“Wait, you’re happy that the thing you’re reading is making you angry?”
“Yes, I find it liberating.”
~ conversation with Fox while I was reading a chapter of Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body by Susan Bordo.
(1993. Los Angeles: University of California Press.)
Once upon a time, in aristocratic Greek culture, diet and fasting were engaged in as means of mastering one’s impulses and practicing moderation; they were seen as a means of being a better citizen. Similarly, diet and fasting are a means of spiritual purification in Christian (and other religious) tradition(s).
It was not until the late Victorian era (late 1800s) that the middle class became obsessed with diet and fast as a means of attaining an aesthetic ideal – a physical pursuit focused not on the “self” but on the body.
We are aware of the multitude of “technologies” (as Bordo calls them) that are advertised as a means of attaining the ideal (i.e. slender) body. However, the only time we view them critically is when we focus on the “pathological” individuals who take them to an “unhealthy extreme.” The desire to be thin, preoccupation with this goal, and engaging in behaviors in pursuit of it are all normal; sensationalizing the pathological extreme diverts attention from the ways in which focus on being slender encourages conformity – especially to gender.
We are trained by the media to prefer and expect images of women in particular to feature a tight, contained, smooth body. Any body part that is soft and sticks out, especially the stomach, becomes a metaphor for fear of losing control over oneself. In ads the body is often portrayed as an alien attacking the individual, who must fight back … against her own body. The overwhelming message is: “You may not have wiggly bits!”
Well FUDGE THAT!!! Pretty much my entire body wiggles and you know what, I’m proud! I have a lot of fun wiggling, especially playing with my tummy fat. Belly dancing is an awesome opportunity to show off my beautiful fat in an outfit and using movements that flatter my wiggly bits. I’ll take that over your slender aesthetic any day!
But it gets even better. Where once fat was considered attractive as an outward sign of wealth, times have changed. Social power is not about wealth, but control. The body is seen as indicative of one’s internal state. Dieting and working out show that one has willpower, energy, control over impulses, and social mobility.
Fat people are seen as lacking the above qualities – in other words, unable to get anywhere meaningful in life.
Words cannot express how much that message hurts. My whole life, I have struggled with my body. I’ve wasted countless hours feeling insecure in it, hating it because I couldn’t wear the clothing styles I liked, trying to gain control over it through diet and exercise, feeling frustrated with it when I couldn’t excel at athletics. My overwhelming preference is to cover it, especially my thighs.
Lately my struggle has been to convince myself I love it – that I love myself. But the images and the message are everywhere, giving the Critic material with which to fuel my depression and anxiety. “I’m out of control; I need to manage my diet and start working out, or I’ll never get out of this slump! I’m a horrible person for not even trying.” … etc. When I’m not tearing myself apart about my atrocious habits, I’m worried about my physical health.
But according to Bordo, it’s not even about me. It’s about managing desire in society. Our economy requires a strong work ethic (willingness to put one’s own needs and impulses aside to “get the job done”) AND consumerism (“giving in to temptation” for instant gratification; buying things on impulse). It encourages bulimia: fluctuating between rigid control during the workweek, and unbridled indulgence (e.g. shopping, consuming alcohol and other drugs, eating out, etc.) on weekends.
Both anorexia and obesity are a failure – or refusal – to conform to the economy’s needs. A person with anorexia plays by the rules too well and abstains from the consumerism that helps bring in revenue. She outshines everyone else, while simultaneously revealing how harmful the rules are to one’s physical and mental health. (Of course, labeling a person with anorexia as “pathological” allows the average dieter to distance herself from the dangers of the rules she is also following …)
Individuals with obesity don’t play by the rules at all! Society can’t allow them to be happy; they must be punished for their transgression. For the nonconformist, “normalization” is penance: expressing pain and a desire to play by the rules, as well as frustration with one’s inability to do so successfully. This is the only way the obese can escape the hatred of society and instead receive empathy – or at least pity.
And this is why I’m happy that reading this chapter made me angry: By getting angry, I am extricating society’s hatred of obesity from myself. I am putting up a boundary between the true alien force that is attacking me – society’s preoccupation with the slender body – and my own body, which as long as I am alive is an inextricable part of myself. My body is not what has been causing me pain, frustration, and anxiety all these years.
I don’t have to fight it, ever again.
I haven’t gotten to the part where Bordo explains the link between slenderness and gender, but I think this is a very good place to end this particular post. I want to come back to it in a future post because I think it’s very important, so stay tuned!
Bordo, S. (1993). “Reading the Slender Body” in Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Los Angeles: University of California Press. pp 185-212.