Oprah has forsaken us

She must believe that in a racist, white world, a black person, even a legend like her, is still nothing
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The Independent Culture
OPRAH, THE real and for ever queen of our hearts, has betrayed us. To get on to the cover of American Vogue she has lost 20lb.

Her capitulation is not new. Like most Western women, Oprah has been haunted by the images of perfection that make them diet mercilessly, buy clothes they can never wear and weep quietly in the bathroom as that pudding they should have resisted shows up as yet another fold of flesh.

In the past she has been corpulent, merely fat, chubby, and thinnish - but never like this. In these pictures you do not know her. She looks like an American small-state beauty contestant. Her pointy breasts, much too near her throat, jut out eagerly. Her hair has been straightened, and is so disciplined that Hurricane Georges would fail to lift a strand. A Ralph Lauren dress reveals many cute bones.

But, like Nigel Lawson, who admitted to Dr Anthony Clare that some people thought he had become politically less substantial when he became a thin man, with the shedding of all those pounds, Oprah seems to have shed her essential self. (By the way, where does all that skin go, when these miracles of will over matter happen? Can you buy sheets of redundant Oprah or Nigel Lawson skins in bespoke wallet shops?) Perhaps this is the real reason why Oprah wept when she saw the photographs by Steven Meisel, who took the pictures only after she had reached the body weight demanded by Anna Wintour, the editor of American Vogue.

As the chat show queen herself confessed: "This is a part of me I didn't know existed. I am telling you."

Nor did we.

To us Oprah was the winner over unbelievable odds. She was a woman who could be humble and grand, instinctively self-assured, magically engaging, and black; not someone who would get unnatural pleasure from having gained approval from the most shallow representatives of the white world by proving that she could look just as they wanted her to look. She has chosen to follow Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Naomi Campbell and Tina Turner. She has let herself down. But that's not all.

Through this crass venture she has also indicated to her loyal supporters - many of whom are working-class white and black people with unruly bodies and lives as far removed from the expensive pages of Vogue as the monks of Tibet - that they were not enough. Their adoration of her was as nothing compared to this accolade.

The irony is that this to-die-for opportunity to appear in Vogue was all in aid of her new film, Beloved, based on the searing, remarkable novel about slavery by Toni Morrison. For centuries, the descendants of those who were enslaved and those who were colonised remained victims. We were dominated by the values, images and standards set down by those who once ruled over us. Beauty and the definition of it was and is central to our struggle for inner independence. Even now Asians look down on dark skins and want their sons to marry women with "wheaten" complexions.

It is only since the Sixties that blackness was reclaimed, and with it came not only pride in our skin colour but a reassessment of beauty myths. Many of us are starting to understand that non-white people have certain freedoms which we must not surrender. Instead of feeling ashamed, we know we should be rejoicing in the fact that black and Asian bodies can be enormous but still incredibly sensuous.

Of course we can never be entirely free, and like Oprah we are in a state of struggle. But the fact that magazines such as Vogue have excluded us from their world has meant that we cannot be their ready victims. Recently, while watching the London Fashion week with my Asian friends, we roared with laughter (as we ate pakoras) to see the strange, pouting stick insects on the catwalks.

All the raging protests about women's and now men's magazines only ever portraying a white world are misguided. Why on earth should we want to offer ourselves up to the tyranny of the fashion world? We can be old, fat, and desirable.

I think one of the world's sexiest women is Maya Angelou. God knows how many years past menopause, of a weight that makes the earth shudder when she walks upon it, her sexiness comes out of a pride that is unapologetically black. She reveals, in the way she carries herself, how the "impertinent buttocks" of black women "introduce frenzy into the hearts of small men". Go to Africa and India - or Brixton and Southall - and you are surrounded by such women dressed in their fine gear, shining with jewels and challenging you to admire them.

Now, Maya and Oprah are close friends. Was none of this passed on to our chat show mistress? Does she not understand that she was beautiful before? That black women, and big white women too, adored her partly because she was no Cindy Crawford - or Sindy doll, for that matter? And that, anyway, it was her talents we envied, not a body starved and beaten into a shape God never meant it to be?

The price that has been paid by Western and Westernised women around the world to conform to increasingly impossible shapes is colossal. How sad it is to hear that the single model who challenged the norm, Sophie Dahl, has lost the will to keep her lovely flesh.

A study in 1997 showed that most adolescent American girls now suffer from "bad body fever". They assess their own self worth entirely in terms of how good they look, not to themselves, but, to the world that is judging them. The author and Cornell professor Joan Brumberg found that whereas in girlish diaries a century back resolutions for self-improvement by girls revolved around manners or morality, now it is all about becoming more attractive.

One entry in the Nineties typified the preoccupations expressed: "I will try to make myself better in any way I possibly can. I will lose weight, get new lenses; already got a new haircut, good make-up, new clothes and accessories." The girls, says Brumberg, show what happens when there is unrestricted manipulation by the body-masters. Other studies have shown how idealised media images create low self-esteem and endless discontent. As a role model for the young, Oprah had an obligation never to give up apple pie.

In the end, this is all to do with power and perceptions, and a history that refuses to die. As one of the richest, most famous people in the world, Oprah still obviously feels insecure and powerless in the United States. She is needy and desperate for approval, not only at a personal level - which is understandable - but in the wider context.

She must believe that in a racist white world, a black person - even a legendary heroine like her - is still nothing.

This is why she says that she could not even dream of being in Vogue: "A woman from Mississippi. Why would I be thinking I was gonna be in Vogue? Vogue is the big house! Didn't think I'd be sittin' at that table."

Oh, Oprah!

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