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January 18, 2006



On a personal level, I'm not sure it's possible to reject these messages by effort alone. You can't always "control" your responses to advertising that you disagree with by pure intellectual effort, no matter how much encouragement you get. But it is possible to consciously seek out alternative messages.

Like you said, role models are an extremely important part of the way kids start to see themselves and think about things. I think it's very important for role models to demonstrate how to make positive entertainment choices - not just to "avoid sex and violence" but to pay attention to the movies and magazines we consume and how they affect our emotions and thinking.

I spent an afternoon this summer watching "chick flicks" with my sixteen-year-old younger sister - we put in Bridget Jones' Diary and my sister, who isn't obese but is definitely larger than most of her friends, got up in the middle and said she couldn't take any more. Listening to Renee Zellweger moan about how much she hated herself and her body was making my sister feel physically ill. I knew that stuff was in there and I disapproved of it, but I should have thought harder before throwing it in with just a general disclaimer. We switched to Beauty Shop with Queen Latifah, who starts off with a "Do these pants make my butt look big? Good!" comment and goes on to live life well. Because she felt the impact of the movies so differently, my sister was able to sort out for herself afterwards what she was hearing from each one. I didn't have to initiate any kind of discussion about body image, it was obvious to her that one hurt her and the other helped.

There are lots and lots of "girl power" movies and books out there, some obvious PC beat-you-over-the-head crap and others that just focus on, as one of my favorite authors called it, "girls who DO things". As you said with regard to compliments, it is far more important to emphasize the interests and capabilities of young women than it is to add to their anxiety over body image. Sometimes discussions of bad vs. good body image can add to the stress. In terms of role models it's also imporant to find good ones in pop culture, like Queen Latifah and America Ferrera, whose movies can be a much more palatable way to deal with the issues.


Vacula, indeed -- sharing info about what pop culture role models "work" to help young folks struggling with these issues is an important task. "Real Women Have Curves", the Ferrera film, resonated with many of my students, who grew up in the same sort of cultural milieu, the same city, and with the same issues as her exquisitely realized character.

Random Lurker

This post got me thinking about my own eating disorder/weight issues. This is probably rambling and sort of pointless.

I wonder if the subject of weight in young women (and hell, in North Americans in general) doesn't suffer from a lack of clarity. After all, anyone can eat a healthy diet and get good daily exercise- and this will lead to a healthier and more attractive body in anyone. *Anyone* can do this. It's not unattainable in any way, and it leads to a better overall quality of life. No one benefits from no exercise and a lousy diet.

I consider myself to have a weight issue and an eating disorder, but I'm damn clear that the way to be healthy and happy - AND attractive- is through a reasonable diet and exercise, and a healthy weight. Being underweight obviously doesn't do your skin, hair, nails, energy level or fun-loving personality any favors.

Furthermore, I don't want to look like a fashion model, I want to look like ME. What's idealized as 'The Perfect Body' in the media is such a bizarre, attenuated version of what a healthy attractive young body looks like... I really wonder why everyone loveslovesloves it so much.

I don't consider myself to be particularily enlightened. So I find myself wondering why other women like Jen, who are probably far more intellectual and educated, still find themselves in thrall to this weird ideal of neon skeleton-women. Why is it so hard to shatter the spell of that ideal?

I can't help but think that it's connected to other desires- for acceptence, for status, for wealth, for control- as she said. And that's a big fat DUH right there, I guess. But maybe feminists should try to seperate these issues from the body... and clearly they are, so hey. Useless comment. Sorry. :)

But it did get me thinking, so thanks.


What's idealized as 'The Perfect Body' in the media is such a bizarre, attenuated version of what a healthy attractive young body looks like... I really wonder why everyone loveslovesloves it so much.

I don't consider myself to be particularily enlightened. So I find myself wondering why other women like Jen, who are probably far more intellectual and educated, still find themselves in thrall to this weird ideal of neon skeleton-women. Why is it so hard to shatter the spell of that ideal?

Attractiveness doesn't equal beauty. It doesn't equal power. Sexual attractiveness of the sort conferred by a large and robust young female body is not a lot of fun for a lot of people.

