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Melissa McCarthy and Miss Indiana USA show that size is not all they are

By Peggy Drexler, Special to CNN
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Wed June 11, 2014
  • Recent moments in pop culture show women taking a novel approach toward fat-shaming
  • Peggy Drexler notes that body shaming is a part of American culture
  • Women are acknowledging their weight, then dismissing its significance, she says

Editor's note: Peggy Drexler is the author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers and the Changing American Family" and "Raising Boys Without Men." She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @drpeggydrexler.

(CNN) -- Actress Melissa McCarthy recently told Redbook that she asked multiple designers to make her a dress two Oscar seasons ago. They all said no. She was disappointed.

"I don't understand why if you're a certain size, designers think your taste level goes down," she said in the interview.

But then, frustrated by the lack of options, she took matters in her own hands, working with a designer on her own gowns. She will debut an original line of plus-sized clothing next spring.

Peggy Drexler
Peggy Drexler

Body shaming is a part of American culture, at once abhorrent and everywhere. Women are shamed for being fat, skinny, tall, short, flat chested, busty, too plain, too sexy. But lately, there seems to be a different response, similar to McCarthy's -- frustration followed by acceptance and moving on.

Modern women are saying, sure, looks may matter. But they're not that big of a deal, just one aspect of a complex person who can be described in a number of ways: my size is not all of who I am.

One way women, particularly celebrity women, have stood up to fat shaming has been to disregard the comments and name calling, refusing to be called "fat" or stating a certain pride in their bodies.

After designer Karl Lagerfeld called British singer Adele "a little too fat," she told People magazine that she embraced her curves. "I've never wanted to look like models on the cover of magazines," she said. "I represent the majority of women, and I'm very proud of that."

The public is also showing their appreciation.

When Mekayla Diehl, Miss Indiana USA, showed off her bikini body, Twitter responded in praise of her "normal" body.

And not all women are afraid of the word "fat," or necessarily proud of how they look.

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That's OK, too.

In a recent episode of "Louie," the character Vanessa, played by actress Sarah Baker, put it this way to the show's titular character, played by comedian Louis C.K.: "The meanest thing you can say to a fat girl? It's 'you're not fat.' "

Louis C.K.'s 'Fat Girl' strikes a nerve

The line was part of a nearly seven-minute speech about society's persistent fat shaming and the double standards that make it "adorable" for a man to admit he's overweight, yet something closer to pathetic for a women to do the same. As Vanessa says, "It's too much for people. ... they call the suicide hotline on me."

Being fat, after all, is still viewed as the most horrible, devastating thing a woman could be -- a date with a destiny comprised of a houseful of cats.

Check your 'cat-lady' preconceptions about childless women

As Vanessa tells Louie in that episode, being fat "sucks," but it's just one thing about her. She's also funny, fun, smart and confident. She has a good job. She doesn't need to call on euphemisms to describe how she looks. She's not "full-figured." She's not curvy or plus-size. She's fat. It might not be the best thing about her, but it's also not the worst thing.

And it might be the most important message women, and men, have heard so far.

Women used to shy away from calling themselves overweight as a way to protest thin culture and rebel against society's fixation on what women look like and what size jeans they wear.

But the truth is that the focus on appearance is not going away, least of all for women.

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We live in a time when tabloids routinely question whether female celebrities are pregnant and dissect their bikini bodies. And yet a male celebrity can run around on the beach with a bit of a pooch and a girl 15 years his junior and no one talks about how liberated he is for "embracing his flaws" nor about his transformation when, months later, he loses the extra weight.

Female celebrities, though, get covers and four-page features on the topic.

So instead of ignoring their weight, pretending it doesn't exist or doesn't matter to them or to anyone else, McCarthy, Baker and other modern women are acknowledging and owning it -- then dismissing its significance.

And that's even more powerful.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peggy Drexler.

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