Monday, March 31, 2008

Feminism and the pressure to be thin

Celtic Chimp posted this comment on another thread, and it inspired me to write a new post:

I have never understood how women can have such a wrong impression of themselves. Healthy, beautiful women obsessing about their weight. If women could just see themselves from a blokes perspective for five minutes they would be very confident! I and most men I know find very thin women to be extremey unattractive. Now I'm not saying it is all about what men want or that that is why you lot do the whole weight thing but it is most perplexing to us men-folk. Whilst I agree that aiming that sort of complete bollox at young girls is completely irresponsible, I do think that adult women have got to take some responsibility and teach girls a little common sense. Maybe when their mothers stop fretting about their weight and image so much they will follow suit.

Well, Celtic Chimp, here's the thing: The pressure to be thin is not about what men want. It's not about sexual attractiveness. It's about power.

As you point out, many men--maybe most men, I don't know, as I'm not a man--do not find extreme skinniness sexually attractive. So the thin-is-sexier argument doesn't wash. Most men I know want women to look like women, not prepubescent boys.

No, this is about power. It's about wanting women to be small in the world, to take us less space, literally and metaphorically. This of course is not a new idea; it's one of the underpinnings of first wave feminism, and sadly it still holds true.

I think there's something else going on here, too. I think so long as women are obsessed with our weight and eating and body image, we aren't focusing on other, much more important things. Anyone who's ever had an eating disorder can tell you that while you're in the grip of one, you have no energy or concentration or ability to frocus on anything else. An eating disorder is a kind of closed loop. A dead end. Something to keep the circuits busy so they don't go exploring.

I think the cultural norms today around women and food and eating amount to an eating disorder, or at least highly disordered eating. Women's "place" used to be in the home; that was the 19th-century way to keep women down. Now, maybe, dieting and exercising and obsessing over weight is taking on that role.

Either way, the result is the same. So long as we're busy weighing ourselves, we will never measure up and never get any bloody real work done in the world. In that sense I think you're right: We, women, have to stand up to the culture, reject the pressure to be thin, protect our children from it.

It's not easy to swim against the current. But it's necessary.

So thanks for making the point. I'd love to hear what my readers think.


Dreaming again said...

Sexier isn't the point all ...for many ... anti sexy IS the exact point. To not want to be an adult, to have womanly curves, to feel what is to be felt ... those are fearful and scary feelings feel sexy is to feel shame ... the anorexia or the compulsive overating extremes allow a woman to get away from being or feeling attractive/sexy .. it IS the point.

vesta44 said...

I've been thinking on this for quite a while, and it seems to me that the dieting craze started taking hold when women started burning their bras and demanding equal rights. It was about that time that the models started getting thinner (think Twiggy) and actresses got thinner. The more that women demand equal rights, the thinner the ideal for women gets. Keep us obsessing about our weight and our looks and we won't have the time or the energy to demand anything. I think the FAM is one of the reasons that the hysteria about the obesity epi-panic and "what about the children" is getting louder and louder. FA scares the hell out of the ones in power because if women quit obsessing over weight and looks, we're going to be demanding the equal rights that are due us and changes will be made that the powers-that-be don't want happening.

Anonymous said...

Susan Bordo has an excellent piece on this issue called 'Reading the Slender Body' about how women's entry into the world of business was predicated on a more androgynous de-sexed, slender body. She argues it does have to do with issues of power and perceptions of female sexuality as "out of place."

Harriet said...

It actually started long before that, around the turn of the 20th century. The "flapper" look was boyish and androgynous, and it became fashionable at the same time that women were trying to win the right to vote and other freedoms.

I'll look for the Susan Bordo piece. Thanks for the reference, anon.

Anonymous said...

I think there's a lot of truth in "distract people's focus, put their focus on themselves, and they won't look at the wider world."

I have seen the argument that when women start to gain a little political power, fashion swings in such a way that maintaining a 'fashionable' body is difficult and would require a lot of effort (distracting effort) on the part of the woman.

