Beyond “Love Your Body Week”: Can Feminisms Truly Address the Epidemic of Body Hatred?

by Emma Staffaroni

“Whenever woman’s spirit has been threatened, she has taken the control of her body as an avenue of self-expression. The anorectic refusal of food is only the latest in a series of woman’s attempts at self-assertion which at some point have descended directly upon her body. If woman’s body is the site of her protest, then equally the body is the ground on which the attempt for control is fought.” -Susie Orbach, Hunger Strike: The Anorexic’s Stuggle as a Metaphor for our Age

“The thing with Sarah Lawrence students is that they are very often intellectually, politically, and theoretically rejecting it–rejecting these narrow standards of beauty. And yet…they are asking themselves, ‘What is going on that I still feel more in control when I’m not eating?’”-Dina Nunziato, Director of Counseling at SLC Health Services

It’s a windy day over October study days and I am talking about eating disorders on campus with the Director of Counseling at Sarah Lawrence, Dina Nunziato. Dina was hired by the college in 1994 to run the Eating Disorders Support Group, a group comprised of students that still exists today. Coming from a private practice and a feminist-psychoanalytic perspective in her work, Dina brought her years on the Westchester Task Force on Eating Disorders to the campus, which in the early 90s was woefully under-resourced on this issue. I wanted to talk to Dina first and foremost to get her expert’s insight on the epidemic and its impact at SLC in particular; but secondly I wanted to hear from her about the potential for feminisms to address this issue–not only to bring awareness around body image through campaigns (like NOW’s well-funded Love Your Body Week), but to truly heal ourselves and our loved ones, and to do what feminism does best: shift the paradigm. Change the narrative.

Courtney E. Martin, author and feminist blogger emeritus at feministing.com, says in her TED talk that she needed this book, so she wrote it.

In 2012 it is a daunting task to write about body image and disordered eating among college students. According to the National Eating Disorders Association’s most up-to-date information, 10 million women and girls and 1 million men and boys have experienced an eating disorder. But those statistics are less meaningful than the dozens of personal encounters with people who hate their bodies, constantly diet, and/or have been hospitalized for self-starvation. As feminist author Courtney E. Martin calls it in the title of her book on the subject, the last 40 years have heralded a “frightening new normalcy of hating your body.” I came to write this article because of the women (in particular although many men struggle as well) I love whom I witness in the grips of this self-disgust, this perpetual fear of fat and sense of empowerment and control through starvation and/or over-exercise.

But even as I write this, I am intellectualizing a problem that is deeply visceral and personal. As a feminist, I know that the personal is political; but does the political shroud the personal in this case, making it harder to access the individual woman and her struggle? “‘It runs counter to everything I believe in,’” Dina says, parroting the students whom she counsels. “‘And yet. And yet.’”

Sarah Lawrence’s Health Services department employs a bio-psycho-social perspective for evaluating and serving students who need help around this issue. In the support groups, for example, young women and men are not seen within a “deficit” model. “We start with the assumption that everyone’s doing their best to manage their emotional health,” Dina explains.Thinking of the acts of binging, purging, or self-starving as discrete behavioral solutions to emotional and psychological states, students delve into the questions, How did I come to this solution to whatever I’m going through? How and why isn’t this solution working? It is a process, indeed, of analyzing, as objectively as possible, the steps one normally takes to heal oneself, and the possible alternative strategies for dealing with emotional distress. The goal, Dina says, is to understand what happens in that process and eventually help the student learn to tolerate her emotions rather than fall back on unhealthy and/or self-harming eating patterns.

These emotions vary from student to student, and Dina insists she could never generalize. There is, however, a thread that runs through many discussions with those who come to support group or seek help through counseling: the feeling of being at war with one’s body. The work then, is teaching students to “work with their bodies instead of against them,” Dina says. Only then can these young people move from a place of “self-loathing” to “self-caring.”

So what role can feminism play? In fact, it is the process of learning self-empathy that makes a person start to link the personal and political– or, as Dina puts it, “to start to recognize their relationship with food as symbolic.” Dina’s theoretical influences include second-wave feminist Susie Orbach, writing in the late 70s and 80s about the battle with the body as a feminist issue.

Orbach’s first book on the subject, Fat is a Feminist Issue: A Self-Help Guide forCompulsive Eaters, may sound vulgar to third and fourth wave feminists who see “self-help” as a consumerist conspiracy to make women spend money on elusive ideals of self-perfection. Yet when Orbach was writing, no one had yet articulated the link between the personal–the individual dieting woman–and the political–the fight against patriarchy.

