Obesity and anorexia, as well as other, less “categorical” disorders, have joined sex as a central issue in a modern western society. Eating disorders have become part of a distinguished social context in which feminism has been an integral catalyst. The changes in women’s roles, allowing for more freedom has resulted in an often lack of stability in the home, job roles and society in general. Second wave feminism saw for the disintegration of a typical women’s role of “housewife” and “mother”. Consequently, resulting in women being put under pressures which they did not once have to face. This alongside the rise in a capitalist culture has resulted in society measuring their successes in the form of material goods and the wealth of the individual. This superficiality in a contemporary society has forced women, more than ever, to live up to the ideals of feminine beauty. This ‘beauty’ being a prime influencer in the ideologies of current gendered behaviour. According to the NHS (2015), a report commissioned by Beat estimates that more than 725,000 people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder. This ever-growing issue of body image in all forms is central to a discussion surrounding whether obese and anorexic bodies are a result of a repressive patriarchal society, whether it’s an individual mental health problem or a mixture of both. In this essay, I plan to discuss the feminist literature on anorexic and obese bodies incorporating the significance of Foucault’s theory of power. I then intend to discuss an alternative view of how this body of work has been challenged and examine how relevant some of the arguments are in a contemporary society.
In a modern society, thinness is idealized as fatness is stigmatised. From an early age, society has preservations in place to control, limit and distort a person’s relationship with food thereby, shaping their identity. The importance placed on weight continues through teenage and adult life with the ideal woman’s body being portrayed in TV, film and advertisements. Healthy eating has become an obsessive part of western culture, as has strict dieting and intense exercise regimes. Therefore, it is not surprising that, according to the NHS (2015), 1 in every 250 women develop some form of eating disorder in their lifetime. The interlink between thinness and femininity has become deeply internalised in a woman’s psyche, thinness has come to represent achievement, intellect and power. Many women believe that with thinness comes happiness (Lawrence 1984, Orbach 1989). However, the myth of beauty is ever-evolving with that of society and therefore in chasing beauty, women face an impossible task. Nevertheless, women learn to accept the inconsistency of beauty and can be counted upon to keep in pursuit, even if it means pushing it to the extremes (Wolf, 1991, p. 57).
As anorexia and obesity are considered mental illnesses, feminists first need to delve into the route of the issue at hand. Slade (1994) notes that obese and anorexic bodies don’t have a permanent distorted image of their bodies, as some may assume. Yet, they have an “uncertain, unstable and weak body image” which causes them to misjudge food portions based on a bias towards overestimating/underestimating the needs of their bodies. He further proposes from his research that this bias is primarily influenced by social and cultural factors such as celebrity endorsements of diet-related schemes e.g. Opera’s endorsements of Weight Watchers. Many feminists take issue with these factors as they have a strong influence on women’s diets by imposing the view that the female body has become objectified and is there to be perfected (p. 38). The weak body, as talked about by Slade (1994) masks any objection to women striving towards this impossible ideal and therefore, obese and anorexic bodies may derive as a result.
In Chernin’s, Tyranny of Slenderness (1981), she exemplifies how fiction and interviews can be used to describe the multifaceted emotions which surround the cultural concerns regarding a woman’s weight. Chernin argues that women in this culture are obsessed with food, weight and body image due to a deep-rooted patriarchal society which aims to keep women powerless. Chernin successfully demonstrates how anorexic and obese bodies share the same hostility, panic about sexuality and discomfort towards women’s roles; they also share the same bewilderment about what it means to be a woman in the modern society (p. 17). Within this, she attempts to answer some of the most commonly asked questions such as why society is so obsessed with being thin. She suggests that obesity and anorexia are a result of disempowered women striving to achieve unrealistic and unsustainable weight loss goals through pressure placed upon them by society. When talking about obesity, Chernin notes that “fat people … often think of themselves solely in terms of the ‘neck up.’ Their bodies are disowned, alienated, foreign, perhaps stubbornly present but not truly a part of the real self.”(p. 53). This alienation their bodies is what Chernin describes as a way of a patriarchy making women placid in society.
