With the outbreak of eating disorders in the Western world and its spheres of influence has come an abundance of literature presenting theories on their roots. Many speculations on the causes of eating disorders cast blame on the media and its glamorization of underweight women. Cultural standards of beauty do indeed play a role; as Susan Bordo wrote in Unbearable Weight, “the body—what we eat, how we dress, the daily rituals through which we attend to the body—is a medium of culture.” Since the body is a medium, and not merely a receptacle, of culture, eating disorders are both manifestations of cultural messages and means of conveying their own messages. The question then becomes: What views of women are making anorexia (and other disorders, although this paper predominantly tackles anorexia) so prevalent, and what messages are conveyed in the bodies of anorexics themselves? The answer most often heard is that the media purveys an unrealistic ideal of feminine beauty that women become desperate to attain. However, the Western media also presents its audience with another ideal: that of the voluptuous and hyper-sexualized female body. Anorexia may be a rebellion against, rather than merely a conformation to, a widespread cultural ideal of femininity.
It’s hard to deny that the media floods us with emaciated female bodies, but these images hardly represent the body type that our society as a whole considers most desirable or presents to men as sexy. The fashion industry, perhaps the largest source of romanticized anorexics, overwhelmingly consists of women and gay men, according to a New York Times article. Studies show that the overwhelming majority of American men prefer healthy-weight or slightly overweight women to those of other builds. This isn’t surprising, given that perceptions of beauty are largely learned, and current Western culture fetishizes the fattiest parts of women’s bodies, such as breasts, butts, and hips. (A male acquaintance of mine recently joked that if his girlfriend asks “does this dress make my butt look big?” he had better tell her “yes.”) The phrase “tits and ass” has been popularized as a way of describing the highlights of a woman with meat on her bones, so to speak, and even has its own abbreviation: “T&A.” As of now, the image of a culture in which men sit in bars raving over their lust for a woman’s perfect porn-star “S&B”—skin and bones—is, to say the least, a bizarre one. Most men make it pretty clear, as the popular song “Baby Got Back” so aptly phrases it, “I like big butts and I cannot lie!”
Because there is so much sexualization of these traits in popular media, many can’t fathom why women would starve themselves to attain a curve-free body when men love women’s curves. A male friend of mine conjectured that eating disorders arise because “some girls try their very best to accommodate our dreams by being the ‘dream girl.’” What this theory overlooks is that it’s usually not a question of women starving themselves even though men like curves. A large portion of anorexics are starving themselves, not despite, but for the very reason—along with many other reasons, since eating disorders are over-determined — that they have seen men fetishize their body parts, and they want to be seen not for their parts but for their whole beings.
The constant portrayal of men as subjects and women as objects, along with two conflicting images of the female object, creates opposing desires in different girls and sometimes within the same girl. For every clichéd young woman who just wishes guys would notice her (“Notice Me” by Zeta Bytes, “Hit Me Baby One More Time” by Britney Spears, any movie with Hilary Duff), there is a less frequently discussed girl who feels like someone or another is constantly undressing her with his eyes. Often both conflicting emotions coexist within one person.
Although women in the entertainment industry are thinner than ever, the arenas that most strongly and most often speak of women purely as sexual objects—popular rap music, pornography, fraternity culture, and misogynistic bar environments, to name a few—maintain obsession with the ever-popular T&A. Naomi Wolf equates the “anorexic generation,” referring to women born since the 1960’s when Twiggy rose to fame, with the “pornographic generation” because the wave of anorexia correlates with “an atmosphere of increasingly violent and degrading sexual imagery” (Wolf 62).
