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Body Image and "Eating Disorders"

Chapter three of the 1992 Barnard/Columbia Women's Handbook. Discusses the disjunction between women's "real" and "ideal" body images and the relationship between body image and the economy.

The Barnard/Columbia Women's Handbook 1992

Chapter 3: Body Image and "Eating Disorders"

"You can never be too rich or too thin."

You don't have to go very far to notice that the ideal for women's bodies at present is a thin, fit, radiantly healthy, young, white woman. Just open a magazine, an advertising supplement to the Times, wait for a bus or subway, or merely walk down the street. The message of what we should look like is everywhere. The inescapable presence of these images shape our images of our own bodies, especially as women.

The media images we see of women offers us the "ideal." These women seem middle or upper-class by virtue of their expensive clothes, and are almost always white. Women seen outside the home are typically "attractive" and occupy jobs where they never seem to have to work. There are hardly any pictures of African American, Asian American or Native American women in advertisements aimed at the "general" population although they may be found if advertisers wish to "target" a group in a specific "ethnic area."

The range of actual body types in the past was no different than today. What has changed is what has been set up as the ideal. Studies have shown that while 25 years ago the average model weighed 8% less than the average American woman, today's model weighs 23% below the national average. The exclusion of so many women from representation is a denial of the wide range of bodies and appearances. Instead of marveling at the assortment of body shapes, we continually compare ourselves with each other. We begin to objectify our own and other women's bodies.

Notions of the ideal body are linked with the economy. There are a wealth of businesses that depend upon the American desire for thinness to survive. In order to create a market for their product, they attempt to make women feel inadequate about our own bodies. Their product or exercise equipment will get us on the way to the "real" us, the thinner, better, more popular us. We are given the message that our value depends on our physical appearance. We are told that we must be sexually attractive to be successful and happy. An ideal weight is presented as a requirement for being sexually attractive.

Unfortunately, limits on "desirable" thinness have not been set. The popular notion is that, as long as a woman isn't "badly" anorexic, being thin is not hazardous. Our standard of normal body size has become so thin that average weight people are considered abnormal. What has actually been proven, however, is that people on both extremes of the continuum (excessively thin or over 100 pounds above the norm) have increased health risks. The majority of those who consider themselves "overweight" are not. The height-weight charts we are familiar with were developed by the Metropolitan Insurance company, by a popular notion of ideal weight instead of a basis on an appraisal of specific health risks. In the conservative "Medical world," height-weight charts are being re-evaluated, some increasing "normal" weights by 20 percent.

Real and Ideal

Our ideal of thinness is influenced by many basic American values. This country prizes things like individuality, self-help, hard work, success, and self-control. We are given the message that if we just work hard enough at dieting and exercise, anything can be accomplished. Women especially are told that their efforts in perfecting their bodies will be rewarded by success in both their professional and personal lives. If we fail at achieving the ideal, we are told we must "try harder." A fat person is seen as lazy or greedy or without self-control."Obviously," we think, she wouldn't be fat if she could just control what she ate or "if she bothered to exercise."

As women enter the "male" world of higher education and employment, we are even more pressured toward perfectionism. We must not only achieve but excel. Some 1970's feminist advice tells us to be self- sufficient; that fulfillment comes from what we provide for ourselves. While women make a few gains toward economic independence in entering the business world without a fundamental change in its structure, we are forced to become "Superwomen." We are expected to achieve in the competitive business world while also excelling in traditional domestic roles of "wife" and "mother." Because of this dual expectation we are faced with many contradictory messages. Different characteristics are needed for each role and not living up to the ideal in either can cause feelings of failure and self-hate. We have attempted a sort of "masculinized" female form as a tool of upward mobility, and the need to perfect our bodies has intensified the social tendency to equate women's worth with our bodies. The perfect body is our new status symbol. Weight consciousness has become part of our campaign for upward mobility.

Attempting to enter the basic American search for self-control, individuality and thinness has not, however, brought most women more health and happiness. Instead, we often feel as if we have failed and the blame is laid squarely on our shoulders. But the social requirement that we achieve the "ideal weight" is based on the presumption that we can completely control our body size. In fact, the size and shape of our bodies are as genetically determined as skin and eye color.

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