Alternatively, Wolf (1991) disputes that the societal fixation on slenderness is not, in fact, an obsession with femininity and beauty rather, an obsession with being compliant and obedient (p. 187). Obesity and anorexia have become a much more prevalent issue in which they are now considered a normative part of society. Weight issues often remain hidden as many with an eating disorder doesn’t appear physically like they have an eating disorder. Anorexic bodies feel a sense of relief that their eating disorder doesn’t show in the way in which obesity does. However, there is an obvious yet often-denied continuity between the two: unrealistic ideals and undermining of their bodies appetites. Wolf argues that the ideal body standards imposed by society are impossible, with the average model weighing 23% less than the average woman (p. 184). Therefore, anorexic bodies are going unnoticed as they are closer to what we see in the media than the average woman in society. As a result, public fat shaming has become more apparent which forces women into a repressive weight loss cycle, confirming their social inferiority.
Sexism has been known by some liberal feminists to be a cause of anorexia and obesity making them a feminist issue. Stereotyping of what it is to be a woman has created a somewhat pressure to conform to the idealised “feminine beauty” in the form of appearance and behaviour. Bordo (1993) demonstrates this by stating that women modify themselves in order to fit in with the stereotype of a female. She states that although clothing, such as corsets, caused women physical incapacitation, women still wore them as it also gave women “an emblem of the power of culture to impose its designs on the female body.” (p.143). Similarly, Bartky (1993) agrees that women adhere to the ideal feminine body; a body which changes with that of the time and the culture in which it is placed. In a contemporary society, the strict ideals of how a woman’s body is supposed to look are obsessively imposed in order to keep women under a form of a regime and therefore, remain in a patriarchal society. She notes that the desire to portray a feminine appearance is governed by internal forces which regulate, produce and standardise their bodies to conform to the norm (pp. 61-86). Consequently, since society defines women by their looks, obesity and anorexia can be deemed as a way of gaining control over their bodies. Orbach (1986) makes a valid argument that eating disorders can be a way of complying with patriarchy or defying it, often the same person will do both.
Foucault’s analytic of power has been significantly influential amongst feminist scholars when writing and researching obese and anorexic bodies. Although his work showed little interest in feminism or gender issues, his writings on the topic of power and its effect on the body have proved beneficial in the development of explaining the power relations in society. Feminists such as Bordo (1993) and Bartky (1988) have adopted and adapted Foucault’s theoretical framework to help aid them in their analysis’ of the tyranny of slenderness. Foucault’s interests in the disciplinary techniques exercised on the body of individuals are reflective of that of Bartky (1988). She argues that women are prisoners in the panopticon, subject to self-surveillance. Their prime focus on disciplining their bodies is their example of how femininity is moulded and created. Thereby, allowing their disciplinary body to become inscribed with inferior status (King, 2004). However, Foucault’s later work demonstrated how not all women conform to the ideals of femininity. There is always going to be levels of obedience to conform to the pleasures of beauty and fashion without considering them as a requirement. Mohowald (2000), uses eating disorders to exemplify this. She states that people develop an eating disorder as an act of defiance against patriarchy through a rejection of their imposed sexuality (p. 299).
Orbach (1978) regards obesity and anorexia as a huge feminist issue as societies expectations of the female body exceeds that of any representative form. Although many may argue that you cannot blame society and the media as the sole cause for an eating disorder, Orbach argues that there is, in fact, a complex linkage between the two. She argues that this new generation in which severe eating disorders are prevalent doesn’t come without the realistic view that they have been influenced by a change in the social structure, in the role of the media and in visual imagery. In Hunger Strike (2005) she uses anorexia as a metaphor for our time claiming that in a modern society women are constantly depriving themselves to be equivalent to constructed images in which we see in the media (pp.15-24). In fact, women are now using apps, such as Photoshop, to edit their own bodies, as a way to pass in a world of visual fascism. This is turn, contributes to troubled eating and fuels a woman’s troubled relationship with her body. She argues that in order for anorexia and obesity to not be considered a feminist issue we need to instil a counter to the societal pressure to sell ourselves as a product in order to fit in with society. Orbach attempts to be an antiviral agent for eating disorders as she offers very practical and pragmatic way of thinking about the ways in which we view our eating habits and why we’re doing so.
