Monday, March 05, 2007

In a Cinch

In The Beauty Myth (2002), Naomi Wolf writes, “During the past decade, women breached the power structure; meanwhile, eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest-growing medical specialty. . . . We are in the midst of a violent backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement: the beauty myth.”

With this in mind, I began thinking about the relationship between feminism and our bodies, and a number of questions emerged: Can you be a true feminist and still want to dip below your natural weight? As women make unprecedented professional strides, are our bodies more prone to evaluation and scrutiny? Are we all tacit supporters of the unpublished truth that in order to be successful, you must be thin?

Considering the amount of mental energy we devote to judging/denigrating/whipping our bodies into shape, it’s amazing we have the resources to work, love, and raise kids. A friend in college once remarked, “If I could take all the time I’ve spent so far trying to lose weight and to manage my body hair. . .” The sentence was incomplete, but the implication clear—who knows what else she, at only 20 years old, or any of us could have accomplished? And, what cultural forces dictate that we focus on these concerns, at the expense of larger ones? What might happen, if our energies were to be unleashed?

I’m reminded of a holiday weight-control tip I found on The site offered: “For the duration of the holidays, wear your snuggest clothes that don't allow much room for expansion.” Reading this, I found myself cringing at the discomfort (physical and emotional) of constriction. And now, I find myself wondering, is a diet just a modern-day corset?


PalmTreeChick said...

Wow, if I were to unleash all the energy that I have spent on food/weigh related thoughts, etc. I would have been able to, geez, I don't know what...explore the whole universe or something crazy. (And people think I have too much energy now...whooo)

Anonymous said...

You only have to look up Dr Ancel Keys' studies on starvation to understand how dieting affects women:

"Starved people cannot be taught democracy. To talk about the will of the people when you aren't feeding them is perfect hogwash," Dr Keys stated.

His famous Minnesota Study fed healthy young men 1600 calories per day consisting of fresh vegetables, complex carbs, and lean meats, meant to be similar to what post-WWII Europeans were eating.

1600 calories per day of veges, "good" carbs, and lean meat sounds familiar, doesn't it? Sounds just like a "healthy" diet intended for "treating" being fat - and just like the diets that women voluntarily put themselves on all the time. I reckon most women go for closer to 1200 or less, though.

As Sandy Szwarc reports:
"As the men lost weight, their physical endurance dropped by half, their strength about 10%, and their reflexes became sluggish -- with the men initially the most fit showing the greatest deterioration, according to Keys. The men's resting metabolic rates declined by 40%, their heart volume shrank about 20%, their pulses slowed and their body temperatures dropped. They complained of feeling cold, tired and hungry; having trouble concentrating; of impaired judgment and comprehension; dizzy spells; visual disturbances; ringing in their ears; tingling and numbing of their extremities; stomach aches, body aches and headaches; trouble sleeping; hair thinning; and their skin growing dry and thin. Their sexual function and testes size were reduced and they lost all interest in sex. They had every physical indication of accelerated aging.

But the psychological changes that were brought on by dieting, even among these robust men with only moderate calorie restrictions, were profound. So much so that Keys called it "semistarvation neurosis." The men became nervous, anxious, apathetic, withdrawn, impatient, self-critical with distorted body images and even feeling overweight, moody, emotional and depressed. A few even mutilated themselves, one chopping off three fingers in stress. ­They lost their ambition and feelings of adequacy, and their cultural and academic interests narrowed. They neglected their appearance, became loners and their social and family relationships suffered. They lost their senses of humor, love and compassion. Instead, they became obsessed with food, thinking, talking and reading about it constantly; developed weird eating rituals; began hoarding things; consumed vast amounts of coffee and tea; and chewed gum incessantly (as many as 40 packages a day). Binge eating episodes also became a problem as some of the men were unable to continue to restrict their eating."

Sounds eerily familiary. Women are compelled to this degenerative state for alleged beauty and health. All we're doing is starving ourselves into submission.

[And this includes fat people. It's actually a pretty small minority of fat people who have health problems directly affected by adiposity, and a review of medical studies continues to show weight loss is only ever a short-term thing for the majority who do lose weight. Doctors therefore need to come up with some other solution that DOESN'T look just like an eating disorder or the Minnesota Study.]

