One Size Never Fits All


 

Most eating disorder sufferers are led to believe that in spite of the positive statistics indicating the high level of physical recovery, they will never truly be mentally relieved from their illness and consequently resign themselves to a lifetime of mental struggle. Contrary to this widely-held belief, there is a future for these ex-sufferers which does not necessitate an enduring preoccupation (however marginal) with food, weight and body image. The media, government and even the fields of psychological and scientific research are adept at describing the far-reaching effects of eating disorders, and are even positive in their presentation of the prospects of recovery and the futures which lie ahead for the recovered. But all seem to fall short of offering alternative viewpoints able to challenge the social preconditions which contribute to the disorders in the first place.

Of course, all sorts of contributing factors lead to the development of eating disorders. It would be ridiculous and inaccurate to hold Western media presentation and societal pressures for being solely responsible. But what it is accurate to denigrate these forces for, is their power to severely inhibit women about, and to prejudice women against the inevitable, natural idiosyncrasy of their bodies. Most eating disorders begin with a desire to improve ones physical appearance and self-esteem through weight loss. This becomes more complex and dangerous as the effects of starvation set in, directly affecting both physiology and psychology. The effects of eating disorders are widely-acknowledged for the debilitation and mental and physical devastation of their sufferers; but it is time for society to take seriously the well-being of its supposedly ‘healthy’ members, especially when over three q! uarters of women want to lose weight, regardless of their size (according to a survey conducted by the British Dietetic Society, September 2004). Although clinical eating disorders are still confined to a minority of the population, I think it would be accurate to say that most women and a sizeable proportion of men experience what the movement psychotherapist Helen Payne has labelled ‘eating distress’ at some point in their lives. Eating distress is compounded by the pressure from the diet and fashion industries and the celebrity media to conform to a physical ideal far beyond the bounds of most people’s biology. To do so, our instinctual, healthy expectations of our bodies are discarded. Gone is a trust in a metabolism and appetite which regulates our consumption according to our physical needs. Enforced is an artificial system which views our bodies like modelling clay; lumps to be manipulated, compressed, hacked up into whatever fashionable mould this season desires. The result! is a population terrorised by guilt and indecision about what, when and how much it should and should not eat, and a contempt for human uniqueness. I want to demonstrate how we can all actively disengage from these restrictive, exclusive rules by remembering that one size NEVER fits all. In doing so, we will liberate not only our collective, but our individual mindsets from the body fascism prevalent in the media, fashion and entertainment industries which enfetters the general public, and from what I believe has become the single, greatest factor in Western female (and to a lesser extent, male) discontent today.

But to begin with Caroline Knapp, author of ‘Appetites: what women want’, believes that Western females are the victims of a body fascism which is itself a counter-product of female liberation. Confused by a society which encourages women to desire for themselves, yet also posits them as the objects of desire, physical starvation becomes a denial of the female appetite for choice. ‘It’s about the anxiety that crops up alongside new, untested freedoms, and the guilt that’s aroused when a woman tests old and deeply entrenched rules about gender and femininity.’ Capitalist notions of success encourage women to see starving themselves as an independent, positive choice. To unleash their physical potential, to truly ‘appreciate’ their bodies, they must reduce themselves to fit a diminished ‘frame’. The society which prides itself for ‘empowering’ its female population, in reality, does exactly the opposite, both mentally and physically.

Physical emaciation and bodily weakness are symbols of their success in Western capitalist society. Most disturbingly, the dominators’ chief weapon is its very victim. When Julie Burchill pronounced that ‘women aren’t thin for men, they’re thin for other women’, she was really referring to the women who have been indoctrinated with patriarchal beliefs about weight and size, and in turn, impose this prejudice on their female counterparts. Turn women against each other, create feelings of envy and anger amongst them, dismantle their solidarity and you are left with a victim which expends its (already-limited) energy on a futile fight with itself.

Serious consideration of this matter can prompt paranoia. Who can we trust? How do we know that exercising in the morning IS the best time to exercise for health and fitness purposes when it is relayed to us by sources such as fashion magazines? Does it really maximise metabolic rate, and raise our energy levels, or does it merely exhaust our female workforce before they have even arrived at the office?

Similarly the Atkins diet raises suspicion as to the motives behind its promoters and profiteers. Certainly, the diet industry makes money out of the fact that NO diet actually works; if a specific kind did, it would provide a finite source of profit for its promoters, and no business wants to sell a product which actually satisfies its consumers to the extent that they only purchase it once.

For all the debate over the discomfort, expense and potential health risks, I believe that the fashion and diet industries will continue to promote the Atkins regime for as long as they (or essentially, their Western capitalist proprietors) profit from the advertising. It may satiate the hunger of its adherents but leaves its victims bereft of energy as they are deprived of the source of life itself: carbohydrates. Their physical state – not hungry, and yet exhausted – becomes a pertinent metaphor for the plight of many ‘successful’ workers in Western capitalist society. In spite of all that society has supposedly ‘provided’ them with, these societal ‘Atkinsites’ are morally, intellectually and spiritually-starving, and lacking the autonomy to supplement the insubstantial aspects of their own lives, neglected by the system which supposedly nurtures them.