In her publication of Bodies, Orbach (2009) asks why body contentment is so hard to find. She has gone from arguing 40 years ago how our bodies were shaped beyond our control, to now in which she describes a society in which capitalism benefits because of women’s hatred for their bodies. Orbach argues that women are striving for unattainable perfection, the perfect consumer for diet and plastic surgery merchants. She goes on to talk about the normalisation of plastic surgery and how the media has used celebrity examples to create an idealised beauty. She argues that what’s beautiful today will look less beautiful tomorrow. Therefore, women are unknowingly and unwittingly chasing the impossible conquest of beauty.
However, some may consider anorexia and obesity to not be considered as just a feminist issue. Although society has been placed at the blame of many eating disorders in women, there has recently been a significant rise in the number of males suffering from anorexia or obesity. With a knowing 50% rise in recent years, under-diagnosis and cultural stigma mean that the actual proportion of males with eating disorders could be much higher. This causes one to question Chernin’s view that eating disorders are a way of suppressing women in a patriarchal society. Strother et al (2012) note that males, similarly to females, are exposed to cultural pressures that can increase their vulnerability towards developing an eating disorder. Therefore, the idea that eating disorders are just a feminist issue is incorrect. Men and women are both affected by eating disorders, Strother et al (2012) argue that eating disorders aren’t gendered. Men are reluctant to be emotionally vulnerable in our current society, yet they encounter the same pressures as women on a daily basis to meet the current male body shape ideal.
Although some early feminists, such as Orbach and Chernin, may have over-emphasized the role of thinness and body image in the development of an eating disorder, their work nevertheless, laid the groundwork for the development of such theories. This over-emphasised role has not been limited to that of feminist ideologies: Stice et al (1994) were also interested in the direct relationship between media exposure and eating pathology, body dissatisfaction and negative effect. They found that the strength in the correlations varied, dependant on the type of media exposure faced. Thus, in order to understand the relationship between social factors and eating disorders, anorexia and obesity should not be just considered as a feminist issue and should be considered as a national issue to which everyone is concerned.
Coleman (2010, pp. 265-285) suggests that the media and dieting are not responsible for the fuelling of obesity and anorexia. Instead, she suggests that the way in which these are being taught holds responsibility. She states that dieting should see time as potential rather than the current view that time should be planned. Although she acknowledges how feminists can see an increased focus on weight and the body as a reproduction and reinforcement of gendered inequalities. She argues, using Weight Watchers UK, that a change in the temporalities in which we diet can result in a productive and enabling platform for healthier diets for many women. She attempts to get away from the common understanding amongst feminists in relation to Foucault’s earlier work on the docile body, that dieting is a regime which limits women’s agency. She acknowledges the numerous temporalities of dieting involves an understanding of agency that is not (only) repressed but enabled through interaction with the Weight Watchers UK website. Therefore, Coleman concludes that the relationship between temporalities and the kinds of measure involved in online dieting are hugely significant in order to maintain a stable and healthy weight. This disrupts the “passive woman” by enabling the agency to become a choice through the relationship between the website and the user.
Hence, obesity and anorexia, alongside any other body image related disorders, are a complex nevertheless, the predominant part of a contemporary society. Dieting, bad relationships with food and the impossible body standards in which society implements and influences have a direct impact on the body and the development/ maintenance of eating disorders. Although society cannot be deemed the single source of an eating disorder, it alongside the media acts as a medium in which these addictions thrive, develop and continue. In regard to them being a feminist issue, I would argue that the attention in which feminism gives the issue of eating disorders in the form of scholarly literature and podcasts is a positive entity. It shifts some of the focus from being on how we as women can change our bodies, to how we as women can focus our attention on the need for change in the way in which society portrays the female body. Bordo (1993) suggest that society needs to review the use of the female body in films, advertisements, online etc. By doing so, society should aim to improve the self-esteem and body satisfaction in women across the western culture. It is because of feminist literature on the topic that the “thin ideal” has been so widely conversed and therefore, we can now go forward with the purpose of creating a positive, realistic narrative in the media regarding women’s bodies. However, this is not without acknowledging that obese and anorexic bodies are not just that of a feminist issue. I would argue that eating disorders should be treated as a societal issue; one which men and women are victims of the scrutiny put upon their bodies.