A recent edition of The Carnival of Feminists, hosted at Alas a Blog, provides an interesting look at themes surrounding gender, body, and culture. Ampersand, author of Alas a Blog, introduces the carnival:
The Big Fat Carnival is a blog carnival for collecting some of the best blog posts regarding fat pride; fat acceptance; critiques of anti-fat bigotry, attitudes and research; celebration of images of fat people; practical difficulties of being fat; fat love (queer and otherwise); feminist views of fat and fat acceptance; the health at every size movement (HAES); and whatever else each edition's editor feels fits into the theme.
Among the featured writings are several critiques of an article titled Beautiful Madness, written by Alexander Linklater. Linklater paints a highly romantic portrait of young woman with schizophrenia. The focus of the article is what the author construes as a trade off between beauty and sanity; the medication that controls the woman's symptoms also makes her gain weight. Linklater writes:
The young psychiatrist’s early optimism collapsed under the grinding reality of Nia’s dilemma. The first drug had worked. But the change in her appearance seemed intolerable—and potentially devastating for the self-esteem of a 17-year-old girl. The second drug hadn’t made her fat, but nor had it treated her illness. The consultant felt there was no option but to put her back on the Olanzapine. Again, it worked. The terrors of persecution vanished, the voices quietened down. Even her parents said that this was the old Nia. They cried over her.
He goes on to conclude:
The treatment had reversed a Faustian pact in which Nia had been beautiful and mad, and replaced it with another—in which she was fat and sane.
In my view, the critiques, found at Alas a Blog, effectively challenge the conceptualization of beauty in this article. They use the article to reveal how beauty is constructed as "not fat", and to challenge the priority given to the judgment of others in determining beauty. However, none of the critiques question how the concept of sanity is portrayed in the article. Indeed, while challenging the objectivity of beauty, most of the critiques treat sanity as concrete and absolute. I would like to consider what this article reveals about the concepts of madness and sanity. The first paragraph of the article is telling. It shows how madness, and its counterpart sanity, is at least in part a social construct:
Nia was too beautiful to be in a psychiatric ward. That’s what everyone secretly felt, including the blunt, unsentimental nurses. She was willowy and dark-eyed—not just blandly attractive like teenagers can be. Her parents had delayed signing her into the ward on a section for as long as possible. They couldn’t bear the thought that their beautiful girl was going mad.
The author implies that beauty and madness are mutually exclusive, just as he later goes on to imply that fat and beauty are mutually exclusive.
Popular culture has promoted the idea of the rare, and exceptional, beautiful mad woman. Think Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted or Christina Ricci in Prozac Nation. But, in general, beauty is considered an exception and not the rule for madness. The other image of the mad promoted through culture is that of the deranged, dirty, almost vulgar madman. In reality, the face of the so-called mentally ill is the face of every other social group; it is everyone and no one.
There are many similarities between the constructs and histories of beauty and sanity; fatness and madness. The first that comes to mind is a history tied to notions of morality. In one case, the appetite is sinfully indulged; in the other, emotions and mental life are overly indulged.
Currently, both are seen through the lens of the medical model. Now, it is science rather than prayer that can save us from fatness and madness. Indeed, Sanity and Beauty drive and sustain big business.
And, madness, like fatness, is very much a feminist issue in a world where women live in unsatisfactory social conditions including physical violence, poverty, and, of course, damaging social practices and pressures, including ridiculous weight ideals.
Certainly, for both the fat and the crazy, being condemned by society is worse than any of the inherent difficulties with one's body or mind.
"Beautiful Madness" by Alexander Linklater
"The Big Fat Carnival" hosted by Ampersand of Alas a Blog
"Because Being Fat is Worse Than Being Insane" by zuzu of Feministe
"To Be Hot and Nuts" by Twisty of I Blame the Patriarchy
"Beautiful Madness" by Shakespeare's Sister