Boobook said...

Can I throw weight loss surgery (WLS) into the discussion? It seems to me it shares similarities with Chinese foot binding. Surgically altering our bodies so they fit an ideal. What do others think of WLS? I'm horrified by it, but there is such a push - almost, if you're fat or overweight you owe it to society to get part of your gut cut away so you can be skinny. My views might be shaped here by having 3 close friends who have all undergone the lap band surgery. They think it's wonderful. I don't, but the idea is seductive.

Jen said...

Your question comes at a really fascinating time for me, as I've been pondering this a lot lately. In the last week, my workload kicked up to almost unmanagable proportions and it forced me to abandon posting to my blog (which deals with my recovery process), delay reading others blogs, stop reading the recovery books I possess and, frankly stop thinking about my ED, my weight, etc. Needless to say, I accomplished everything I needed to and more. Which left me wondering: how much of an impact could I have on the world if I spent less time obsessing about me and more time thinking about the rest of the universe?!

lucy said...

hi. I'm a feminist right? I talk the talk, I know my theory, I'd rather die than let someone catch me eating a pre packaged diet food. I'm better than that.... except that I'm not.
I have one friend who knows the vomiting, starving self-hating truth, and I know the laxative abusing exercise obsessive truth about her. And when we discuss these things there is a pleasure in the acceptance of this modern type of weakness. Keeping up the intellectual/feminist front is almost (though not really) as difficult as keeping up the whole eating disorder. Insight is useless. Disordered eating is a reasonable reaction to 21st century living. That is not to say it is not sinfully time wasting and narcissistic, but it isn't 100% stupid. there are advantages in this society for women with eating disorders.

lucy said...

Just read my comment back...wasn't meaning to sound so pro. I really am fighting it, like everyone else. I'm a real fan of old Naomi Wolf, but reading her work, discussing it, believing it, hasn't brought me any closer to a healthy relationship with food.

Haley-O said...

Hmmm.... love that analogy: diet as corset! LOVE IT! The thing with dieting and feminism, too, though -- is that dieting and thinness are symbols in our culture of self-control and self-discipline (as you well know). So, a feminist can have an eating disorder in the attempt to prove herself as unemotional, rational, strong,etc. I think that would be a dynamic to consider here, for sure. Awesome post!

Anonymous said...

Just because you know how wrong cultural pressures are doesn't mean they don't have a hold on you. I'm a feminist on a diet, even though my weight is already healthy. I try not to be pissed at myself for it. Resisting that much cultural pressure is an almost superhuman feat. And yes, I think as women have gained more power in the workforce and society, we're required to demonstrate our submission by striving for a delicate, weak, thinness through stern discipline and self-flagellation. That way, even if a woman is a powerful lawyer/doctor/whatever, you have the secret superior thrill of knowing that underneath, she still hates who she is and feels she's not good enough.

Anonymous said...

I find myself wondering, is a diet just a modern-day corset?

I think you're onto something here.

littlem said...

Hi, Dr. S –

IMO, your perception is dead on. First of all:

“As women make unprecedented professional strides, are our bodies more prone to evaluation and scrutiny?”

“And now, I find myself wondering, is a diet just a modern-day corset?”
As a corollary of the above, yes.

Because as (I think it was) PTC points out, the APPEARANCE of self-control is lionized in our society.

(I say “the appearance” and not ACTUAL self-control because in our society, you’re not going to be publicly excoriated for binge eating, or binge drinking, or overspending, or using too much gas in your SUV – as long as the results of the indulgence don’t show up on your body.)

Now I’m about to grossly oversimplify some more, but since you’ve raised the topic, I would also submit that

1) women in our society are punished more than men if the indulgences show up in/on their bodies (women, more frequently than men, are ridiculed for overshopping, and really, no one is permitted to be fat and not ridiculed, but the line for “too fat” is drawn much further away in the sand for men than for women), and

2) in a patriarchal society (which ours is), women are supposed to be less powerful and smaller than men -- or, men are supposed to be larger, whichever permutation you prefer. If women have become economically larger – which we have – then according to those norms, they must be reduced some other way in order for the power balance to stay the same.