Anorexic women are not oblivious to society's message that they are silly for wanting a beauty that's not sexy. Everyone is told over and over that skinniness is a female ideal, that what men really like is T&A, that having a bit of flesh in the right places is what makes you fuckable. Real women have curves, and all that. To a woman with curves (i.e. tits) who does not care to be told what kind of woman she is or what kind of attention she should be glad to have, getting rid of the curves can easily seem like a great fuck-you to it all. Jen's right that a skinny, weak body can easily be read as passive and unaggressive, but all the anorexics I've known personally have molded their bodies out of huge amounts of aggression. Passive resistance, if you will. Looking at anorexia as a simple matter of slavery to the fashion magazines will not get you far.

I've never been anorexic, but that's only because I find it more comfortable to direct anger outward than inward.


Of course, male privilege affected my own experience with an eating disorder.

Hugo, can you enumerate some of the male priveleges? Which ones are set in law? ("privilege" from Latin "privus" + "lex", "private law".)


Alexander, why would it matter whether or not the things he referrs to are "set in law"? Words certainly aren't limited to the meaning of their original roots.

One aspect of male priviledge that Hugo refers to immediately is the healthier body-size expectation for males in our society than for females - "I was doing something distinctly at odds with the masculine ideal." Obviously such an "ideal" can create other problems, but in this instance it helped that people recognized the danger to his health and tried to help him.


I find this sort of discussion fascinating because I'm one of the few women I've ever met who doesn't have body issues. (This is not me bragging - sometimes I feel like it must be because I'm just abnormally clueless or something - I just bring it up because if the question is how to avoid those issues, maybe my experience can be a clue).

I think the reason I've managed to avoid them refers to what someone else brought up above -- bringing the focus on something else. In my case, I almost always got my attention and validation from my sports and academics. And the sports that I got attention for were not "feminine" sports like ballet that encourage anorexia, but "tougher" sports like soccer, track, and rugby (which encouraged body types further from the skinny, anorexic "ideal"). These effects in combination with being quite completely average-looking -- in short, not getting much attention to my body one way or another -- made it not much of an issue for me, even when that seemed, in moments of exasperation, to be all my friends would talk about!

In short, while we can't intellectually think ourselves out of our emotions, we can often change them by doing differently. Thus it might be most effective -- for women of all ages -- to focus on making yourself aware of what other societal messages there are, rather than just trying to tune out the damaging ones. Replace the damaging ones, in other words. That's what I got (naturally) by being in situations where the messages were all about my worth in academic or athletic ways - even though the societal messages about diet were there, I just didn't buy into them because I had so much more salient messages coming from other directions. I think you can consciously put yourself in situations where the messages coming in are more what you want to hear, and this will do a lot more to change unconscious motivations than any amount of intellectual "willing" will do.


I'm with Rayven - I think one of the best ways to help young (and older)women obsess about their bodies less is not to spend time talking about Hollywood's glorification of skeletal women or critiquing patriarchy, but rather to encourage women in activities where being skinny is not particularly helpful. Sports, of the non-gymnastic, non-dance variety, are great, as is volunteering and activism. If you are concerned about refugees starving to death in Darfur, then you might be less likely to eat celery for lunch.

It also helps to hang out with people who are not white and middle-class. I've spent most of my adult life in working class communities of color, and I very rarely hear African-American women worrying about their thighs. The feminine ideal of beauty is very different in communities of color and immigrant communities. I've found that very freeing.

Having said all that, I think there is a difference between an eating disorder and not liking your body. Purging and anorexia are not just about patriarchy. Outside of gymnasts, dancers and Hollywood actresses, where there is extraordinary pressure to be unnaturally thin, there is usually something else going on. There is a high correlation between sexual abuse and eating disorders in young women, which is not to say that all women (and men) who have eating disorders have been sexually abused, just that if someone has a serious eating disorder, I don't think critiquing Cosmo is going to do a lot of good. The causes are a lot more complex and personal than that.


, I wish that I could agree with you that communities of color are immune from anorexia and eating disorders (that may overstate your case).  My student body (pun noted) is well over 65% non-white.   Though it's true that the standards of beauty may vary from culture to culture, the unattainability of those standards seems to be a constant -- and judging from my Latina, Asian, and African-American students, that anxiety is fully equal with that of their middle-class white female peers.

Nice, but brief summary here.  Note this bit:

Unfortunately, eating disorders do not discriminate. Individuals of any race, class, sex, age, ability, sexual orientation, etc. can suffer from an eating disorder. What can and does differ is the individual’s experience of the eating disorder, how health professionals treat them, and finally, what is involved in treating a woman of color with an eating disorder. Research that is inclusive of the women of color eating disorder experience is still quite lacking in comparison to eating disorder research that is conducted from the white ethnocentric viewpoint.

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