Probably the most significant factor, however, in the failure to conceptualize eating problems in an inclusive way has been ignorance of (or in some cases, resistance to acknowledging) the awesome power of cultural imagery. Fiji is a striking example of that power. Because of their remote location, the Fiji islands did not have access to television until 1995, when a single station was introduced. It broadcasts programs from the United States, the UK, and Australia. Until that time, Fiji had no reported cases of eating disorders, and a study conducted by anthropologist Anne Becker (Becker et al., 2002, reported in Snyderman, 2002: 84; Becker, 2004) showed that most Fijian girls and women, no matter how large, were comfortable with their bodies (see also Nasser and Malson, this volume). In 1998, just three years after the station began broadcasting, 11% of girls reported vomiting to control weight, and 62% of the girls surveyed reported dieting during the previous months. Becker was surprised by the change; she had thought that Fijian cultural traditions, which celebrate eating and favor voluptuous bodies, would ‘withstand’ the influence of media images. Becker hadn’t yet understood that we live in an empire of images and that there are no protective borders.
Asia is another example. Among the members of audiences at my talks, Asian women had for years been among the most insistent that eating and body image weren’t problems for their people, and indeed, my initial research showed that eating disorders were virtually unknown in Asia. But a few years ago, I discovered multiple reports (see also Nasser and Malson, this volume) on dramatic increases in eating disorders in China, South Korea, and Japan. Eunice Park, in Asian Week magazine, writes: ‘As many Asian countries become Westernized and infused with the Western aesthetic of a tall, thin, lean body, a virtual tsunami of eating disorders has swamped Asian countries’ (reported in Rosenthal, 1999).
The relationship between problems such as these and cultural images is complex. On the one hand, the idealization of certain kinds of bodies foments and perpetuates our anxieties and insecurities – that’s clear. But on the other hand, such images carry fantasized solutions to our anxieties and insecurities, and that’s part of the reason why they are powerful. As I argued in Twilight Zones (1997), cultural images are never ‘just pictures,’ as the fashion magazines continually maintain (disingenuously) in their own defense. They speak to young people not just about how to be beautiful but also about how to become what the dominant culture admires, values, rewards. They tell them how to be cool, ‘get it together,’ overcome their shame. To girls and young women who have been abused they may offer a fantasy of control and invulnerability, and immunity from pain and hurt. For racial and ethnic groups whose bodies have been deemed ‘foreign,’ earthy, and primitive, and considered unattractive by Anglo-Saxon norms, they may cast the lure of being accepted by the dominant culture. And it is images, too, that teach us how to see, that educate our vision in what is a defect and what is normal, that give us the models against which our own bodies and the bodies of others are measured. Perceptual pedagogy: ‘How To Interpret Your Body 101.’ It’s become a global requirement.
A good example, both of the power of perceptual pedagogy and of the deeper meaning of images is the case of Central Africa. There, traditional cultures celebrate voluptuous women. In some regions, brides are sent to fattening farms, to be plumped and massaged into shape for their wedding night. In a country plagued by AIDS, the skinny body has meant poverty, sickness, death. For years, Nigeria sent its local version of beautiful to the Miss World Competition. The contests did very poorly. Then a savvy entrepreneur went against local ideals and entered Agbani Darego, a light-skinned, hyper-skinny beauty. Now, Nigerian teenagers fast and exercise, trying to become ‘lepa’ – a popular slang phrase for the thin ‘it’ girls that are all the rage. Said one: ‘People have realized that slim is beautiful’ (Onishi, 2002).
Clearly, body insecurity can be exported, imported, and marketed – just like any other profitable commodity. In this respect, what’s happened with men and boys is illustrative. Ten years ago men tended, if anything, to see themselves as better looking. And then the menswear manufacturers, the diet industries, and the plastic surgeons ‘discovered’ the male body (see Bordo, 1999). And now, young guys are looking in their mirrors, finding themselves soft and ill defined, no matter how muscular they are. Now they are developing the eating and body image disorders that we once thought only girls had. Now they are abusing steroids, measuring their own muscularity against the oiled and perfected images of professional athletes, body-builders, and Men’s Health models.
Let me be clear here. The issue for me is not fat versus fitness, but moderation, realism and appreciation of human diversity versus the excesses, the obsessions, the unrealistic expectation that make people sick and treat others as cultural pariahs. Unfortunately, it’s the extremes, excesses, and obsessions that culture fosters. It’s a breeder of disorder.
Excerpt from Bordo, Susan. 2009. “Not just ‘a white girl’s thing’: The changing face of food and body image problems.” Pp.46-59 in Critical Feminist Approaches to Eating Dis/Orders, edited by H. Malson and M. Burns. London and New York: Routledge. [See my previous post for another excerpt from this article. I have reproduced the references below in the order they appear here, rather than being alphabetized, and added the relevant links here below, and above:]
Becker, A.E., Burwell, R.A., Herzog, D.B., Hamburg, P., Gilman and Stephen, E. (2002) Eating behaviours and attitudes following prolonged exposure to television among ethnic Fijian adolescent girls, British Journal of Psychiatry, 180(6):509-514.
Snyderman, N. (2002) The Girl in the Mirror, New York: Hyperion.
Becker, A.E. (2004) Television, disordered eating, and young women in Fiji: negotiating body image and identity during rapid social change, Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, 28(4): 533-559.
Nasser and Malson. [In the book here, the article is titled “Beyond western dis/orders: Thinness and self-starvation of other-ed women“.]
Rosenthal, E. (1999) Beijing Journal: China’s chic waistline: convex to concave, New York Times, 9 December.
Bordo, S. (1997) Never just pictures, in S. Bordo, Twilight Zones: The Hidden Life of Cultural Images from Plato to O.J., Berkely: University of California Press.
Onishi, N. (2002) Globalization of beauty makes slimness trendy, New York Times, 3 October.
Bordo, S. (1999) Beauty re-discovers the male body, in S. Bordo, The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and in Private, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.