Let’s talk about that bass

Chances are, you’ve heard the much-lauded pop song of late summer, Meghan Trainor’s body-acceptance anthem “All About That Bass.” (Chances are, just reading that title has driven the season’s most pernicious earworm directly into your brain, and for that, I apologize.) You may or may not like it. You may or may not be disappointed that it wasn’t better, like I was, which seems unfair because nothing’s perfect, but there’s so much promise that the problematic stuff is extra frustrating.

Now, I accept that this song might not be meant for me. I’m what blogger Jenny Trout refers to as “fatcceptable” — more than size 8, less than size 14, the area in which women are lauded for being comfortable and proud in a body that’s three whole sizes larger than the average U.S. actress. My shape and size don’t fit society’s ideal and have caused me a great deal of misery in my life, but they haven’t been a major source of (perceptible) oppression. Then again, it may be meant for me, though, since Trainor is about my size, meaning that she and I might both have all the right junk in all the right places. To some subpopulations, she and I might both be considered fatasses, and to others, we might be called skinny bitches.

Like my reaction to “All About That Bass” the first time I heard it on the radio:

“Well, that’s catchy. … Okay, this is about things that boys chase… Yes! Indeed, that Photoshop ain’t real. Cut it out. … Every inch of you is perfect! That’s a nice message. … Well, really, a variety of women’s figures are attractive to various men, assuming you’re even basing your sense of attractiveness on the approval of the hetero male gaz — ‘Skinny bitches.’ Okay, then.”

Because for all the love-your-body messaging in the song, a lot of it comes in the form of a specific definition of hotness. This is hotter than that. Don’t be that way, because this is what boys like. J/k about the “skinny bitches” thing — they’re fine because they also think they’re fat. Still dictating standards of hotness, just with the scale inverted.

Don’t do that stuff, y’all.

There is definitely thin privilege in much of western society, and it’s strong, and it’s systemic. Most aspects of a woman’s life are in some way affected by her size, and that almost universally leans in favor of thinner bodies. But (privilege being what it is) not being subject to systemic oppression doesn’t mean that life is automatically awesome for thin women, because it’s not just about being thin — it’s about falling within that specific Fuckability Range that lays as many arbitrary specifics about conventional beauty as possible, making sure we worry about precisely how much junk we’re meant to have and in which places it’s meant to go. A thin woman without rounded breasts and hips, a woman with little lipid tissue and visible bones, a woman whose womanliness is called into question because “real women have curves,” a woman who complete strangers think should eat a sandwich — she’s still not getting any love from the Fuckability Standards Commission, and now a body-acceptance anthem is deriding her as a stick figure. Super positive. (Yeah, I know, call the waaambulance, and you can carry two skinny chicks in it side by side because they’re skinny. I get it.)

As the aforementioned Jenny Trout said in her analysis of the song,

“I see the magazines workin’ that Photoshop/We know that shit ain’t real, C’mon now, make it stop/If you got beauty beauty, just raise ‘em up/Cause every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top”

This verse is what “All About That Bass” could have been. Look how perfect it is. It celebrates the body of every woman and encourages them to celebrate their beauty in turn. Granted, beauty is a subjective construct that women shouldn’t have to worry about in the first place, so there is a problematic ideology that’s still inherent in these lyrics. But let’s focus on how rare it is to hear this message in pop music in the first place.

Like I said, it’s what this song could have been, because after that we’re right back to:

“Yeah, my mama she told me don’t worry about your size/She says boys like a little more booty to hold at night”

Again, the message isn’t really, “I have value, even though I don’t fit the mold I’ve been told I should fit,” but, “I have value, in fact I have more value than some other women who don’t share my body type, because I’m the one a heterosexual man should be attracted to.” And I say should be, because the next few lines say exactly that:

“You know I won’t be no stick figure silicone Barbie doll/So if that’s what you’re into then go ahead and move along”

“If you’re not a heterosexual man willing to objectify me over other women, then HA HA! I am rejecting you first.”

At what point did “body positivity” become, or need to become, yet another method to police each other’s bodies?

And there’s the video, an adorably candy-colored cavalcade of generously proportioned booty shaking. It’s peppy, it’s catchy, and Trainor herself is flipping adorable. It also features a sneering thin woman in a cellophane dress, who at one point derisively gropes the ass of a twerking black dancer, and seriously, can we stop doing that? The twerking-black-woman-as-prop thing? Any time you can end a sentence with “like Miley Cyrus did,” and didn’t start with “I got an unconventional haircut that I really love,” go ahead and assume that it was a bad idea.

