Thirty minutes later, half the cake is gone, and she is sitting on the bathroom floor, having just purged her body of the odious calories and fat grams. Disgusted with her weight and her lack of self-control, she buries her head in her arms and cries bitterly.
Unfortunately, this scenario is all too familiar to millions of American women who suffer from eating disorders. Like everyone else, I've always been aware of the presence of weight problems--namely, anorexia and bulimia--among some of this country's women. I've watched the sentimental talk shows on which ghastly obese women lie helplessly in their beds and pour out their sad stories to a superficially sympathetic host. I've seen the pictures of famous women who have died of eating disorders, including the last photo of Karen Carpenter, whose face was a mere skeleton during the months before her tragic death. I've even worried about my own weight ever since I hit puberty and began to put on a few extra pounds. But I never realized the magnitude of America's obsession with the size of the female body until last month, when I saw a provocative documentary called The Famine Within. Since then, I've done some research on the history and causes of female dieting and eating disorders in this country, and I've been surprised by the artfulness and subtlety with which society has pressured women into defining themselves through their bodies.
Throughout the twentieth century, there was a gradual change in the country's attitude about female bodies and women's own way of thinking about themselves. The real turning point took place in the 1920's. Before this time, the traditional hourglass figure was the ideal, and women with plump, rounded bodies were considered alluring and attractive. For example, the silent film star Annette Kellerman, at 5 feet 3 * inches and 137 pounds, embodied the epitome of female beauty in 1918 (Brumberg 254). However, in the same year, a book was published that would revolutionize the way in which women thought about their bodies. Diet and Health with a Key to the Calories, by a Los Angeles physician named Lulu Hunt Peters, was the first popular American book to endorse dieting for women and to proclaim that fat was out of fashion. "How anyone can want to be anything but thin is beyond my intelligence," wrote Dr. Peters. To her overweight readers, she gravely warned, "You are viewed with distrust, suspicion, and even aversion" (qtd. in Brumberg 242). In addition to these blatant condemnations of fat, Peters was also able to disguise her weight-loss propaganda in the form of a patriotic and humanitarian act. By labeling dieting a much-needed solution to the food shortages caused by the current war in Europe, she used the issue of patriotism to strengthen her emotional appeal to women.
During the 1920's, women's weight also began to take on moral dimensions. If a woman was overweight, her excess pounds were viewed as a sign of her weak character and lack of self-control. Women who struggled with weight problems began to feel morally inferior and were burdened with a sense of guilt and shame (Brumberg 238). Therefore, American women were now up against two formidable foes in the "battle of the bulge"--the argument that dieting was a woman's patriotic duty during a time of war, plus the claim that additional weight was evidence of a woman's degenerate moral state. It is no wonder that the dieting craze really began to gain momentum during the 1920's.
As if these pressures weren't enough, another societal force was doing its best to convince women that they needed to lose weight--the fashion industry. It should come as no surprise that the designers of women's clothing played a part in the rise of our society's obsession with weight. After all, they are still the driving force in today's constant push to drop more pounds. In the 1920's, their power was less blatantly obvious, but just as capable of producing widespread results.
The revolution in women's fashion came with the arrival of a French designer named Paul Poiret, whose dresses called for a female figure that was slim and straight, devoid of the curves that had been considered so voluptuous in the late 1800's. Moreover, these new dresses created a "look" to which women's bodies had to conform. Whereas a woman was previously able to employ a dressmaker who would fit clothing to her unique body shape, the new "couturier" clothes called on women to change their body size in order to fit into the "proper" mold, which was dictated by the dress designer. Another popular designer of the time was Gabrielle Chanel, who created dresses with dropped waistlines and increasingly shorter skirts. Women who wanted to look good in these lightweight little dresses needed to have attractive legs and a smooth, slim body form (Brumberg 238-239). Thus, the advent of this "flapper" style of dress, along with the emergence of a new ideal for women's bodies, added to the other pressures on women to diet themselves into a more "acceptable" weight.
An ironic aspect of this body-image phenomenon of the 1920's is that it occurred during the same period of history when the women's rights movement was heating up and women were, at last, starting to take on roles outside the home (Silverstein 18-19). While most women believed that they were finally being liberated from the male-dominated suppression of the past century, they were, in fact, merely experiencing a new kind of oppression--a weight-dominated tyranny over women. After all, it was the male fashion designer who created the new body image that women were pressured into adopting. To put it in psychological terms, these designers were creating a new societal discourse on women's bodies--a different way of thinking and talking about the shape of the female body. Because this process took place so gradually and with such subtlety, women probably didn't realize that their culture was teaching them to define themselves through their bodies.
This manipulation of women by a male-dominated society has now become even more crafty. Although a woman's body form was starting to be seen as a statement of her success and social status in the 1920's, we have now made it a necessary element in the quintessential image of the thriving "career woman." The current female beauty ideal is the image of a painfully thin, neuter pre-adolescent. During the last several years, this figure has become increasingly masculine, leading women to believe that they have achieved even greater equality with men. Again, however, this image is being defined by a predominantly male population in the fashion and modeling industries. In effect, what they are saying to women is, "Yes, you have equal opportunity--but only if you look like this" (The Famine Within).