With repetition, the depiction of mostly normal-weight or heavy women as objects of desire, along with the degradation apparent in so many of these depictions, drills into men’s and women’s heads that, as Wolf puts it, it’s impossible to “look at a person sexually without reducing him or her to pieces” (Wolf 74). The rapper Bushwick Bill, when asked whether he would ever call his mother a bitch or ho, responded to a female reporter: “I call her “woman,” but I’m not fucking my mother. If I was fucking you, you’d be a bitch” (Rhym). Under the threat of being sexually preyed on, ripped to pieces with the eyes, many women yearn to disappear. It’s no wonder more and more girls are diminishing the qualities that make men salivate when they’re led to believe they will be metaphorically devoured. If what Fergie sang in 2005 about the attention she gets for “my humps, my lovely lady lumps, in the back and in the front” is true, some women conclude, the best way to avoid the under-a-microscope feeling of self-consciousness that accompanies a post-pubescent female body is to desexualize oneself. After all, a set of “humps” is a small price to pay for cultural intelligibility in some sphere besides the male eye.
If the more voluptuous, curvy cultural ideal of feminine desirability is based on what men want women to look like, how much room does society leave for what women want themselves to look like? To take it a step further, if this standard of feminine beauty is based on what men like to look at, how much room does this leave for women who want to do something besides be looked at? In a binary gender system in which men are constructed as the subjects and women are constructed as men’s objects, women find themselves asking the question Judith Butler asks in Undoing Gender: “What, given the contemporary order of being, can I be?” (Butler 58).
A society in which men desire, and women are desired, has entangled within it a hierarchy that gives men privilege over women. According to Foucault, “where there is desire, the power relation is already present” (Foucault 81). In attempt to subvert this position of the object, the desired, to which their society has assigned them, women undergo ordeals to erase their physical desirability. If they are objects of the subject’s sexual desire, chances are slim that they can be anything else in the “contemporary order of being” (Butler). If they can make themselves undesirable, perhaps they can be something more.
Existing within the “matrices of cultural intelligibility that govern gendered life” is a struggle for any woman who wants to be seen simultaneously as a strong, intelligent, capable, and sexual being (Butler 41). Any woman who looks remotely feminine has trouble being intelligible in Western society as anything besides a receptacle for men’s sexual energy. The one time Hillary Clinton wore a slightly low-cut shirt during her campaign, press attention shifted away from her politics and toward her cleavage. “It was startling to see that small acknowledgment of sexuality and femininity,” an article in the Washington Post read. “To display cleavage in a setting that does not involve cocktails and hors d’oeuvres is a provocation” (Givhan). The implication of this quote is that women who display feminine attractiveness “provoke” men to look at them sexually and stop taking them seriously.
To avoid this no-man’s-land of being a sexually desirable and ambitious woman, a matrix in which one ostensibly cannot exist, some women make conscious efforts to downplay the qualities that identify their bodies as female and desirable. In the book Look at My Ugly Face! Sarah Halprin relates a Chinese folk tale about a woman named Sun Pu-erh whose goal is to attain enlightenment. The man she consults before she leaves advises her, “You will be the target of men who desire your beauty. They will rape and molest you.” So, Sun Pu-erh scars her face with the hope that men’s attraction won’t be an impediment to her journey. “The ugliness she achieved” by doing so, although painful, was also “her way of finding freedom” (Halprin 3-4).
Perhaps anorexia is yet another version of face-scarring, suit-wearing, and other acts women undergo to erase their sexual desirability; it is an effort to be a subject in a society that only lets sexually appealing women be objects. Dar Williams’ 1993 song “When I was a Boy” expresses societal pressure for women to be wanted rather than to want: “now I’m in a clothing store and the sign says, “Less is More”–more that’s tight means more to see, more for them, not more for me. That can’t help me climb a tree in ten seconds flat.” Around the same time, Ani DeFranco sang, “I don’t want to be a pretty girl. I want to be something more than a pretty girl.” As Sun Pu-Erh’s story illustrates, having a sexually available, and therefore vulnerable, body can prevent a woman from gaining the power and respect to accomplish her goals.