To be absolutely clear — and I’m putting this right at the end so it can’t be missed — I don’t think this is a horrible song. Trainor has said, and I have no reason to disbelieve here, that girls and young women have told her how much better about themselves they feel after hearing that song. Women are all over social media talking about how great it is, how empowering, how refreshing it is to see bodies like theirs represented positively in a music video. And I think that’s awesome. I really do. The number of songs and videos celebrating a more diverse range of bodies, particularly in a non-sexualized way, is minimal, in contrast to thousands of videos celebrating the beauty and/or bangworthiness of thinner figures. And while the fact that most of the positivity comes in the context of “dudes prefer booty” isn’t really a good thing, we can’t ignore the fact that for many women who have been inundated with the message that they’re sexually unappealing because of their size, a contradictory message might be really satisfying. If having someone sing to you about how you’re perfect and hot and sassy makes you feel good, then I am sincerely glad there’s an outlet for that.

That said, body positivity doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Sneetches with and without stars are both great, and “body positivity” that depends on negativity toward certain bodies isn’t really body positivity at all. As women, one thing we all have in common — large and small, cis and trans, old and young — is that somewhere, at any moment, there’s someone enthusiastically ready to tell us why we’re ugly. Don’t be one of those people. The enemy here is not other Sneetches; it’s Sylvester McMonkey McBean. So let’s gang up on that motherfucker.


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10 comments for “Let’s talk about that bass

  1. GreyWolf
    October 1, 2014 at 12:12 am

    To steal a quote from The Town while reading the last line of that post …

    “Who’s car are we taking?”

    :D

  2. Victoria
    October 1, 2014 at 2:05 am

    Yeah, I’m not sold on this song. Like you said, the song posits heterosexual male desire as the standard of worth and it continues the body competition. Also, might I just add, that hearing the song with male DJ commentary on the radio, or being in a space where the song is being played and you’re the only woman it is just another reminder that society feels free to comment on women’s bodies and women’s bodies are always under scrutiny. In this context it’s no more “empowering” than any other songs about women’s bodies. I’m not blaming Trainor, but I’m sure the song was green lighted because someone somewhere along the line realized (on some level) that women’s bodies are co-optable.

  3. EG
    October 1, 2014 at 7:46 am

    I have managed to get to this point in my life without ever hearing this song. Wow. Sometimes I marvel at how out of touch with pop culture I can be.

    When I was younger, I used to think that thin women could afford to take a few for the team. But the older I get, and the more insight I get into my own body issues, how self-conscious I’ve felt about being “skinny” or “gangly,” the less I think so. Without in any way denying the ways in which thin women have it easier than fat women, being thin is not a get-out-of-misogynist-body-shaming-free card, because that’s not how patriarchy works. It’s like the way patriarchy purports to approve of “respectable” married women rather than “sluts.” Yes, “respectable” married women get a certain measure of approval, but they are no less subject to misogynist stereotypes, disempowerment, and patriarchal oppression/judgment.

    There are so many ways to hate your body if you’re a woman in this culture.

    • October 1, 2014 at 8:03 am

      Yes! Thin women are privileged over fat women in North America (can’t speak for the rest of the world, but my understanding is that our shitty attitudes toward fat people are spreading, so thanks a fucking lot American imperialism) but both fat and thin women are oppressed under a patriarchy and subject to scrutiny. It goes without saying (but I’m going to say it anyway) that fat WOC and fat trans women get extra doses of body shaming and scrutiny.

      And if you somehow hit the genetic jackpot and have a societally approved “perfect body”, then you get shit on because you’re not taken seriously. Nobody wins.

    • October 1, 2014 at 1:21 pm

      I was similarly ignorant of this song, and thought, when I saw the title of the post, that this was going to be about fish.

  4. October 1, 2014 at 7:57 am

    The whole “You’re still desirable” thing can backfire huge so yeah, the whole male gaze thing bugs me.

    I think it has the potential to make those who aren’t – or don’t want to be – desirable to most men feel further devalued and marginalized.

    I’d like to see more “who gives a fuck if dudes like you, you’re awesome anyway, you don’t need them” songs.

  5. Codi Johnson
    October 1, 2014 at 11:30 am

    “Any time you can end a sentence with “like Miley Cyrus did,” and didn’t start with “I got an unconventional haircut that I really love,” go ahead and assume that it was a bad idea.”

    This just might be my favorite quote of the month!

    • Echo Zen
      October 1, 2014 at 4:10 pm

      If it sounds like a variation of…

      “It’s okay if you have small boobs. Lots of guys like small boobs!”

      …then it’s probably a bad idea.

  6. Athenia
    October 1, 2014 at 4:04 pm

    What disappoints me most about the video for this song–besides the white model grabbing the twerking black dancer–is that Meghan Trainor actually doesn’t shake it like she’s supposed to do.

  7. October 14, 2014 at 4:02 pm

    I totally get why this song isn’t a perfect feminist masterpiece, but around this time last year, everyone was listening/playing to Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke. This HAS to be an improvement.

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