I think today it's a little different with the insistence on "health" - on being a "good" eater, getting in your 15-or-whatever-the-hell-it-is-now servings of vegetables a day, and paying attention to what could kill you dead of cancer THIS week, and doing the prescribed amounts of exercise, etc., etc. - I think the obsession is beginning to spread to men, now.

Oh, don't get me wrong - I eat healthfully and I exercise because I feel better when I do. But there's a difference between taking steps because they feel good and have clear health returns, and obsessing about every cup of coffee and every time you take the elevator instead of the stairs.

And it seems like "obsessing" is what the media wants us to do.

Ironically - that kind of obsession is NOT healthy. So they're making us unhealthy by claiming we need to do all this stuff in the name of health.

I've ranted on too long already but I'll also note that "doing what's right" healthwise seems to be a moving target - they'll tell you a certain number of "ideal" servings of vegetables or grams of fiber, and then six months later, they'll say "Whoops, that's not enough! What you're doing now is almost as bad as doing nothing!" and increase what we supposedly "have" to do in order to avoid dying a horrible death.

Rachel said...

This is exactly the focus of my graduate thesis: that weight and beauty standards act as formal and informal forms of social control for women. I posted a snippet of a recent paper on the broader subject of informal social controls for women here and revisited the issue again here

What it boils down to is this: Society encourages women to change their bodies so they don’t have the time nor the effort to change the world.

mary said...

There's a certain level of wildness we've lost by listening to what others/experts think.
I agree that it's a power thing and at times a superiority thing but not always. There's a tad bit of competitiveness in there for many....not speaking of anorexia here but every woman. Sometimes we want to lose weight to get to where we are supposed to be we can feel our best.More often it's a number we are striving for and not how we feel best, as it should be.
I've made an effort to keep my wild side. By the BMI standards, if I gave a damn, I could drop 30lbs. Why? To appease some chart?
I have a mother and a sis who are fat phobic. My mom is not thin, but my sis has smoked her life thin. I have recently gotten on her case about this as she has a 5yr. old who her words are influencing and I will not be a silent witness.(hows that for taking up my space in the world...I may get shot yet) My mom makes an occasional comment about "our" weight. My other sis is large, large boned, tall, and just plain big. Ironically she was the tiny baby.I have made it a point to help her accept and love herself and she's actually doing quite well despite being faced with those who discriminate. I feel like I've spent the last 30yrs. keeping these 3 women on track regarding our need to accept ourselves. It has helped my mom tremendously but she still slips due to conditioning. My sis may need some slapping if she continues to 'think and send " messages to my niece that make her think small is better. She recently complained when her husband brought home ice cream by saying to me that she'd look like mom in a week if she got off her diet. Oh, so we smoke and diet our lives away. There's absolutely nothing wrong with my mom's weight! And yes, this sis struggles with getting anything meaningful done though she has loads to contribute.
I love how celtic chimp put this...that it's not about being ourselves for them. I personally think the most beautiful part of being human is that we have emotions and passions which can shine through if we only dare to be ourselves. I do get shot down and sometimes I feel needy but I have made a promise to be my own keeper regardless of what others think of me. I get to meet the most wonderful people by being open as the best of people step up and say "hello" when we are free to play. There will be people who hate us too but that is their problem if they think us a threat or taking up too much with comments.
An ED or an anal approach to ourselves puts up a shield that hides us away from the world. It keeps the anxieties fed which only grow when we keep our fears. The world is too damn tough to stay scared. We need to support one another in being and living and leading our goals. And appreciating ourselves at whatever size we happen to be...even if you are struggling with anorexia you must begin by loving yourself today.(Harriet's wonderful pledge)
I say choose to reclaim some of your wild nature and forget the scales. Loosen our buns and we'll all be better for it.

Anonymous said...

Something about this topic and the comments thus far seems "off" to me on an instinctual basis. My gut says the trend toward "thin" had more to do with advertising volume and making money than about keeping women down. Think about radio. It became popular in the 1920's and advertising began to reach more and more people.