She defines “compulsive eating” as the following: “Eating when you are not physically hungry; Feeling out of control around food, submerged by either dieting or gorging; Spending a good deal of time thinking and worrying about food and fatness; Scouring the latest diet for vital information; Feeling awful about yourself as someone who is out of control; Feeling awful about your body.” She describes her initial response to her feminist consciousness-raising group that focused on the issue of dieting and body hatred: “I was confused, having anticipated a discussion of nutritional standards in the United States
and the Third World, or perhaps a look at the food and fashion industries or the incidence of obesity in ‘rich countries,’” she explains. “I was hesitant to explore the topic of compulsive eating outside the context of a political vocabulary… I was uneasy but held on to the slogan that the personal is political.”

Over time, as feminists have noted the pathologizing tone of the term ‘compulsive eating,’ Orbach’s book has been retitled ‘the anti-diet guide.’

Of course, today it is unthinkable to imagine dieting NOT being a feminist issue. Forty some-odd years after the fact, I feel reassured to know that the politics of the body and body image are at home in the feminist activist and intellectual landscape. But there is still a lot to glean from Orbach’s discovery process. “Women…are brought up to conform to an image of womanhood that places importance on body size and shape,” Orbach writes. Employing a psychoanalyticlens that emphasizes childhood and adolescent development as a crucial time, she draws the line between objectification by society and the process of treating one’s own body as a object for control. It is through this line of reasoning that feminists can begin to discuss the ways in which fatness and thinness are symbolic and gendered in our social world.

The impulse, I think, for those of us that love and respect women, is to intellectualize or
politicize the woman’s experience of her fraught embodiment. But as Orbach reminds us,
feminism has given us tools and vocabulary NOT so we can distance ourselves from the
personal, but so we can draw closer to it. At the end of her 1986 book, Hunger Strike, Orbach writes, “Each woman has a difficult struggle before her. Firstly she is working towards experiencing her body as the place in which she lives. At the same time she has to find a way of reconciling the body as owned and lived in with the opposing cultural thrust of the female body as object.” Yes, this is indeed the challenge: to reconcile the juggernaut of fat-shaming, photo-shopped, white-supremacist media images with the very daily experience of nourishing oneself and inhabiting a body.

Geneen Roth’s Women, Food, and God links disordered eating to the personal and spiritual.

Which brings us back to Dina, whose work is helping people develop self-empathy in the battle for peaceful embodiment. It’s not easy, she told me, to get beneath the powerful intellects of students like those at SLC. Oftentimes the behaviors are hidden–behind specific food choices, like vegetarianism or raw food diets–but always they mask a much deeper emotional or psychological wound, one that is in part personal but also largely societal and political. It is, like all feminist issues, a group solution, employed in the campus support group, in groups beyond campus, and–yes–in intentional communities of feminists. “Turning off one’s judges–mothers, women’s magazines, husbands, lovers, friends, diet doctors, and nutritionists–requires trust in one’s self. Being in a group with other women going through the same process can be of great assistance and support,” Orbach’s book reads. I would add: not just turning off the judges, but talking back to them. Challenging the script about fatness and thinness. Recognizing when we are hiding behind jargon or intellectual rationales when in fact there are political and emotional messages to be heard. And asking our loved ones, classmates, and colleagues to talk about it. Then, listening.

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Cultural Imperialism and Body Image in Georgia

by Emilie Egger

Travels throughout other parts of the world have enlightened me to the fact that America’s body neuroses are spreading with our culture and economic exploitation.

After college, I spent several months teaching English in Georgia. Georgia is a country on the border of Asia and Europe, whose culture reflects influences from both; centuries of invasions and occupations have added layers to its history. Georgia is a poor country; the average monthly salary is about $250 US. Western culture rushed in with a bang with the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s with new television channels, radio stations, books, magazines, and increasingly, the Internet.

With the influence of television channels like MTV, VH1, and even the Disney Channel, Georgians have begun to aspire to various ‘American’ ideals. For men, there are the cars, the wealth, the swagger that comes with the assertion of one’s power. For women, the focus is on the body and its adornments. Women spend their scant salaries on the clothes and accessories they see on American television. The money spent on these items like designer clothes and purses (even more expensive in Georgia due to high tariffs) is money taken away from life’s essential items, including quite often, food budgets.

Indeed, the issue of food and body weight are huge in Georgia. There is first the question of what kind of food is socially acceptable in this evolving culture. Traditional Georgian food is eschewed for American food–even fast-food chains, a luxury in Georgia. But the most outstanding issue regarding food is making sure not to eat too much. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the ideal of rail-thin women’s bodies has become paramount. Hearing women talk about not eating all day was a part of my daily routine. Meanwhile, the same inundation of billboards and commercials seen in the developed world are slowing taking over Georgian-language advertising. Additionally, women long for plastic surgery to ‘correct’ their features which are no longer popular, notably ethnic features that mark them as Georgian.

