauss and Wagner, had been fired for being too fat: a blatant case of discrimination.

But the incident prodded her to action. It was during the very period when she was scheduled to appear in “Ariadne” that she underwent gastric bypass surgery, an operation subsidized by the substantial fees Covent Garden was contractually obliged to pay her. The procedure produced significant results. Ms. Voigt, having noticeably shed pounds, talked about her surgery, and her struggles with obesity since adolescence, for a New York Times article in March 2005.

Ms. Voigt, like many women, has had a lifelong weight problem, and her courage in tackling it, perhaps prompted by this incident, is truly commendable. But while most of us would agree that the results of this situation have been good for Ms. Voigt's physical health, career, self-image, and willingness to take a leading role in talking about the problem of children's obesity, there remains the disquieting fact that one of the things that can lead to poor self-image and weight problems was the initial cause of her new direction: that is, that she was judged, and excluded, solely because of her weight and appearance.

Her ability to sing was not affected by the extra weight she was carrying; in fact, some opera buffs insist that the warm, rich tones of her voice that were her signature style before the gastric bypass surgery which began her impressive weight loss are now gone. Ms. Voigt does admit that she has had to adjust vocally to her new figure, and to a different sort of resonance that her slimmer body produces. Granted, no one would want a woman to remain unhealthily fat for the sake of a beautiful voice, but there was no question that Ms. Voigt could sing the role in "Ariadne auf Naxos" without losing the weight--that she was fired in the same way that a business tycoon a few decades ago might fire a secretary who had added pounds to a once-curvaceous figure. Her ability to sing wasn't enough, by itself--she also had to look the part, and that meant she had to be slender.

We don't have to look very far to see what a double standard that is. Would anyone have ever told the late Luciano Pavarotti that he was too hefty to be a believable romantic lead, that if he wanted to play, say, Rodolfo or Manrico with any sort of verisimilitude he would have to lose some weight?

The reality is that weight is a complicated problem for women, a blend of cultural expectations, physical standards, genetics, emotional issues, comparisons, and stereotypes. The woman who is heavy faces the reality that she will never be good enough--even if she's an acclaimed operatic soprano!--until she is also thin; the woman who is thin struggles to stay that way, and agonizes over the appearance of the slightest bulge around the waist or hips, or the smallest increase in the numbers on the scale.

No matter how thin she appears, a woman is likely to answer in the affirmative to the question, "Do you think you should lose some weight?" and the number in her mind may be anywhere from five pounds on up. Few women are ever in a state of being satisfied with their appearances, and the sheer amount of money spent each year on weight loss meals, products, equipment, support groups, and so on boggles the mind.

And so an incident like the one described in the Times article is less than encouraging; our society still puts more value on a woman's physical appearance than on her other talents and qualifications, even when we're talking about a golden-voiced operatic soprano who could clearly sing the role for which she was hired--even if the costume choice needed to be changed. Though I'm glad for Ms. Voigt's sake that she has found better health and greater happiness by tackling the problem of her obesity, it would be more gratifying to reflect on her success had it been her idea, not a decision prompted by someone else's shallow and superficial notion of what women should look like. But then, will women ever be able to seek health without identifying that with slenderness, or lose weight more for their own reasons than under the pressure of society's tendency to judge and condemn the overweight?

Someday, maybe. But not till the fat lady sings.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yesterday I brought my children to our town pool for the first time this summer. Granted, most of us are still pale from the long winter, but I was amazed by how bad most of the women looked. I live in an upper middle class suburb of a major metropolitan city where keeping up with the Jones is a sport, and most people take great pride in the appearance of their homes and the type of car that they drive. However, I think there's something amiss when 75% of the moms that you know are overweight. My mother had eight children and she never weighed(non pregnant) more than 150 on a 5'6" athletic frame. My seven aunts (each of whom had at least 3 children, most had 5 to 7) were all well within normal weight when I was child. So what's happened? I would guess that food is the one area where moms can let it all hang out, and eat with wild abandon. Granted, you're not "allowed" to smoke anymore and the afternoon cocktail hour is frowned upon. It's funny, I was watching a documentary on the aftermath of WW2 in the US and I had the same thought - the women in the pictures were thin. If you took a shot of Time's Sqare today you would not see that. Forgive me if I sound judgmental, but I'm just making an observation.