Women's Health: A View of Eating and Weight Problems

Author Unknown

Women with eating and weight difficulties are obsessed with weight, scales, and mirrors. But the oppressive treatment of women over the course of history has undeniably contributed to the modern fad of self-destructive dieting. It is predominantly a woman’s problem - statistics dictate as much. Meanwhile, inasmuch as society has created the problem, society bears the responsibility for eradicating it. Otherwise it risks losing some of its best and brightest young women to a tenacious, maddening, and sometimes fatal treadmill.

The old adage holds true...
History repeats itself. The 20th century may boast remarkable strides toward equitable treatment for women; nevertheless, eating disorders thrive, the most recent in a long line of "women’s illnesses". Some researchers view eating disorders as akin to the fasting of medieval women saints, most notably Catherine of Siena. More closely related, though, are chlorosis, neurasthenia, and hysteria, illnesses afflicting women from the Victorian period onward. Though the names change over time, the symptoms of these "women’s diseases" remain notably constant: depression, anxiety, headaches, amenorrhea, and disordered eating. Victorian patients were also described by their physicians as "slender,” "trying to be slender,” and "noncurvaceous". Since chlorosis, etc. were categorized as mere nervous disorders, it is difficult to know for certain that they are in fact the predecessors to modern eating disorders. Then, as now, gender roles were in flux, and success was generally modeled by the father, domesticity by the mother.

Popular Victorian thinking held that women were "slaves of their bodily appetites,” an attitude long asserted by the Church. Moreover, food and sex were inextricably linked in the feminine psyche: "appetite was regarded as a barometer of sexuality". Aesthetes like Saint Catherine modeled the stringent standards held for women in the 19th century, when the ideal was "a physique that symbolized rejection of all carnal appetites". The same is true today - people, especially women, are judged based on their appearance, and obesity is equated with a lack of self-control. So today and yesterday it has been incumbent upon women to control their appetite in order to encode their body with the correct social messages. And what is that message? Women are expected to be the custodians and embodiments of virtue. Appetite, be it hunger or lust, is socially unacceptable in a woman - "their body as repository of appetite fills them with shame". Girth is an undeniable testament that one’s appetite, for food at least, has been gratified.

The Curse of Eve Myth
Appropriately enough, a magazine survey found that a majority of women were ashamed of their stomachs, hips and thighs - parts of the body that contribute to female shapes. Roberta Seid wrote, "Our female ideal violates the natural anthropomorphic reality of the average female body... is more like the body of a male than a female. The goal is to suppress female secondary sexual characteristics". This goal is in keeping with our culture’s "curse of Eve" myth.

If the female body causes men to sin, then it must be modified accordingly. Many eating disordered women exhibit extremely ambivalent feelings toward sexuality, which could easily be a result of the blame for sexual lasciviousness assigned them. Hornbacher supports this, writing that the seeming prudishness of anorectics is "less related to [their] own fear of sex -I personally was not afraid of sex, merely ashamed that it so fascinated me - than to a fear that other people will see them, and judge them, as sexual.” Again, women are given clear messages from girlhood that their sexual appetites should be a source of shame. Denial of one’s secondary sexual traits translates to a denial of one’s sexual nature.

In light of this extreme sexual pessimism it is perhaps ironic that men, who have controlled the means of representing women in art throughout history, have so focused on the female form: the flesh, the body. The fashion industry has always been dictated by men, which has often meant beauty norms that immobilize women such as corsets, foot binding, and modern thinness. Several have also noted the 20th century’s extreme interest in the nude female form, in fashion as well as in the media. Roberta Seid points out that, fashionably garbed, a woman "virtually became wholly exposed." Hence clothing is no longer enough; a woman must manipulate her very being to be fashionable nowadays. The representation of women in the media has become increasingly pornographic. Such pornographic images are usually of curvaceous, voluptuous women. But beneath the seeming implication that sexuality is becoming more socially acceptable is an uncomfortable double bind: "the "fat" pornographic images present a female body without a mind, without subjectivity. The fashion models in women’s magazines are meant to represent women with minds to acknowledge and appeal to female objectivity, but they have no bodies". Women who have noticeably female bodies become objects in cultural consciousness. They are reduced to sex and sex alone, and are not allowed any sense of physio-spiritual integrity. If a woman wants to be taken seriously, she cannot be a sexual being and so, cannot be "fat".