The approach of psychoanalysis, which is extremely intertwined with culture in the first place, gets at the same ideas. Freud saw it as obvious that “it is well known that there is a neurosis in girls … which expresses aversion to sexuality by means of anorexia” (“Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety”). In “An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria,” he describes a hysteria patient named Dora who he concluded had developed psychosomatic choking as a result of transference of sensation from her clitoris to her thorax. Dora’s “avoidance of men who might possibly be in a state of sexual excitement” resulted from the perception of an erect penis, followed by a state of arousal in her own body, that frightened her. Although this was not a case of anorexia, it literalizes the phenomenon in which women made to feel uncomfortable in sexual situations—observed or experienced—begin to avoid men’s desire and handle their discomfort through less intimidating, more controllable parts of the body. Anorexia simultaneously fulfills both the function of avoiding men’s desire and suppressing one’s own sexuality through transference to a different type of bodily need. Lacan later wrote of Dora: “As is true for all women, and for reasons which are at the very basis of the most elementary forms of social exchange . . . the problem of her condition is fundamentally that of accepting herself as the object of desire for the man” (Intervention on Transference).
Freud and those of his school of psychoanalysis posited that anorexia is a subconscious attempt to avoid or prolong the pregential stages of psychosexual development. E.I. Falstein said many anorexics are driven by desire to postpone adolescence, a wish resulting from fear of sex; the female anorexic “attempts to turn away from her mother and femininity . . . . Her ego ideal is that of a sexless, affectless and perfectly autonomous being” (qtd. in Sours).
I don’t mean to say this struggle to see oneself as more than a sexual object is the universal, or even the norm, for women. Of course, not all incidents of anorexia are related to a fear of sexual attention, but the amount of anorexics and other eating disorder victims who have suffered sexual abuse (or witnessed it, which is inescapably all who are exposed to modern media) supports that the two topics are related. One cannot emphasize enough, though, that the causality of eating disorders is additive; I have purposefully chosen to explore this one facet of the factors contributing to anorexia, and only in females, but there are many others. I also must qualify my claim by clarifying that, when I speak of anorexia, I am referring to the obsessive pursuit of a dangerously unhealthy weight and not a mere desire to lose a few pounds to achieve a more slender look (although I’m not qualified to draw the line between the two and the latter often leads to the former). Bulimics and compulsive overeaters often operate under the same logic: If I’m not desirable to men, I am safe. Carol Emery Normandi wrote of her experience with bulimia, “I felt safer because I didn’t have to deal with men saying, ‘Nice tits,’ or ‘Check our her healthy chest,’ or grabbing my butt and breasts. It dawned on me that maybe having some weight on me protected me in a way I didn’t otherwise know how to” (Normandi and Rourke 7).
Freud wrote in Civilization and its Discontents, “The urge for freedom…is directed against particular forms and demands of civilization or against civilization altogether.” This concept of rejecting society may appear a contradiction to those like Rogia Abusharaf who read self-starvation as a way “to conform to cultural standards of beauty and femininity” (Abusharaf 93). No doubt, fashion, film, television, and advertising industries flood viewers with women who are far under average or healthy weights. And this image is, in some circles, idealized. But desire to conform doesn’t tell the whole story behind how anorexics and women in general internalize cultural messages about beauty and femininity. The glorification of Paris Hilton’s figure exists right along with that of Scarlet Johansson’s, J-Lo’s, and even more so, the figures of women whose names we don’t know because all we see is segmented body parts; all we hear is men whistling and catcalling as they walk down the street; and all we know is that if we are not careful, we could become these women.
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Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. University of California Press, 2003.
Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. Routledge, 2004.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Volume I: An Introduction. Vintage books, 1990.
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Givhan, Robin. “Hillary Clinton’s Tentative Dip into Neckline Territory.” The Washington Post. July 20, 2007. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/07/19/AR2007071902668.html
Halprin, Sarah. Look at my Ugly Face! Viking, 1995.
“In Fashion, Who Really Gets Ahead?” The New York Times. December 8, 2005.
Lacan. Intervention on Transference. 1951.
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Rhym, Darren. ““Here’s for the Bitches”: An Analysis of Gangsta Rap and Misogyny.” Womanist Theory and Research. http://www.uga.edu/~womanist/rhym2.1.htm
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