Living in this place, I saw clearly the negative effects of my nation’s imposition of cultural imperialism in another country in such a short amount of time. Cultural imperialism is the expression of one nation’s dominance in areas of culture and is especially dangerous swhen that culture exists within a country that does not have the infrastructure to support spending habits like many Americans have. Instead, as western, American culture is forced on countries like Georgia with increased globalization, there is no real option but compliance, making poor people even poorer and halting the investment in their own country and culture.

I’ve included two videos that portray these contrasting sides of Georgian culture. One is an ad promoting Georgia as a sleek travel destination, the other a video of a traditional Georgian dance. Notice the difference in the bodies of the women portrayed in each of the videos and what exactly is used in the ad to attract wealthy travelers.

The reality is much different than what is portrayed in either of those videos, of course. Most Georgians continue to live in poverty. Still, even though the second video evokes a nostalgic ideal that cannot be replaced in today’s world, it can prompt discussion about what we’re exporting along with our culture.

No Accessories

by Cynia Barnwell

My race is not a purse, I can never place it down or shop for a new one.
My race is not a bag
I will never put it away, hoping it will come back into fashion
My race is not a clutch
and I refuse to lose it
My ethnicity is not a pair of peep-toed pumps…
and I will never remove it when my stroll becomes weary
My ethnicity is not mary-janes
and my blackness is not something I will break in
My ethnicity is not a fad, and there will be no questions of “what is the new black”
My culture is not a sweater and I could never hang it up with the slightest change of weather
My culture is not a pair of jeans
because year after year I will never grow out of it.
Fuck no, my culture is not a shirt. Honey, this will never fade
So open up your mind so you can see this today
Close your eyes then open them and view me as bare.
Delve beyond the fashion
No purse, no pumps, no pair of jeans.
See me as naked, see me as me.
My culture, my race, my ethnicity
But
No accessories.

**

Cynia Barnwell is a first-year graduate student of Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College.

Shifting Ideals of Beauty: A Visual Essay

This visual essay is excerpted from a paper by Brittany Chevalier.

This visual essay examines the historical trend of American women’s empowerment, their body image, and how the media, who is ultimately run by the patriarchy, enforces the standards of beauty in culture. While women have experienced a sense of political, social and economic freedom in the public sphere over the past fifty years, they are still held as prisoners in their own bodies and expected to measure up to culture’s definition of beauty. In an attempt to maintain supremacy over women, the patriarchal and consumer interests co-opted and harnessed women’s newly liberated selves by bombarding females with emaciated images and making beauty something that could easily be bought and consumed. The media’s actions are actually two-fold by setting a near-unattainable model of beauty, then selling products to aid women in achieving these outrageous standards. The cosmetic, clothing, weight loss and food industries that advertise in magazines and on television see women as consumers and thrive off of their insecurities to maintain control. Exploring how the media uses the body and outward appearances as mechanisms to maintain order over women, this paper analyzes women’s body types, media images and ideals during the 20th century in America. In the process, women of all ages have sought to attain a look that will “empower” them. This empowered embodiment is as elusive and ephemeral as the changing ideals themselves.

Pre-Victorian Era: The Corset

Diaries of young women from the late 1800s expressed women’s goals of self-improvement
through their actions rather than through their bodies. However, other journals of young women from the Victorian era indicate a particular beauty ideal, focused on certain body parts such as waists, hands, and feet. Having larger hands and feet signaled that a woman was working all day in a labor setting and this represented a lower and unwanted class association. To visually change their form and make their waists seem as tiny as possible, women laced themselves into corsets. With the inability to move and even breathe, the corset made women reliant on others and submissive.

Turn of the Century: Emergence of Women’s Magazines

Women’s magazines have been a large indicator of how middle class women see themselves. At the turn of the century, the creation of many women’s institutions of higher learning, such as Wellesley, Vassar, Barnard, etc., led to the advancement of literacy and purchasing power of middle to upper class women. Women were leaving the comfort of a domestic, family life for a public, more independent existence. This brought the rise of women’s magazines, such as Harper’s Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, and Ladies Home Journal. Although these publications were initially based on editorials, this new era of women’s literacy was when women’s magazines took on advertisements due to the recognition of female purchasing power.

World War I: Left Out

In her book The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes that “Women’s magazines for over a century have been one of the most powerful agents for changing women’s roles…they have consistently glamorized whatever the economy, their advertisers, and, during wartime, the government, needed at that moment from women.” As more women were becoming educated and able to have conversations regarding intellectual topics and current events, magazine articles purposely left women out of central issues.

