Vanity Fair Says Architecture, Like Women, Can Never Be Too Thin

Vanity Fair Says Architecture, Like Women, Can Never Be Too Thin

New Yorkers have said plenty of negative things about the super-expensive supertalls going up in Manhattan. They tower over their neighbours. They cast shadows over Central Park. But no one has yet equated them with anorexic women — until the May 2014 issue of Vanity Fair.

I winced when I saw the headline for the story about new luxury towers jutting up through the Midtown skyline: “Too Rich, Too Thin, Too Tall“. But I didn’t get far into the story, written by Paul Goldberger, one of the most well-respected critics of our time. I had to put down my computer and blink back my anger after the opening paragraph:

These days, it is not just a woman who can never be too rich or too thin. You can say almost exactly the same thing about skyscrapers, or at least about the latest residential ones now going up in New York City, which are much taller, much thinner, and much, much more expensive than their predecessors.

Now hold it right there.

The “too rich/too thin” line nods to a famous quote: “You can never be too rich or too thin.” (Variations include “You can’t be too rich or too thin.” or “A woman can never be too rich or too thin.”) It’s attributed to Wallis Simpson, the American heiress for whom Great Britian’s King Edward abdicated his throne in 1936. She was very wealthy. She was very slender. But she was also reported to be obsessed with courting rich men and maintaining her slight appearance, to the point where both pursuits became unhealthy.

Just because this quote was coined by a woman 80 years ago doesn’t mean it’s right to use it in architectural criticism today. The fact that she was likely suffering from an eating disorder only makes it all the worse. Attitudes around the idiom and the discussion about body image have dramatically changed in the last century. An ad campaign for Skor candy bars in the 1980s that featured the quote drew heavy criticism from advocacy groups, and last year, one of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills came under fire for saying a variant of the quote on air. It’s just not OK.

But the too rich/too thin thing aside: The thing that really bothers me in Goldberger’s opening sentence is the addition of the phrase “it is not just a woman.” Even though it may be irresistible to draw similarities between a skinny luxury skyscraper and this overstated trope, he could have easily omitted the word “woman” and had plenty of room to make the same tired comparisons. Still, an opportunity to talk about the buildings in the context of their social impact is reduced to a discussion about looks and status. Too rich. Too thin. Too bad.

Besides, wealth accumulation is not gender-specific, as we know, and sadly, neither are eating disorders. [Vanity Fair]