This sense of objectification goes beyond what women see and informs their very realities. Inundated with pornographic images, women are aware of an audience whose members believe it is their birthright to look at women’s bodies. It is clearly no coincidence that between one- and two-thirds of all women with eating disorders have been sexually abused. Both of these conditions relate to an inability to see one’s body as one’s own -- sexual abuse as cause, eating disorder effect. Furthermore, the androgynization of one’s body via extreme restrictive dieting may be a method of warding off more unwanted sexual attention. That androgyny has become the ideal presents an unavoidable challenge to women in this culture, where feminine beauty remains a form of currency. Fatness in women is associated with downward social mobility. Meanwhile, marriage is still a viable way for women to achieve upward mobility, and the more beautiful a woman is (by society’s standards), the more likely it is that she will marry well. Marriage remains so valuable to women economically because "men earn more than women in nearly every job." Appropriately, the exceptions to this rule are the professions in which women’s bodies are most literally currency: modeling and prostitution. Physical beauty affects a woman’s potential for success in all venues: women’s self-image, their social and economic success, and even their survival can still be determined largely by their beauty and by the men it allows them to attract. By so limiting a woman’s potential for financial independence, society makes it very clear that beauty equals success. And thinness equals beauty. And androgyny equals thinness.

Eating Disorders Not Just for the White Rich
That eating disorders are a rich, white, heterosexual disease is a myth. It emphasizes the interplay of thinness with a sense of assimilation and belonging for minority women. According to one homosexual woman, being successful heterosexually depended upon being thin. One immigrant from Panama to the USA recalls, "she [my mother] was preparing me to become American... that meant slender. And that meant diet". These experiences and reactions support the "thinness as currency" theory.

The prominence of eating disorders amongst women seems incongruous with the liberation they are supposed to have experienced in this century. Aren’t modern women fortunate, to have grown up with role models like Betty Friedan and her contemporaries? Are we squandering the gifts they fought so hard to bestow on us? There was a similar trend toward women’s rights in the Victorian era. Authorities at that time misattributed contemporaneous and possibly related illnesses to "the stress placed upon the nervous systems of pubescent women attempting to "overeducated" themselves." It is obvious that even the modern Women’s Movement did not and could not completely eradicate the centuries of gender-specific cultural baggage. The result is increased confusion about one’s role as a woman; there are pulls toward career and family, independence and sensuality, that are irreconcilable within the current system.

Kim Chernin, focusing on women, defines eating disorders as the answer to "silent questions about the legitimacy of female development.” She points out the dichotomous nature of this answer as "tailoring ourselves to the specifications of this world we are so eager to enter" and "stripping ourselves of everything we have traditionally been as women.” Finally she writes, "Women today, because they cannot bring their natural body into culture without shame and apology, are driven to attack and destroy that body...there are no indications that the female body has been invited to enter culture". Basically, she speaks to the tug-of-war that has defined the feminine experience since the Women’s Movement. While women have been asked to join the world of work (if somewhat reluctantly), they are still expected to fulfill their traditional role as objects. They are told that they must adhere to beauty standards in order to be successful, which cheapens any strides toward that success. Meanwhile, that modern standard of beauty is the androgynous form, an affirmation of male superiority.

Is it mere coincidence that androgyny has come into vogue at a time when women are making great strides toward asserting their intrinsic worth? Writer Naomi Wolf thinks not: "redefining a woman’s womanly shape as by definition "too fat"... countered the historical groundswell of female success with a mass conviction of female failure, a failure defined as implicit in womanhood itself". In other words, as women have become increasingly visible in our culture, their natural bodies have come to be seen as an insult to cultural sensibilities. Notably, the modern ideal female form is significantly smaller than is natural. Dieting is, after all, a way to shrink. Physical characteristics of dominance include increased size and use of space, yet women are expected to reduce weight and take up less space. Thompson writes, "discrimination against fat women reflects a society hostile to women who take up space and refuse to put boundaries around their hunger.” Society deems it prudent to deny women every appetite: for food, for success, for power, for a voice... The cult of thinness is a stern rebuke to a woman’s request for affirmation, reflecting "an obsession with female obedience". Men, who control the standards of beauty, have probably idealized thinness for women as a reaction to feminine assertion. After all, the ideal feminine form is pre-pubescent and child-like, and "there is something less disturbing about the vulnerability and helplessness of a child, and something truly disturbing about the body and mind of a mature woman". A mature woman has the strength to fight for her rights, whereas a child may comply willingly with authority. Eating disorders, so detrimental to one’s physical well being, do in fact render most absolutely helpless.

It is estimated that one in four college women struggles with an eating disorder. The times at which women are struck down by eating disorders reveal how they have internalized the cultural ambivalence described above. Often onset of an eating disorder coincides with an underlying developmental crisis. Rather than facing the overwhelming dilemma of defining oneself within culture’s conflicted attitudes toward women, a woman may simply opt out. She can forge an identity on the much smaller plain of her own body. The whole identity is placed on my weight. In a society where every decision a woman makes has such tremendous weight, an eating disorder becomes something entirely private, a silent proclamation that one’s body is one’s own to control. Unfortunately, what masquerades as a freely chosen method of communicating and asserting power is really a way to self-destruct. Eating disorders are never freely chosen; they are submission to the cultural dictates for a woman’s appearance and behavior.