The Twenties and the New Corset

The initial years of the roaring 1920’s were a joyous, celebratory time for American women: the economy was thriving, the “Jazz Era” was in full-swing, and the radio aired its first show. But most importantly, women received their long overdue right to vote. The 19th amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920. This newly gained sense of autonomy for women led to other freedoms- especially social freedoms- that were infiltrated by American culture. Media and film encouraged a massive unveiling of the female body, which meant certain body parts like shoulders, legs and arms were displayed in new and shocking ways. The more the body was revealed, the more prevalent a standard existed for the way women should look, and this standard invited new beauty and dietary regimens that required money and discipline. American women and adolescents cut their hair short for the first time and traded in their waist-creating corsets for body corsets that flattened all curves. The resources women utilized to keep up their ultra-slender look benefited capitalist interests. When women decided to free themselves of superfluous garments, advertisers not only focused on the clothing but the ideal body these dresses would decorate.

Post World War II: The Hour-Glass Figured Mother

World War II came to an end and in an effort to counter women’s desire to remain a part of the workforce, magazines swung more exaggeratedly back to domesticity than ever before. After tasting the short-lived occupational freedom that they had experienced, women were sent back to the domestic sphere and expected to settle for the role of mother and housewife. In the late 1940s and 1950s there was an interruption in the overarching trend toward slenderness, for women were highly valued for their roles as wives and mothers. The hour-glass figure, a more child-bearing friendly form, was popular once again, along with being busty. This matronly image of the time was considered “beautiful” because nothing was seen as more significant in women’s lives than getting married and becoming mothers.

The Sixties: Crafty Cosmo

While in the 1960s women broke through, as I like to call it, “the Formica ceiling” with a new sense of empowerment and autonomy through educational resources, economic opportunities, and contraceptive choices, consumer interests and the patriarchy also worked together to invent a new supremacy over women’s bodies. A new wave of post-women’s movement magazines, like Cosmopolitan, which showcased models like Twiggy, became popular in the late 1960s. These publications might seem to have a pro-feminist stance through its affirmations of female ambition and personal and sexual relationships; however, these magazines craftily created a formula to separate women. To dilute women’s solidarity in the liberation movement, these magazines made women into singular entities. What made Cosmopolitan’s and similar magazines’ formula so genius from the capitalist standpoint was the staggering use of beauty, weight-loss, diet and surgery focal points in articles. When a story concerning a troubled twenty-something’s long journey to lose those thirty unwanted pounds, an advertisement for diet pills or an exercise regimen would strategically be placed immediately after or alongside. The number of diet-related articles rose 70 percent from 1968 to 1972. Articles on dieting in the popular press soared from 60 in the year 1979 to 66 in the month of January 1980 alone.

The Seventies and Eighties: Sedating the Feminist

By 1984, 300 diet books were on the shelves. Today, women’s magazines use the same
mechanisms to capture a woman’s attention and proliferate the cult of thinness. As Wolf
writes, “Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history”; it molds women
into submissive and apprehensive bystanders. Without the energy and fervor to overcome suppression, women will eventually give in to a society dominated by males and give up on their own aspirations. In the 1980s, women breached the power structure and today, almost 30 years later, we continue to climb higher and higher and more able to empower ourselves. Yet, today the quintessential shape women strive to achieve, compared to the muscular and toned body of the 1980’s, is the overly-lean, almost anorectic looking figure.

Not Victims: Overcoming the Beauty Myth
It would be unfair to label all women as “victims” in our culture when they themselves cooperate in what Hesse-Biber has called body rituals. “Like Mothers who tightened their daughter’s corsets,” today’s mom passes along the newest diet secret to her daughter or reprimands her for indulging in second piece of chocolate cake. Women may not even think that their advice is hurting the self-esteem or body image of their daughters, imagining that they are helping them get ahead or advance in our capitalistic culture. It is so embedded in our society that to be taken seriously in the political, economic and social arenas, women must first fit the ideal image.

Can this problem of “the beauty myth” ever be solved so that women can enjoy their natural forms without fear of gaining weight or aging? Can we break free from predominant images that run our lives? If so, discourse must take place on a local and national level. Historically, whether a woman is trying to change her form externally through the corset, internally by restriction and starvation, or both, we have struggled to escape the constant bombardment of media images that set the “ideal” standard.

(Above: left and right: Melissa McCarthy & Adele, curvaceous and bodacious, challenge the stick-thin body ideals of the early 21st century.)

**

Brittany Chevalier is a second-year graduate student of Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College.