Also, marriage was in the process of changing. I think for the average woman, today's ideal of marriage for love is far more competitive than the old "business" style marriages.

Anyway, too often women are content to keep themselves down, and it's not just about size. Ask a middle school girl if boys like smart girls.

Harriet said...

"Ask a middle school girl if boys like smart girls."

Ain't *that* the truth.

I do want to be clear about the fact that I don't think any of this causes eating disorders. I'm going to do a follow-up post on that. Social roles are constantly changing--men, women, children, the poor, the wealthy, the intelligentsia, etc. It interests me on an intellectual level to think about the connections between, say, the push to be thin and women's roles, and how they do or don't correspond. I'm a first wave feminist who still happens to believe that we ain't there yet. Gender is still hugely divisive and women are still expected to sit down and shut up on some level, as evidenced by Hillary's campaign. (And yes, I know there are lots of other factors there, and I myself am not completely comfortable with her, but that's politics, not the gender thing, and if you don't think she's suffering because she's a woman, you're not paying attention.)

And I know from my own life that, as Rachel put it so well, "Society encourages women to change their bodies so they don’t have the time nor the effort to change the world."

I'm out to change the world, myself.

Anonymous said...

From my experience it's: "Capitalist society encourages women to live up to specific, and expensive, beauty standards so they can't spend that money on more powerful pursuits."

Rachel said...

My gut says the trend toward "thin" had more to do with advertising volume and making money than about keeping women down.

Ahh, but these things are so enmeshed that it is impossible to even separate and distinguish between them. There's a lot of intersectionality here, all of which makes it such a fascinating field to me.

I'm also fascinated by 90 percent of reported eating disordered cases are by girls and women. A large portion of my research is in how social gender roles encourage or promote the use of food and weight as coping mechanisms by women. My thesis is split up by 20th century decades, and so far I've made great headway on the 1940s and 1950s, with lesser research on 1900 - 1920. Women's roles evolve with each decade, but women seen as natural preparers of food remains constant.

It's all fascinating to me. I like to say I refocused my obsessions with food and weight into research on food and weight. Graduate school is just an expensive hobby for me.

Anonymous said...

Smart boys like smart girls just fine in my experience. And why would a smart girl worry too much about the others?

Not to say that gender roles are absolutely irrelevant, but you might be interested in the recent research that suggests a biological aspect as well...

Intrauterine Hormonal Environment and Risk of Developing Anorexia Nervosa

Marco Procopio, MD, MRCPsych; Paul Marriott, PhD

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2007;64(12):1402-1407.

Context Anorexia nervosa (AN) is approximately 10 times more common in females than in males. The reasons for this difference are not yet understood. Several mechanisms have been hypothesized as possible causes.

Objective To determine whether the different hormonal environments to which male and female fetuses are exposed in utero might contribute to the increased risk of developing AN in females.

Design, Setting, and Participants The study is based on a large population-based cohort of Swedish twins. The strategy used is to compare the prevalence for AN between same-sex and opposite-sex twins.

Results The study shows that the risk of developing AN in female twins is higher than in male twins, as expected. The only exception is male members of opposite-sex pairs, who have a higher risk of developing the illness when compared with other males (P = .62 for narrow diagnostic criteria and P = .60 for broad diagnostic criteria). In fact, their risk is at a level that is not statistically significantly different from that of females from such a pair. A plausible explanation for this phenomenon is that in pregnancies bearing a female fetus, a substance is produced, probably hormonal, that increases the risk of having AN in adulthood. Because the male half of an opposite-sex twin pair would also be exposed to this substance, it could account for the observed elevated risk in males with female twins. The most likely candidates are sex steroid hormones.

Conclusions The results of our study are compatible with the hypothesis that intrauterine exposure to sex hormones might influence neurodevelopment, affecting the risk of developing AN in adult life. This might be a factor contributing to the higher risk of developing AN in females.

Author Affiliations: Surrey and Borders Partnership NHS Trust, Chertsey, and Department of Psychiatry, Medical School, University of Sussex, Brighton, England (Dr Procopio); and Department of Statistics and Actuarial Science, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada (Dr Marriott).