And both men and women who benefit from that structure enforce those norms (which is one of the reasons I think women are harsher on other women than men tend to be – with exceptions, of course - when those norms are transgressed).

So -

“Are we all tacit supporters of the unpublished truth that in order to be successful, you must be thin?”

I think the less you buy into those societal norms, the less you believe it. But it’s a daily resistance, and it can be exhausting. Sometimes it’s just easier to give in, so you have to do some critical thinking and figure out which way, as an individual (and especially as a woman), you’re going to suffer less.

littlem said...

I wanted to separate this out into another comment a) so peoples’ eyes wouldn’t glaze over and

b) because it’s almost a separate topic but certainly related.

You may have just glanced at this because the largest part of the brouhaha went on last week, which was also National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. I’ve been following it in part because I’m both a sorority woman and did my undergraduate work in Indiana (although not, I am ever more grateful, at DePauw).

To my mind, regardless of whether one believes that what the DZ national officers did was right or wrong, it can hardly be argued that they were not adhering to the exact same patriarchal norms you’re talking about in your post.

Those women were asked to leave the chapter (granted alumna status, or whatever; if you believe that given the fact that they’re not allowed on the house grounds, fine) because they were too big – physically size-wise, or brain-wise – for those norms.

(I’m going to leave the racial issue out of it for the time being; it’s – arguably – not directly germane, although if we’re going to talk about beauty standards …)

Here are some links to the original article as well as bloggers who had opinions on the issue:

“Sorority Eviction Raises Issues of Looks and Bias”

“Last of the Geekhicans”

“Sexism in Sororities”

Now there are and have been a bunch of people that are going to say, "Well, duh. Sororities conform and discriminate. If you don't want to deal with that, don't join."

As a sorority woman, I say that misses the point. The point is, where did the standards come from that the national officers felt they had to adhere to, and even more to the point, why are they there in the first place?

Because there are a lot less people who seem to be discussing that part.

(I thought it was really germane to this blog, seeing that sororities are the type of environment in which eating disorders seem to thrive. Of course, that's just a rumor. :D)

æ said...

what insightful comments, littlem. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

Anonymous said...

I love the corset analogy. And aside from that, there are still "corsets" that bind us, and I have freed myself from them. I view uncomfortable, binding, "control" garments as corsets and have tossed out every single such item I owned. That includes control top hose and tights, and although it took some effort, I shopped for hose and tights that do not have control top. It is SOOO liberating. I can breathe all day and don't feel like an overstuffed sausage when I go home at the end of the day. I love the symbolic freedom too. haven't burned my bras yet but did buy machine-washable ones and toss all the uncomfortable hand-wash-only underwires.

Also, since I've stopped going to sites like Weight Watchers and 3 Fat Chicks, I DO have a lot more time and energy to spend on other stuff. I occasionally check out this site but it's the only "diet" or body-issue-related site I go to.

Lina w/ED said...

In regards to "lucy said... " comment on eating disorders..."Disordered eating is a reasonable reaction to 21st century living. That is not to say it is not sinfully time wasting and narcissistic, but it isn't 100% stupid. there are advantages in this society for women with eating disorders."

Let me ask you about the advantages of an eating disorder...How does it sound to wake up every morning afraid to eat? Compulsively purging each ounce of food? Unable to communicate pain and loneliness with human beings and as a result succumbing to isolation?

If you are referring to the physical "advantages" women with eating disorders may have in our society, then you are deceived. Beauty and thinness is not an eating disorder; the latter is simply a result of an eating disorder.

Who gives us, or "society" the right to deem eating disorders beneficial? It's a disease, a state of suffering. No glamour involved.

And no, it isn't a reaction to 21st century living; an eating disorder, whether anorexia or bulimia is an adaptation tool built on many factors outside the cultural trends of mainstraim American (or non-Western) society. The predispositions of eating disorders vary and by far exceed the cultural influences.

