Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Culture of Thinness

An article I wrote for Deconstruction Magazine a couple years ago:

Eating disorders and poor body image have become rampant in recent years, and the media has stimulated the increase in the life-threatening diseases that come under the heading of disordered eating. The numbers of people who have body image issues are staggering. Television, magazines, and even film play a large role in the development and maintenance of eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and compulsive eating…and they help create body image problems for many. The rise in eating disorders affects women’s lives most of all because they remain the major sufferers. Recently, new hindrances have presented themselves to women with the potential for developing eating disorders, such as pro-anorexia websites and diet product marketing. And trust me, we have enough hindrances without getting hit with more. I for one have personally dealt with the pain and problems this article talks about, so I write from experience and a growing anger with the media. The culture of thinness is prevalent in Western society—a culture that continually focuses on women and their bodies.

Putting aside for a moment what helps to cause eating disorders and body image issues, there is still the matter of health and the consequences of these things for women. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa especially, have serious dangers associated with them…and an unhealthy body image is no pleasure with which to live. Women are dying from problems like this—women with options, women with lives, women with these problems that have conquered so many—thanks in part to the media. While there is no simple “cure” for eating disorders or unhealthy body image, there are solutions to the problems that influence these things. There is not only an opportunity to help women struggling with these issues, there is an opportunity to prevent these issues from ever happening at all. Women with any type of eating disorder are generally those with other psychological issues or low self-esteem—but what gives them this low self-esteem?

While the media is surely not the sole cause of eating disorders or body image problems among women, it does play a tremendous role in the way women feel about their bodies. Body image is an issue that is often directly related to eating disorders, especially anorexia and bulimia. Television frequently displays women who are considered the standard of beauty; we don’t often see unattractive or overweight women in lead roles. Today’s standard of beauty generally includes being thin, tan, and picture-perfect in every way. As if this were not bad enough, the commercials on television do not bring much relief; diet products are continually marketed all day and all night so that women scarcely have a chance to feel comfortable with themselves. The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness (AEDA) lists that the diet related industry was a 50 billion dollar a year enterprise in the year 2000. Since this style of marketing is so ubiquitous, many women are left to assume that their bodies are not on par with the societal “ideal.” The American Anorexia/Bulimia Association (AABA) states that as of 1998 the most common behavior that leads to an eating disorder is dieting. How many women do YOU know who are on a diet?

Magazine photos and advertisements, like those in Cosmo, Glamour, and Seventeen act in much the same way. Even women’s magazine articles tend to focus on weight, appearance, and beauty over fitness and health. Society labels beauty as women’s main “thing” in life. More than success, intelligence, or personality, beauty is the goal that is set for women of all ages to achieve. Women are often judged by appearance alone, and this includes weight. For example, many women feel that if they cannot get a date, it must mean that they are too fat or too ugly. You seldom hear a woman saying she couldn’t get a date because she’s too smart, right? These messages which the media render can be detrimental to the psychological well-being of women of the Western world. Adolescents are the main consumers of women’s magazines and diet products. They are also the target audience of television shows and movies that portray thin and gorgeous women as the “ideal” or the norm. It is obvious that these messages do indeed have an effect on their audience; according to the Eating Disorders Coalition for Research (EDC) 40-60% of high school girls diet and 30-40% of junior high school girls worry about their weight.

Since the 1960s, focus on women and body has increased considerably. What led to this change? All kinds of media, for instance, skyrocketed; television, movies, and advertising became about looks and fashion whereas in earlier years it was not such a big issue. Pressure on adolescent girls to fit in has soared as well. Not only has this pressure increased, but it is continually on the rise. The depiction of women’s sexuality (or the dominance of women as sexual objects) also influences women and the way in which they view themselves and each other. Young girls particularly have come to understand that to become a woman means make-up and style and being pretty. Women in Western culture, in order to be women, must fill a role that has already been created for them. Just as society views women, so women learn to view themselves. They may become overly critical, discontent, and acquire low self-esteem in the process of trying to measure up to impossible ideals (or simply ideals that simply aren’t who they are and/or who they should be).

Not only are positive themes associated with thinness, but there is a distinct stigma associated with fat. According to Western culture, thin is wonderful and fat is horrible. This stigma alone can influence the choices women make and the actions they take. Since fat is something disgusting, women who are "overweight" or feel that they are overweight may be distressed. If this daily distress becomes bad enough, many women may develop self-damaging behaviors or eating disorders. All the negative messages surrounding fat can cause women to have negative feelings about themselves, and these negative feelings can increase until women feel what is known as body hatred. And who do they have to thank?—the media.

Remember when I mentioned that since the 1960s focus on women and body has skyrocketed? Well, it should be no surprise to find then, that the incidence of eating disorders has doubled since the 1960s. Shock and frenzy often follow eating disorders in the news and public, but instead of merely addressing and re-addressing the problem, something can be done about it. First on the list might be “fixing” the media. Despite the fact that girls and women often feel inadequate compared to many of the unrealistic and pervasive images the media presents, these images still remain the basis for beauty in our society. Not all media is like this; there are images of natural, full-figured, and beautiful yet imperfect women out there, but this is certainly not what women most often see. The majority of ideas and images in media of Western culture drives home that a lovely and likable slender appearance is much more important than being smart, successful, or healthy. Even if it remains difficult to purge society of these images, combining them with positive ideas about intelligence, careers, social issues, and health would at least be an improvement. It’s also pretty vital to promote health and fitness as opposed to body size.

According to the Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness, over half of females between ages 18-25 who participated in a recent survey would rather be run over by a truck than be fat, and two-thirds surveyed would rather be mean or stupid. This statistic alone is enough for alarm. It is clear that eating disorders, eating disordered behavior, and body image problems have become an epidemic. Body image issues are increasing in younger age groups—as young as seven-year-olds. In the past, eating disorders were mainly an issue for white middle to upper class women, but in recent years the issue has increased in diverse ethnic and socio-cultural groups, according to the Eating Disorders Coalition for Research (EDC). Furthermore, the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry states, “The number one wish of girls 11-17 years old is to lose weight.” When a wish like this becomes so prevalent, the issue of body image and the media needs to be addressed. There is no reason why so many girls and women should die from eating disorders—or live a life of suffering and pain.

(c) Arielle Lee Becker


Emily Jolie said...

What an excellent article, Arielle! It reminded me of all the outrage I carry deep inside about societal values placed on women and their objectification in the media. I wrote many a paper in high school about gender inequalities, and, I realized, in reading your article, that I miss utilizing those critical thinking skills that were put to much more use when I was in school.

much love to you,


Arielle said...

Thanks, ej! I'm glad you liked it. :)

Much love,