As a result of the Atkins diet, the previously declining meat industry has seen profits soar. The beef industry alone has grown by $3 billion in just three years, and the Atkins industry has contributed at least $1 billion to the Western economy. However, cattle are not the only victims of the meat cleaver; the Western world’s meat industry is a primary cause of the developing world’s hunger crisis. It insists on using land which could feed more mouths worldwide if it grew crops, for the globally-uneconomical process of farming livestock. Consequently, promoting the Atkins diet could be interpreted as a sinisterly covert strategy tantamount to Neo-imperialism. Put simply, Western women are co-opted into joining ranks with the capitalist masculine meat culture in order to exacerbate the gap between the developed and developing worlds’ well-being and wealth. Only a society driven to drain every! last dollar of profit out of any potential source would capitalise on the suffering of not just its own population, but the rest of the world.

Of course, THESE ideas are not entirely original. They were the first tenets of feminist campaign back in the 60s and 70s. From Orbach’s ‘Fat is a feminist issue’, at the end of 70s, to Naomi Wolf’s ‘The Beauty Myth’ published in 1991, there has been a continuous, determined drive urging modern women to reject the body fascism, which Western patriarchy promotes to them as female empowerment. Unfortunately, for all this effort, little progress has been made. Eve Ensler, author of ‘The Vagina Monologues’ is the latest to take issue with this fact. Her new play, ‘The Good Body’, touts the simple message that there is nothing wrong with the bodies originally, biologically bestowed unto us. In saying so, she revokes the current cultural assertion that honing our bodies is merely another innocent step on the road to success in the 21st Century.

The concept of the body politic, or the female body as a site of domination extends further than merely this enfettering body fascism. In fact, the control exercised over women via their weight and appearance is only a surface example which, if probed, reveals a deep sexual inequality still prevalent in Western society in the 21st century. The OED offers several definitions of the word, ‘slave’. One citation stipulates ‘a device, or part of one, directly controlled by another’. The verb, ‘to slave’, is defined as ‘to work excessively hard’. Amazingly, in the 21st century, the status of Irish women easily exemplifies these definitions. Now the 17th richest country in the world, the emerald isle attributes its financial growth to the increased hours and productivity of its female workforce. Ireland acknowledges that women are crucial to its financial independenc! e. But it devalues their economic contribution by denying them independence over their bodies. Even Italy, the bastion of Catholicism legalised abortion around the time of the modern sexual revolution. And yet, Irish women are still waiting for this fundamental physical right. As the feminist and academic Ailbhe Smith pointed out at this year’s European Social Forum, as long as women do not have this most basic control over their bodies, how can we claim that women are liberated in the West?

We may be quick to condemn the restriction of women in the East, by Islamic fundamentalism; but we are quick too, to ignore the prevalent restrictions of women in our own hemisphere.

Afghanistan was declared a country of female liberation this year after it played host to the 2004 Miss World competition. But surely, women’s liberation will be achieved when women are celebrated for everything BUT their physical appearances. Power to flaunt one’s body is NOT empowerment.

So what can we do to help challenge what seems like an almost impenetrable power barrier? Resist. And we are not talking about public demonstrations, celebrity flagellations or depositing the corpses of starved anorexics outside the Houses of Parliament. As with all resistance movements, small acts spread amongst a small group of people are more effective than grand gestures.

By all means, we do not have to relinquish all interest in our physical appearances, fashion and beauty. But rather than buying into the celebrity shape-imitation and body envy endorsed by the media, we should appreciate clothes and products for the way they might adorn and enhance on our own selves, ‘perfect’ hips or lips aside.

We can eat according to the idiosyncratic needs of our bodies, rather than the uniform regimes proscribed by fashion magazines and celebrity dieticians. We can eat to energise our bodies, to satiate our appetite, and to respect the type of food we are really hungry for. The trouble for many people (not just women) is that they have forgotten how to eat, due to fad dieting, restriction and excessive consumption. Feelings of guilt or unhappiness are directed towards the very process of feeding oneself and have tampered outrageously with our instinct to listen to our hunger and to eat the kind and quantity of food we require. In her most recent book, ‘On Eating’, Suzie Orbach urges readers to begin to trust their instincts, if they are to rid themselves of the troubled eating experience. Based on the theory that we all possess an optimum weight which will stabilize itself if we respect our bodie! s’ desires, Orbach enables us to gain confidence in our eating habits, and ultimately, ourselves.

We can learn to admire and respect bodies which allow individuals to perform the daily tasks which constitute their lives. Our lives are as unique as the bodies we have to live them. Probably 95% of occupations do not require the workers to meet a physical ideal in order to meet the job specification. Perhaps 60% of occupations can be performed by workers experiencing a moderate degree of hunger or inertion. We can function on a mere 1000 calories a day (half the recommended daily intake). But merely functioning is not living, and no life can be lived successfully and happily if the subject is obsessed and repressed by food and the body.