HT said...

I think there's also an element of some people putting others down in an attempt to make themselves feel more virtuous by comparison. This piggybacks on the other driving forces behind promoting the thin ideal.

maddie said...

I don't know, I think sexy has something to do with it, just not necessarily in the way that Celtic Chimp might think.

For one thing, while I agree that a lot of the pressure to lose weight comes from other women, it's not all about us - I've known more than one perfectly formed woman who's had a boyfriend pressure her to lose weight, and while you can argue that models aren't told to lose weight by straight men, actresses certainly are. I'm not sure whether this is because they're actually attracted to very slim women, or because the whole men/women's bodies thing isn't just about men's perception of women's bodies as actually attractive to themselves - it's about their perception of women's bodies as attractive to other people, and the impression that men give when they're with a woman who is considered beautiful. Men want to look like they attract someone beautiful; in this culture, beautiful means thin.

I have to admit, I find this "most men don't like skinny women" thing a concern as well. It's not any more of a good thing to say "men don't like skinny women" than to say "men don't like fat women". It's neither particularly woman-friendly (given that there are a lot of naturally skinny women just as there are a lot of naturally fat women), nor, in fact, accurate. Some men like skinny women, some men like fat women, some men like a variety of women, and some men don't like women at all. But you know, I don't see men as a group getting together and saying "we don't think women should diet, we like them as they are". Men are as much participants in the business of selling women's insecurities as women are, whether it's because they want to move products (and men still do have more power over the advertising decisions made than women do) or because they want their partners on the back foot.

Don't misunderstand me, I'm not trying to play the blame game. Women are definitely active participants in this as well. But I hear this argument on a semi-regular basis - "oh, it's not men's fault, we like women with a little meat on their bones", and yet men as a group have so far failed to take any action, and indiviual men in powerful positions do nothing but promote the aspiration to be a size zero. So I don't think that men can disclaim all responsibility, even if individual men really don't have any investment in size zero women. It's not really about the feelings of individuals; it's about society, and in society, men still have more power, and yet have chosen to use it to continue to promote this unrealistic ideal. Both men and woman are culpable in this situation.

I definitely agree about the power problem - I struggle with an eating disorder myself, it is enormously time-consuming and draining - and I think that the obsession with weight has become the equivalent of tight-lacing. It keeps us physically weak, terrified of people's opinions, and compliant.

Harriet said...

"I have to admit, I find this "most men don't like skinny women" thing a concern as well."

Point taken, Maddie. Very true. Generalizations are not helpful.

Anonymous, very interesting research. Thanks for sharing.

John A said...

Historically, men have not wanted women in power. But please, I (with four sisters) think body-shape fashion is about internecine struggles between women much more than imposed by men, even with the supposed links between skirt length and state of the economy.

As a straight male, may I say men like all types of women? I have worked with men who would not date women under 230lbs, others who wanted women under 110lbs. I have a cousin who was both so small that until graduating college she bought her clothes in the girls section of department stores and smart enough to get through MIT with a 3.9+ grade-point-average but always had guys around, and while I have heard that Marilyn Monroes`s BMI put her in the underweight class does anyone really think she was skinny or avoided by men?

Anonymous said...

As a tall woman (5'10"), I am acutely aware of my size--that is, the amount of space I take up. I am constantly concerned with losing weight because if I can be thin enough, I can date a man who is as short as 5'8" or so and still feel feminine. As I am--somewhat athletic/ fit and a little curvy--I outweigh most men, and so constantly feel like I need to be smaller.

I fully agree that "smallness" is linked with feminine and "largeness" with men. It's all about proportionality. Even my male friends who like curvy women turn away from a curvy woman who is their height--she's just too big.

It's this "too big" feeling that haunts me.

Anonymous said...

I'm 5'9" and I feel fine.

The Celtic Chimp said...