What begins as a desire for attention and love erroneously develops into an E.D. Family circles have powerful influences over eating disorders...perhaps I will have to agree to your comment on one term, that the lack of love and support within the family is a mainstream trend that shapes many family's in our society. This is a probable trend for many girls with EDs.

drstaceyny said...

ptc--I can only imagine!

anon--I've seen those studies (and written about them)! Powerful stuff. Love Sandy's site, too. Thanks for writing in.

bb--you sure can. I think the idea is seductive, too--how could it not be?

jen--exactly! : )

lucy--interesting points, and you didn't sound pro-ed.

haley--good point, but. . . could feminists challenge those stereotypes?

anon--you're right, difficult to resist (though not impossible, and if enough of us resist. . .)

lm--it is exhausting, but what's the alternative? Thanks for the articles. . .

ae--she's good like that. ; )

anon--love it. Thanks for reading. . .

lina--I think she meant the "look" of an ed (particularly a restricting one), not the ed itself. I think we would all agree abt how devastating an ed can be.

drstaceyny said...

Oops, skipped over charlynn--thanks. And thanks for reading!

tracy said...

I think the idea of physical beauty is a very complex (altho primitive) thing and is something that people like to think they are far beyond responding and reacting on a primitive level... In some cases, I don't know about that.

Okay look, you may never have seen a snake or a shark before but if you do chances your brain will not send out a warm fuzzy 'Aw, go pet that thing' message like it would for, say, a baby bunny. More than likely it will send out something like - 'RRRRRRUUUUUUUUUNNNNNNNNNN!'

I think people perceive beauty in the same way because beauty is wrapped up in symmetry which is wrapped up in the health of the organism which has to do with survival of the species....yadda yadda blah blah blah, etc on and on. So I think the idea of beauty is really perceived on a gut level.

That said, every generation has its own idea of beauty. When being overweight was associated with wealth it was desirable because being thin was assoc. with working like crazy and not having food - not so desirable. Ditto a tan. Binding feet was seen at one time as a beautiful thing, now, it just seems hideous.

So even though every generation tweaks the edges of beauty; beauty itself is a gut reaction. Should I be above it all? Should I think it unfeminist of me to care? Oh shoot, I dont know. I think it's a bit of a moot point because I am well aware and can appreciate other forms of beauty as well. I think people have grown to be able to do this - we can see past the pretty face ... but I think to seek to erase it is like trying to get your brain to see sharks and kittens on an equal playing field until you interact with one.

Elizabeth said...

A little late to the party, but I wanted to comment-

You ask if you can be a true feminist and still want to dip below your natural weight. Of course. You might as well ask if it's possible to be a feminist and depressed. Eating disorders are psychological disorders (just like depression), that manifest themselves through the obsession with food. Is it fed by patriarchial ideals? Absolutely. Should feminists work against those ideals, and think critically about them? Absolutely. But to suggest that if you have that psychological disorder, you can't be a feminist is ridiculous. I'm a feminist. I'm also a recovering bulimic. And even though I'm not binging and purging, I'm still watching my weight. Do I think our obsession with weight in this culture is effed up? Absolutely. Do I agree with everything that's been said here about it being a means to control women? Absolutely. But just because I can think critically about it doesn't mean I'm not controlled by it. I think women should get equal pay for equal work, and I fight for equality, but at present, we still get 77 cents to the dollar. I disagree with it, but I'm still controlled by it.

April said...

Re: the starvation experiment: 1600 calories a day is severe calorie restriction for most men. The failure to realize that stems from the fact that almost no one has any idea how many calories he or she is consuming, and grossly underestimates, especially grossly underestimates restaurant food.

Those of us who actually monitor our calories and nutrition find out fast how very wrong most people are in their estimations.

Re: "Can you be a true feminist and still want to dip below your natural weight?"

Surely you can not be unaware of the vast amount of research behind calorie restriction (with adequate or better yet, optimal nutrition) as a method for slowing the biological aging process? You may not be interested, or convinced by the science, or find slowing aging to be a valid goal, but surely you can not be completely unaware of it?

There are goals regarding food nutrition and lifestyle that can result in weight loss, but that are not tied into trying to reach some patriarchal ideal. I really don't appreciate my feminism being called into question because I'm apparently too skinny for you. Women judge each another enough already, don't you think? It's very presumptuous to assume that the only reason why someone might be below her "natural" weight is an obsession with thinness or some such thing.