Although the 1920's brought greater attention to the female body shape, this concern temporarily faded during the years of the Great Depression and World War II, when Americans were more worried about obtaining basic necessities than dieting. At the same time, however, the distributors of weight-loss information began to target a new audience--children and adolescents. Instead of making allowances for "baby fat," physicians began to view overweight children as medical problems in need of treatment, and psychologists also started to consider the emotional implications of being a fat child. According to Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Dr. Benjamin Spock, in the first of his famous books on child raising, "told concerned parents [in 1945] that 'fatness is a complicated problem' and that overeating in children was often a symptom of loneliness or maladjustment" (250). The media also did its share of promoting teenage dieting, in articles such as one that appeared in a 1940's Ladies' Home Journal: "Appearance plays too important a part in a girl's life not to have her grow up to be beauty-conscious. Girls should be encouraged to take an interest in their appearance when they are very young" (qtd. in Brumberg 251).
Those who advocated this painstaking attention to weight among young girls ignored the fact that weight gain is a natural part of a young woman's adolescence. According to The Famine Within, "from birth girls have more fat on their bodies than boys, and the gap increases during puberty." In fact, this extra weight on young women is necessary for menstruation and, later on, for pregnancy. Nevertheless, young girls feel that they have to measure up to society's standards of female beauty--to look like the models in their mothers' clothing catalogs, the actresses in their favorite movies, or even their Barbie dolls. What is most alarming, however, is the early age at which today's girls are beginning to diet. In a California study conducted during the late 1980's, for example, 80% of a group of fourth grade girls said that they had already been on their first diet (The Famine Within).
During the politically and socially conservative 1950's, there was a brief return to the curvaceous female figures of the late 1800's. With the rounded shape of Marilyn Monroe representing the ideal of female beauty, curves were temporarily "in" again, and the Miss America of 1954 measured 5 feet 8 inches and weighed 132 pounds (The Famine Within). However, the rejuvenation of fat tolerance would not last long, and by the 1970's, women were again expected to be pencil thin--the wiry, almost anorexic figure of Twiggy was now the ideal. The dramatic change in society's outlook on women's bodies is evident in the steady decline in the weight of Miss America pageant winners. Between 1922 and 1999, their height increased by less than 2 percent, while their weight decreased 12 percent (Curran n.p.).
In addition, two more factors have now been added to the barrage of weight propaganda facing women. These are the fitness craze and the modeling industry. Since the 1970's, our culture has begun to place an intense emphasis on physical fitness and athleticism. Women are now expected to be thin and fit, and the most extreme fitness enthusiasts often seem to measure one's moral state by the fitness of the body. This concept actually goes back to the beginnings of weight consciousness in the 1910's and '20's, when society was just learning to look on fat as an indication of weakness and degeneracy. With the new emphasis on the "toning of the body," women are striving for higher and higher levels of perfection through exercise. The evidence of the national fitness craze is everywhere--multiple gyms often appear within blocks of each other, and their parking lots are full at all times of the day and evening. Runners can almost always be spotted along the roads and highways, and even in rainy or below-freezing weather, many of them maintain their daily ritual of "pounding the pavement."
Secondly, the modeling industry has probably taken the pencil-thin beauty ideal to the greatest extreme. The emaciated waif forms that appear in Calvin Klein ads are so startling that they have even stirred up controversy among the public, and fashion catalogs feature women who often look ill and wasted, with the sharp outlines of their bones often visible under their pale skin. A recent clothing ad from Bloomingdale's quips, "Bean lean, slender as the night, narrow as an arrow, pencil thin, get the point?" (qtd. in Brumberg 254) With media in the forefront of our lives, we are continually bombarded with images of these borderline, or even full-blown, anorexic women, in which self-destructive behavior is glamorized and promoted (Kroin n.p.). Thus, the modeling and fashion industries convince women that dangerously thin bodies are the norm and that if they aren't able to conform their own bodies to this standard, they are freaks and failures. We never hear that the average American woman stands 5 feet 3.8 inches tall and weighs 144 pounds--the ads don't tell us that the typical model is 23 percent below the average weight for women in this country (The Famine Within). With such a large discrepancy between reality and the "ideal," it is not surprising that American women are more unhappy with their bodies than ever before.
The ubiquitous presence of our society's preoccupation with female weight tempts us to accept it as natural and inevitable; but we can fight back against the body politics that have oppressed American women for the last eighty years. First, we need to understand that a realistic attitude concerning our bodies is essential to reasonable weight control and a healthy lifestyle. If we aspire to impossible ideals, we will always be discontented with our bodies and unable to feel good about ourselves. More importantly, however, we have to realize that a constant struggle for the "perfect" weight takes away from the energy that we could be using to develop the unique, inner qualities that should be the basis for our self-images. Once we learn to respect and value ourselves as strong and intelligent human beings--instead of sexualized and glamorized objects--we will have proven that the women of the twenty-first century have the power to be more than simply "slaves to the scale."
Curran, John. "Thinner Miss Americas." URL: http://abcnews.go.com/sections/living/DailyNews/missamerica000322.html (18 Apr. 2000).
Kroin, Amy. "A Challenge to Body Politics." URL: http://web.cln.com/archives/charlotte/newsstand/c020798/metro.htm (14 Mar. 2000).
Silverstein, Dr. Alan and Virginia B. So You Think You're Fat? HarperCollins Publishers: New York, NY, 1991.
The Famine Within. Dir. Katherine Gilday. Kandor Productions, 1990.
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