Social control, oh please. This is baseless conspiracy theory. If all the other men have some secret club, I'm not a member. Many women have made the argument that it is not for men that they get dressed up and made up but for other women. I have always found also that women are the harshest critics of women. The major problem, and I know this is going to be a very unpopular opinion, is that women are far more impressionable then men in my opinion. This is why the majority of advertising is aimed at women. You can try to tell a guy that some cream or other will make him look younger/better/whatever. He won't believe it. Men are less likey to believe in horoscopes, psycics, crystal this and that. It is not the fault of men that women fall for the advertising nonsense peddled in their direction. Many men read magazines with guys with six packs and toned bodies in them, they do not try to emulate it. So long as women try to blame men for all their ills they will never get anywhere. There are no social barriers to success for women. This has been proven by the many women who have risen to power positions. Oddly enough it is women who tend to detract from their achievements which such nonsense as accusing her of sacrificing her femininity. Who is imposing a view of what women 'should be' in that circumstances.

Consider the 'glass ceiling'.
Many studies have shown that men ask for more, demand more, argue for more. Women do not. Is it then surprising that men are paid more. There is no conspricay, no patriarchal plot. Every employer will pay each employee as little as possible (in general). In my current job, there are many women in better paid positions than me. I have no resentment about this, I don't believe they are getting something they shouldn't. In general, they are in those positions because they are very capable employees who do a good job.

Lastly, I think to suggest that women wanting to be slim has nothing to do with wanting to be attractive is simply ridiculous. It is basic human nature to want to be attractive. Of course it has something to do with. It, as I have previously said, may not be the dominant motivation. I certainly do not believe that to be the case where eating disorders are concerned.

Social control. This point is verging on the ridiculous. Do you not see anything wrong with the idea that women are volantarily starving themselves because men want them to? What exactly is it that you think men fear so much from women? I honestly can't guess what it could be.

Harriet said...

CC, comments like "women are far more impressionable then men" is utter bullshit (and ungrammatical). I'm pulling the plug on this discussion. We're way far afield and frankly, your hostility is now showing.

You're conflating "wanting to be slim" with "wanting to be attractive." The whole point of this dialogue is to explore the other factors that are packed into the concept of "wanting to be attractive." I thought you raised some interesting questions at first, but you're coming on way too strong now, so basta.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I'm coming in way too late to the party!

I just wanted to say:

"An eating disorder is a kind of closed loop. A dead end. Something to keep the circuits busy so they don't go exploring."

Amen, Harriet.

Anonymous said...

I keep hearing the rhetoric that men like bigger gals, but I just don't believe it. Some men do, I'm sure of it. But all those popular "lad mags" feature skinny women with big boobs, and the men seem to drool over 'em. Look how popular the Sports Illustrated magazine and Victoria's Secret catalogs are with guys.

Women are to blame also, especially in the fashion industry. Sadly, many women fall for it. I have fallen for it many times.

The Celtic Chimp said...


Sorry you feel that way. Wansn't my intention to be insulting. I am not hostile, however you choose to read it. I am certainly more accustomed to a 'call it as you see it' style of debate though. That said, you felt free to call bullshit on me. Fair enough. I take no personal offence. I disagree with you Harriet, that doesn't make me hostile. I think it would have been an interesting debate but your blog, your rules.

All the Best.

Anonymous said...

Your "closed loop" description paragraph is damn on the money, Harriet.

Anonymous said...

Wow CC, your account of women is um... what perhaps EXACTLY what anorectic's struggle against. Would love you to be a woman for a week and see how it feels.

Anonymous said...

I hate the comments that guys make about 'thin women are unattractive we want real women' but then ironically as soon as a thin woman walks in the room they all drool. Also what is a real woman? If a woman is naturally thin does that make her an android? What I have to say though is it is true that as women have gained more rights there is more pressure from the media and society to be thin which is very interesting it is possible that in our patriarchal society men subconsciously don't women to rise above them or to their level so the best way to do this is to target their insecurities. I know this is controversial and I am not a man hater but everyone knows men are more ego driven one of the things I love/hate about them