thinness and power

The below is a short break from the interviews to reflect on recent conversations and topics…

The following is a conversation overheard on the MUNI (bus line in San Francisco) by a friend of mine.

Two college aged men on the bus:

man 1: Today I found out that two girls in my nutrition class have eating disorders.

man 2: Oh yeah?

man 1: Yeah. First one admitted she had bulimia, then another one said she used to have anorexia.

man 2: Anorexia isn’t an eating disorder. It’s just not eating much. It’s not like bulimia. Bulimia is effed up.

man 1: Well… anorexia is when you like the feeling of being hungry…

man 2: That’s the only way to lose weight!

man1: Yeah, I guess. The anorexia girl is a healthy looking, she’s good looking. The bulimia girl is all fat and gross.

man2: How can you have bulimia and still be fat?

man 1 : I dunno!

both: hahahaha!!!

At this point, my friend changed seats.

Just this week while standing in line at the supermarket, a magazine headline caught my eye: I weighed 82 lbs. (People, 11/15/10). The article continued to talk about how this television actress shrunk to 82 pounds battling anorexia during her sitcom run in the 1990s.

I don’t personally know this actress. She’s not someone whose work I follow professionally. The effervescence of tabloids in the check-out line is another beast all together. But what caught my attention was the normalcy of seeing a headline like this one as well as the feelings and thoughts it was meant to evoke.

We see an attractive Hollywood actress who has “battled” and overcome. She has gone from pitiably (and might I garner enviably) thin and beautiful to still enviably thin enough to be on the cover of a national magazine. Her willpower to control her eating has created yet another magazine headline which will sell. We will all see how pretty and famous she is (even if we’ve never seen her or any of her work before). And we all can easily understand that she is in the spotlight because she has overcome. We want to be like Portia. We hunger for this smallness. And now we envy even more because she is now no longer sick. She has overcome the female malady, hysterics, the slimming away and so now, she can be not only beautiful, but also our role model.

Anyone battling with eating issues would probably be the first to admit how much of a continuum and process it is throughout a life. Recently I interviewed a former dancer who even in older age, wanted to be thin and felt bad about “being overweight.” As I talk to older women, it is interesting to note how and when the topic of thinness comes up.

Granted, I know our present culture has in some ways gone to the other extreme. Children and adults are more obese than ever, creating serious medical issues. But I would posit that the pervasiveness of the obesity epidemic only serves to highlight the wonders of being thin.

Why is Portia de Rossi on the People cover if not to sell magazines? She has battled, yes. But she is still relatively thin. No doubt, if you talked with her, she would probably tell you that her work with self-image and food continues on a daily basis.

Why, on a cultural level of consciousness, do we want female thinness? Why is the anorexic girl “good-looking”? Why do women in their 70s and 80s lament “letting themselves go,” not being anymore as thin as they once were?

To me, it all comes down to the physical space of a woman in society. If you are thin, you take up less space. You are small(er), physically and quite obviously. Again I ask, why do we want this for our women? Why is it nice for a girl or a woman to be petite, slim, tiny, thin, to have lost weight?

Here I am not talking about the importance of being healthy. That word infrequently pops up as a compliment. What is more often admired and envied is merely the physical size of one’s legs, waist, cheekbones and neck, upper arms. We see thin fashion models, created specifically to generate desire…for consumer product, yes, but even more so to look like the woman or girl selling.

Every woman I have spoken with or interviewed has seen media images and advertising of women. Historically, over the last century, media images of women have emphasized size and shape, both of which have tended towards a young woman’s physical proportions. The Flappers espoused being thin and boylike (to try to live the same rights as men). Women appeared curvier in the 30s, 40s and 50s, and then shrunk again in the 1960s on. The last 30 years has fostered a extreme and sometimes dangerous trend in combining the two – curves and thinness, molding the bodies of adult women into those of adolescent girls.

Adolescent girls are not powerful in society. Thin women do not take up much space. If we continue to esteem this shrunken ideal of femininity, what are we saying to our girls and women on a very obvious level? The smaller the better. Focus on controlling your food intake instead of eating as a source of pleasure and nourishment. Men can eat freely and still be attractive and powerful. Women need to always be careful about how we appear to men, how much space we take up, if we can keep our food and our (wild and dangerous) bodies under control.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Marita Siddal
    Dec 12, 2010 @ 01:43:32

    Great post Julia!

    Except, these same issues effect men as well. Check out this article published right here in San Francisco: http://www.sanfranciscosentinel.com/?p=78892

    Reply

  2. juliariceart
    Dec 13, 2010 @ 11:04:59

    Thanks for the comment and interesting article link, Marita. The article brings up the increase of body image issues among men, a lot of which has to do with the prevalence and visibility of media culture as well as a constant focus on being/staying young.

    My critique of this new “equality” of the problems comes because in mainstream Western society and around the world, women are less frequently in positions of power, whether it be in the workplace, in politics or at home. Women are more likely to be victims of physical violence. Women generally make less money. And women still continue to be objectified as sex objects.

    The article quotes Attitude’s Matthew Todd: “I sometimes hear women say things like: ‘It’s great – men can get a taste of how it feels to be objectified as women have been for all eternity.’ But really we should be working on a way to make it so that physicality is not the defining thing about any of us.”

    When physicality has to do with being less powerful (i.e. small, thin, childlike), this definition in terms of female attractiveness can become dangerous. Men might or might not feel pressure to look young and slim, but I doubt that this appearance has yet burgeoned into widespread discrimination.

    Reply

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