The desire for control that helps define eating disorders is accompanied by seemingly contradictory dynamics. For one thing, many eating disordered persons claim that they do not deserve to eat. History teaches that women should suffer to attain an ideal, whether it be gender-specific beauty or the more general ideals of salvation, subjectivity, or autonomy. The self-sacrificing woman remains an idol; consider the Catholic pre-occupation with Mary and with female aesthetes. This is reflected in the portions of food that women feel comfortable eating, which testify to and reinforce their sense of social inferiority. According to Wolf, women "do not feel entitled to enough food because [they] have been taught to go with less than [they] need since birth". This lesson easily translates to a low sense of self-worth. The physiological experience of an eating disorder is similar to that of starving, but the starvation is self-imposed. Is it a great leap, then, to view an eating disorder as a slow suicide? As one woman eloquently states, "Eating disorders are the most socially acceptable way to self-destruct".

Conflict without, conflict within. As a result, women with eating disorders often feel confused and don’t know what to do with their lives. They have little sense of who they are or what they believe. Again, an eating disorder becomes an identity, complete with society’s stamp of approval.

Unfortunately, popular understanding often focuses on the individual experience of an eating disorder without taking into account the cultural context that helps spawn the illness. The portrayal of eating disorders in the media during the 1980’s, has its emphasis on the "bizarre symptomatology" and its failure to recognize that the women involved in this behavior often abandon their careers and their studies... return home, become extremely dependent on their parents, that their growth and development as human beings virtually comes to an end. Eating disorders prevent one from growing up and entering the world as an independent being. The focus on an eating disorder’s bizarre symptoms keeps it at the level of individual pathology. When the media portrays eating disorders as mental illness, entirely individual and without cultural referents, it gives us all permission to be apathetic. We can ignore the plight of women in society, ignore the fact that the psyche of an eating disordered woman is an embodiment of society’s ambivalence toward women: their human potential as well as their physical form.

A troubled relation to food is one of the principal ways the problems of female being come to expression in women’s lives. It is hard being a woman today; our reality borders on the schizoid at times.

Most of the women with whom I am acquainted count calories and fat grams, talk about their bodies with loathing, stare into mirrors with horror, exercise with the express purpose of losing weight, binge and fast, and exhibit other behaviors that may belie an eating disorder. We all understand that issues of appearance are essentially currency for women’s access to power in this country, and thinness is a critical component. We want simultaneously to appear strong and non-threatening, attractive and self-sufficient, smart and sexy. Thinness seems to embody all this and more.

Somehow, women have never received the message that their bodies are valuable simply because they are in them.

I can't tell y'all how appropriate this article is for me, especially right now. It's the middle of winter here and it's in the winter that I have the most problems with my eating disorders resurfacing. Of course, I wrote before, that over the summer that my eating disorders were rearing their ugly heads, but that was mostly because I was grieving over the death of my brother in Christ, David. I'm not so deep into my grieving now, though I still miss him so terribly. I mean, I have an knitted comforter that he gave me back in 1991 when we dated briefly. Before he died, I always had it draped over the end of my bed. You know, on the foot board. Now, I sleep with it every night and I have to have it near my face. I named it David. Okay, that might seem really weird, but it's how I'm coping with his death. What can I say? He was the only man who ever really loved me for me. I saw him get married. I keep him still in my heart.

It's so hard to get past that thing in your head that tells you you have to be thin in order to be accepted at any level in our society. Since I am a very curvaceous woman, I find that, as the article says, if I attempt in any way to express my sexuality by actions or dress (mainly dress) that I get inevitably what is a knee-jerk reaction opinion of me from other people. They assume that because I'm curvaceous and I want to express my sexuality, that I can't be intelligent. On the other hand, if I go about in frumpy clothes, like sweat pants and a sweat shirt, with my hair pulled back and no make-up I get treated very differently. People then assume, because the sweat pants and shirt don't reveal any of my curves, that I'm just chubby or fat and treat me with indifference, shun me or actively insult me. This makes it hard for those little (or not-so-little) eating disorder voices to begin again to set up shop and speak to me. Those old mental tapes that I created myself and with the help of those who took advantage of me, set up before. They're just waiting for a trigger, which acts like a finger pushing the play button on a recording, to reverberate through my entire being. I suppose the only answer to this is to change my head; to change the way I think; to actively not criticize myself and my body; to take charge of my thoughts and push away those that are negative and debilitating.



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