BeautifulPeople.com hails itself as the first global networking website of its kind, offering free membership to an “exclusively beautiful community, founded for the purpose of creating personal and professional relationships.” The application process is simple: submit a photo and profile, while existing members of the opposite sex vote in a two-day process to determine whether or not they find the applicant “beautiful.” Once a member is voted in, the site claims members are privy to a wealth of networking opportunities, including parties, direct connections to businesses who share partnerships with the site, and even approaches by modeling, film, and TV companies in search of pretty new faces. With over half a million members in 190 countries around the world, the site’s growing popularity remains undeniable.
Yet even among the so-called beautiful people of the world, ugliness has ensued in the tragic form of public fat-shaming. Earlier this week, the site canceled more than 5,000 accounts for members were accused of “gaining weight” over the recent holiday season. Although a few hundred members re-applied and were voted back into the network, the rest of the discarded members were sent emails which encouraged them to re-apply when they are “back looking their best,” with details of recommended fitness boot camps in New York, Los Angeles, the UK and Europe, according to a press release sent out by the company on Tuesday.
Many readers will probably find it hard to muster sympathy for the excluded members. After all, it does require a certain level of vanity to apply for membership in a network that claims to provide “an accurate representation of what society’s ideal of beauty.” But what I find most interesting in this discussion is the site’s double-speak in claiming to embrace its existing plus-sized members, while casting aside those who have gained weight as unattractive and unfit for membership.
Representatives for the website, who responded to interview questions over e-mail, claim that BeautifulPeople.com is not sizist by nature:
“We are in no way trying to encourage people to be a certain weight – many of our members vary dramatically in size and all are considered beautiful,” says Greg Hodge, global managing director of the site. “However, binging over the Christmas, in a very short period of time, has led a number of members’ appearances to become affected in an unhealthy way and we see no harm in encouraging people to focus on regaining the healthy standard that they were previously voted in for.”
The focus on healthy vs. unhealthy appearances is a common cover for many fat-phobic discussions. It’s unlikely that their attempts to push former members into weight loss will succeed — in a 2006 study of over 2400 overweight or obese adults, researchers found that nearly 3 out of 4 respondents responded to prejudice against their size by “eating more and refusing to diet,” according to the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA). This would suggest that the tactics which Hodge calls “encouraging” may actually dissuade former members from losing weight. Conflating thinness with health is also a mistake. In a 2005 Time article titled “Can You Be Fat and Healthy,” writers noted that our current medical industry may be flawed in correlating weight gain with unhealthiness, ultimately leading to tragic consequences for overweight and obese patients:
“It’s not the number on the scale or the size of your khakis that will kill you, after all; it’s the elevated blood pressure and cholesterol and other nasty problems that come with moving to the relaxed-fit rack. If you eat well, work out regularly and walk away from your doctor’s office with straight A’s on your physical, what does it matter if you can’t wriggle into slim-cut jeans… In our effort to get healthy and look great, we have created an environment so hostile to the idea of obesity that overweight people have become marginalized, giving up on their well-being and sometimes failing to show up even for such routine tests as Pap smears and mammograms for fear of being hectored about their weight by their doctors.”
BeautifulPeople.com claims to have members who vary by size. “This isn’t a witch hunt for fat people,” says Hodge. “We have many large members who were voted in as larger, beautiful people and who look healthy and attractive with their extra weight. This is an expulsion of people who joined with a certain look and physique who have now gained binge-weight which has made them look un-healthy and less attractive.”
Yet if that’s the case, it’s a little odd that their press release headline labels the more than 5,000 ousted members as festive fatties and former beauties. Aren’t they a little worried about offending their plus-sized constituency? Robert Hintze, founder of BeautifulPeople.com, argues that “Letting fatties roam the site is a direct threat to our business model and the very concept for which BeautifulPeople.com was founded.” I’m guessing that the body types for members don’t differ quite as much as Hodge was hoping, or the site might eventually collapse under its larger members’ collective girth.
By claiming to embrace size diversity while rejecting members who have gained weight, the site’s leadership is trying to have their cake and eat it, too. Fat-phobic language and jeering are hardly the hallmarks of body acceptance, yet Hodge and Hintze would have the public believe that they welcome all shapes and sizes under the umbrella of “beauty.” Perhaps knowing the truth, some members can muster up the courage to leave behind the Beautiful People and found their own exclusive social network, one that allows for health and beauty at every size.