Not only is it important that we apply these guidelines to ourselves, but crucial that we extend them to those around us. Because the severity of eating disorders, eating distress and body consciousness are dependent on levels of self-confidence and social acceptance, it is imperative that we support all those suffering at the hands of the impossible image-makers and fantasy lifestyle sellers. Creating a united front to challenge the body fascists is also the only way their can be revealed for what it is, and ultimately revoked.

Debilitating any desire within ourselves to physically compete with one another is the first step. It only confirms the status quo when we encourage others to consume what is ‘forbidden.’ To persuade friends to select the chocolate bar over the piece of fruit if they so desire, is hypocritical when we ourselves never ‘cave in’ (in public, at least). Encouraging people to give up the guilt they feel about certain foods, and to eat as they like does not mean urging them to ‘pig out’. It means encouraging them to adhere to their appetites, to eat what satisfies them and to respect their bodies. The old adage of treating ones body as a temple still stands.

Refuse to engage in conversation or analysis of other females based solely on physical assessment. If one friend comments on another woman’s ‘thunder-thighs’, it reflects more on the speaker’s bodily discontent than the female under scrutiny. ‘Thunder thighs’ do not necessarily equate to a dissatisfaction with one’s life. And surely it’s time to destroy any connections that people make between slimness and success.

Encourage others to reassess the gender-based stereotypes governing their dietary habits. Why should a woman not select steak and chips if she is hungry for it? Why should she stick to Diet coke and Muller Light yoghurts just because the face of Renee Zellweger, in character as Bridget Jones, adorns the packaging? True, the calorific demands of male and female bodies do differ. But in no way does this delineate certain foods ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’, regardless of what advertising or dated social habits, may lead us to believe.

Lamenting with a female friend about her lack of chest, whilst waxing lyrical about her long legs is not actually supportive. By all means, encourage your friend’s self-confidence and appreciation of her limbs. But encourage your friend also, to develop a more positive attitude towards her less favoured body parts. Even better, offer a compliment, or encourage her to take pride in her whole self, rather than segments of her physical shell; after all, we are not friends with merely cute backsides, sparkling eyes, pearl-white teeth.

So far my strategies have been geared towards challenging female-female judgement of the body. Yet we cannot avoid confronting male behavioural patterns and prejudices if we are to truly destabilise body fascism. (Let’s not forget that the fashion magazines salivating over the latest celebrity stick form are produced by male-owned publishing companies.)

To counter male prejudice, I recommend that we (both men and women) challenge male dialogue which judges females solely on their physique. Any man who considers himself above viewing females as if they are kit-car structures, should refuse to offer such commentary when other males do so.

I am not suggesting people deny the instinct of physical attraction, but we must question the standards by which we judge this. Above all, I am urging people to challenge the current emphasis on the body as object of desire, and only element worthy of affection.

In my opinion, if both sexes want to form fulfilling relationships, they must firstly reject any socially-imposed standard of beauty when judging the attractiveness of the opposite sex. And then they must seek to compliment each other on the diverse physical, mental and spiritual elements which make them beautiful to one another.

In spite of my troubled experience with weight and food, my overriding problem remains unchanged; the prevalence of my own petty vanity. Without vanity, I would be able to eat entirely to energise, and not to feed my own ego as I struggle to manipulate my body into whatever shape is currently fashionable. Without vanity, I would relinquish any lament for the undesirable, or worse, ‘incorrect’ shape or size of a certain body part. Without vanity, I would choose to concentrate the energy I currently expend concerned with my physical appearance, on an activity more worthy of my status as a healthy, intelligent young woman. Each day I strive to challenge the rules I dictate to my appetite and my body. But I am stronger to do this when other people join in the challenge.

Admittedly, the types of image and status-related eating disorders prevalent in the West are the ills of a privileged society. But I think we must ask ourselves just how privileged we actually are when that society attempts to restrict some of its members by confusing its basic instinct to sustain itself.

References

Articles

The Bull about the Beef: has the Atkins diet really transformed the American economy?

By Charles Duhigg

Article posted on MSN website, September 15th, 2003

Dieters ‘likely to put on weight’

BBC News

Contains statistics of British Dietetic Society

Julie Burchill in her column, The Guardian, 2003

Eve Ensler interviewed in the Weekend Guardian, October 9 2004

Books

Caroline Knapp, ‘Appetites: What women want.’ Published by Counterpoint Press.

Suzie Orbach, ‘Fat is a Feminist issue’. Published by Arrow,

‘On Eating’. Published by Penguin.

Naomi Wolf, ‘The Beauty Myth’. Published by Vintage.

Lectures

‘Women struggling against oppression – neo-liberalism, patriarchy and feminist strategies’, European Social Forum, 16.10.04

‘Women, resistance and globalisation’, ESF, 15.10.04

ESF, 15.10.04

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