Meghan Daum is a good writer with a lot to say. Unfortunately, in a palpably pitying essay on Madonna, she awkwardly uses Madonna to bolster the age-old (no offense, Madge) argument that women in the public eye who attempt to look good are slaves to the male beauty standard, and cause all other women who see them to want to turn to bone—like body-fat Medusae.
Daum spends 2/3 of her piece wittily attempting to recreate Madonna's unimaginably time-consuming work-out—as great as Madonna looks and probably feels, it does seem to me it's worth remembering that Madonna has money and money helps create the opportunity to look and feel that way. It doesn't do the work—you have to do that—but it helps.
Daum then decides that while it would not be impossible to look like Madonna, "it's just impractical, even boring. Kind of like Madonna herself these days." Looking down on someone a lot of people look up to is a wonderful way to get your fix of superiority, something Daum seems to need like Saudis need oil. She goes on to (willfully?) misread a recent Madonna quote, in which the icon told Elle she is not comfortable being pleasingly plump, so "chooses men who like carved-out women." Daum immediately interprets this in the exact opposite way in which it was clearly said, bemoaning that Madonna is no longer a model of "take-it-or-leave-it-self assurance." What Madonna's words actually said was that she herself likes feeling and looking carved-out, and so she chooses men who are attracted to that (since, in fact, many if not most really aren't). In this way, Madonna is definitely choosing her own adventure.
Daum goes on to state that "Madonna's fans have grown older and more comfortable with themselves"—which she is pulling out of her ass. We've all grown older, but by what measure are Madonna's fans or former fans more comfortable with ourselves? Aren't we the ones still doing drugs, drinking, working out obsessively, starving ourselves, exploring plastic surgery? (Well, I'm not—but I'm certainly not comfortable with my body. Maybe Megan is. She is, after all, a Reese Witherspoon lookalike and definitely not comfortable downing pizzas on a daily basis herself.)
Daum's final argument is that Madonna is sad—so many in the media long to believe that all stars, despite their riches and achievements and opportunities are sad, pathetic even. It's what sells tabloids and tony newspapers like the Los Angeles Times alike. People are united in their fascination with and contempt for famous people. If we believed stars were happy, wouldn't we riot? Nobody should have it so good, right! Whether Daum wants to admit it or not, it's not Madonna's admirable physical fitness, it's Meghan Daum's need to use well-constructed sentences to tear Madonna a new asshole that reeks of insecurity.
At the heart of nearly all arguments about famous women and their physicality is the belief that magazines (in particular) and the rest of the media bring average women great mental harm by showing images of beautiful, thin women—some would say their looks are impossible to achieve, thus making the average woman feel bad about her hips, breasts, thighs, ass, skin and face. And when you feel bad about every part of your body, your spirit is greatly affected. Daum is a subscriber to this belief, and has made a lot of fans writing about "the disenchantment of working in a glamour profession" (see My Misspent Youth). I am very interested in this concept and I can not reject it out of hand. It is not a yes or no question. It's definitely strange that our species has mastered capturing exact likenesses of each other for all to see, and yet spent so much time using still more technology to make those likenesses appear more "beautiful" and less real. I can see how this would have an affect on all of us. Magazines are not us (not even Us), but stars are stand-ins for us, so subscribing to all these phony likenesses is similar to hanging a portrait of yourself in your home in which you look 20 pounds lighter than you've ever been, 10 years younger and hey, why not blond?
But I think that the argument that magazine publishers (I'm one, full disclosure, full disclosure) are causing this problem hand in hand with famous women is facile. The problem was not started by airbrushing (and now PhotoShopping), it was there already—it was what created the need for airbrushing. The problem is that almost no people, not even Madonna's older fans, are truly comfortable with themselves. And that's not the fault of any magazine, or any star (not even Madonna can be blamed for this one). Is it not possible that this central dissatisfaction isn't a flaw? Maybe self-doubt and a desire to change, to be better, to aspire to ideals of beauty (which are often highly unique and anything but strictly imposed by men only) are positive, productive aspects of human beings...or at least maybe they are take-it-or-leave-it components of how our minds work.
I'm not sure, but I think that makes more sense than, 'Madonna looks terrific...how sad.'
If I were playing devil's advocate, I could argue that the real problem is women themselves. Most of the power players in magazine publishing are women, many photographers are women, women are the ones doing the posing and attracting all the attention, women are the ones buying the magazines, and women are the ones complaining about the beauty standard "created by men." Maybe the beauty standard is created by women. (After all, have you seen the women that men will happily crawl on top of given half a chance? They do not have to look like Madonna. Waists are optional.) I'm reminded of a Seinfeld joke where Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) rails against the cruelty of boys giving each other wedgies, saying of girls: "We just tease someone, till they develop an eating disorder."
In my opinion, and it is a whopper of a generalization, women are their own worst enemy. Men are not each other's worst enemies, they're just absolutely clueless about how to relate to each other on any level—which is no less damning a problem than the previous generalization. Perhaps you won't agree with either generalization, but I have to believe that neither is as intellectually insulting as pointing your finger at a famous person and shouting "pathetic!" in a crowded theatre.