This is a wonderful short essay by Susan Bordo which was originally posted by Patsy Clairmont on her blog:
Butterflies are just around the corner… adventures of a starving artist.
It is so interesting, insightful and filled with common sense, I just had to re-print it here.
“The young girl stands in front of the mirror. Never fat to begin with, she’s been on a no-fat diet for a couple of weeks and has reached her goal weight: 115 lb., at 5′4″–exactly what she should weigh, according to her doctor’s chart. But in her eyes she still looks dumpy. She can’t shake her mind free of the “Lady Marmelade” video from Moulin Rouge. Christina Aguilera, Pink, L’il Kim, and Mya, each one perfect in her own way: every curve smooth and sleek, lean-sexy, nothing to spare. Self-hatred and shame start to burn in the girl, and envy tears at her stomach, enough to make her sick. She’ll never look like them, no matter how much weight she loses. Look at that stomach of hers, see how it sticks out? Those thighs–they actually jiggle. Her butt is monstrous. She’s fat, gross, a dough girl”.
As you read the imaginary scenario above, whom did you picture standing in front of the mirror?
If your images of girls with eating and body image problems have been shaped by People magazine and Lifetime movies, she’s probably white, North American, and economically secure. A child whose parents have never had to worry about putting food on the family table. A girl with money to spare for fashion magazines and trendy clothing, probably college-bound.
If you’re familiar with the classic psychological literature on eating disorders, you may also have read that she’s an extreme “perfectionist” with a hyper-demanding mother, and that she suffers from “body-image distortion syndrome” and other severe perceptual and cognitive problems that “normal” girls don’t share. You probably don’t picture her as black, Asian, or Latina.
Read the description again, but this time imagine twenty-something Tenisha Williamson standing in front of the mirror.
Tenisha is black, suffers from anorexia, and feels like a traitor to her race. “From an African-American standpoint,” she writes, “we as a people are encouraged to embrace our big, voluptuous bodies. This makes me feel terrible because I don’t want a big, voluptuous body! I don’t ever want to be fat–ever, and I don’t ever want to gain weight. I would rather die from starvation than gain a single pound.”
Tenisha is no longer an anomaly. Eating and body image problems are now not only crossing racial and class lines, but gender lines. They have also become a global phenomenon.
Fiji is a striking example. Because of their remote location, the Fiji islands did not have access to television until 1995, when a single station was introduced It broadcasts programs from the United States, Great Britain, and Australia. Until that time, Fiji had no reported cases of eating disorders, and a study conducted by anthropologist Anne Becker showed that most Fijian girls and women, no matter how large, were comfortable with their bodies. In 1998, just three years after the station began broadcasting, 11 percent of girls reported vomiting to control weight, and 62 percent of the girls surveyed reported dieting during the previous months.
Becker was surprised by the change; she had thought that Fijian cultural traditions, which celebrate eating and favour voluptuous bodies, would “withstand” the influence of the media images. Becker hadn’t yet understood that we live in an empire of images, and that there are no protective borders.
In Central Africa, for example, traditional cultures still celebrate voluptuous women. In some regions, brides are sent to fattening farms to be plumped and massaged into shape for their wedding night. In a country plagued by AIDS, the skinny body has meant–as it used to among Italian, Jewish, and black Americans–poverty, sickness, death.
“An African girl must have hips,” says dress designer Frank Osodi. “We have hips. We have bums. We like flesh in Africa.” For years, Nigeria sent its local version of beautiful to the Miss World competition. The contestants did very poorly. Then a savvy entrepreneur went against local ideals and entered Agbani Darego, a light-skinned, hyper-skinny beauty. (He got his inspiration from M-Net, the South African network seen across Africa on satellite television, which broadcasts mostly American movies and television shows.) Agbani Darego won the Miss World Pageant, the first Black African to do so. Now, Nigerian teenages fast and exercise, trying to become “lepa”–a popular slang phrase for the thin “it” girls that are all the rage. Said one: “People have realized that slim is beautiful.”
How can mere images be so powerful? For one thing, they are never “just pictures,” as the fashion magazines continually maintain (disingenuously) in their own defence. They speak to young people not just about how to be beautiful but also about how to become what the dominant culture admires, values, rewards. They tell them how to be cool, “get it together,” overcome their shame. To girls who have been abused they may offer a fantasy of control and invulnerability, immunity from pain and hurt. For racial and ethnic groups whose bodies have been deemed “foreign,” earthy, and primitive, and considered unattractive by Anglo-Saxon norms, they may cast the lure of being accepted as “normal” by the dominant culture.
In today’s world, it is through images–much more than parents, teachers, or clergy–that we are taught how to be. And it is images, too, that teach us how to see, that educate our vision in what’s a defect and what is normal, that give us the models against which our own bodies and the bodies of others are measured. Perceptual pedagogy: “How to Interpret Your Body 101.” It’s become a global requirement.
I was intrigued, for example, when my articles on eating disorders began to be translated, over the past few years, into Japanese and Chinese. Among the members of audiences at my talks, Asian women had been among the most insistent that eating and body image weren’t problems for their people, and indeed, my initial research showed that eating disorders were virtually unknown in Asia. But when, this year, a Korean translation of Unbearable Weight was published, I felt I needed to revisit the situation. I discovered multiple reports on dramatic increases in eating disorders in China, South Korea, and Japan. “As many Asian countries become Westernised and infused with the Western aesthetic of a tall, thin, lean body, a virtual tsunami of eating disorders has swamped Asian countries,” writes Eunice Park in Asian Week magazine. Older people can still remember when it was very different. In China, for example, where revolutionary ideals once condemned any focus on appearance and there have been several disastrous famines, “little fatty” was a term of endearment for children. Now, with fast food on every corner, childhood obesity is on the rise, and the cultural meaning of fat and thin has changed.
“When I was young,” says Li Xiaojing, who manages a fitness centre in Beijing, “people admired and were even jealous of fat people since they thought they had a better life….But now, most of us see a fat person and think ‘He looks awful.’”
Clearly, body insecurity can be exported, imported, and marketed–just like any other profitable commodity. In this respect, what’s happened with men and boys is illustrative. Ten years ago men tended, if anything, to see themselves as better looking then they (perhaps) actually were. And then (as I chronicle in detail in my book The Male Body) the menswear manufacturers, the diet industries, and the plastic surgeons “discovered” the male body. And now, young guys are looking in their mirrors, finding themselves soft and ill defined, no matter how muscular they are. Now they are developing the eating and body image disorders that we once thought only girls had. Now they are abusing steroids, measuring their own muscularity against the oiled and perfected images of professional athletes, body-builders, and Men’s Health models. Now the industries in body-enhancement–cosmetic surgeons, manufacturers of anti-aging creams, spas and salons–are making huge bucks off men, too.
What is to be done? I have no easy answers. But I do know that we need to acknowledge, finally and decisively, that we are dealing here with a cultural problem. If eating disorders were biochemical, as some claim, how can we account for their gradual “spread” across race, gender, and nationality? And with mass media culture increasingly providing the dominant “public education” in our children’s lives–and those of children around the globe–how can we blame families? Families matter, of course, and so do racial and ethnic traditions. But families exist in cultural time and space–and so do racial groups. In the empire of images, no one lives in a bubble of self-generated “dysfunction” or permanent immunity. The sooner we recognize that–and start paying attention to the culture around us and what it is teaching our children–the sooner we can begin developing some strategies for change.