Many people have shared in the production of this book. We thank, first of all, the contributing authors for making their knowledge and experience available here and for putting aside the many demands on their time to work on these essays. The partnership of the women at Second Story Feminist Press not only made this project possible, but made working on it a pleasure. In particular Lois Pike’s considerable organizational talents and sense of humor helped keep the project on track, in more ways than one. To Beverley Endersby, the editor, we extend our appreciation especially for her thoroughness with the first draft and for her willingness to adjust to our timelines. We also want to acknowledge the partnership we have built with one another through the mutual support and mutual challenge this project has required. Finally, we are deeply appreciative of our clients for what they have taught us and what they have given to us.
Special thanks from Karin: I thank Allison for putting up with my “bear-in-the-cave” routine during this project and for expressing the fact that she didn’t like it. For handling more than half of our shared responsibilities while I worked on this book as well as for his conversation and editorial comments, I thank Sandy. Most of all I appreciate the quality of attention he brings to what he does. I also thank my colleagues at the College Street Women’s Centre for the encouragement and enthusiasm they expressed for this book, as well as their cheerful acceptance of a lesser contribution from me while I have been working on it.
Special thanks from Catrina: I am indebted to Don Forgay for his invaluable and ongoing care, support, encouragement, and intellectual challenge which have nourished me through this book and over the past ten years. I have relied upon and benefitted from his generosity and ideas, and my work has been enriched and deepened.
We are grateful to Don for suggesting the name we chose for the book.
Over the past ten years significant challenges have been made to the coercive and tyrannical ideal of thinness and the pressure it puts on women to diet. While most women continue to police and control their bodies in an effort to attain this ideal, increasing numbers have discovered that dieting does not work and have begun to realize that it is possible to live free from weight preoccupation and chronic dieting. These women are learning to accept their bodies as they are, in their various shapes and sizes. Instead of enduring constant hunger, self-denial, deprivation, and preoccupation with food and eating, these women have empowered themselves to eat without guilt, to enjoy their bodies, and to live in peace with themselves. We hope the writings of women in Canada who have contributed to these changes can help others to establish a sense of freedom from weight preoccupation and eating disorders.
This book encourages women to liberate the pleasures of their bodies, to accept their desires and appetites, and to enjoy the power of a full, embodied existence. It affirms the belief that women are participants in their own “making.” Thus, while we recognize that eating “disorders” and weight preoccupation have a social context, we do not subscribe to the view that women are simple puppets of a patriarchal society. We especially want to avoid the commonly accepted conclusion that society’s obsession with weight is predominantly a product of pernicious media influence. Such a perspective degrades women by falsely assuming their passivity and inevitable victimization.
In order to understand complex behaviours, attitudes, and experiences, we must get beyond simplistic explanations for them. If we want to foster the “empowerment” of women, we cannot focus on the narrow issue of women’s conformity to the “tyranny of slenderness.” Despite the asymmetrical power relations and inequalities of social conditions between men and women that characterize most aspects of life in modern society, we can act individually and collectively to empower ourselves and create social change.
We believe this collection of essays benefits not only individual women who are trying to understand their own weight preoccupation, but therapists and other helpers who want to provide caring, knowledgeable, and effective support to women who seek their help. While critiques of the social pressure to be thin have become quite common among feminists and within the women’s health movement, very little has been written to guide us in practice. This book aims to go beyond the debunking of the “beauty myth” by opening a discussion among therapists, community workers, and activists of some of the ways to adopt in practice a fat-positive, nondiscriminatory, and pro-woman approach, and by encouraging individual women who want to be free of the endless cycles of dieting and weight preoccupation to use this book to help themselves.
We have tried to be as comprehensive as possible within the scope of a single volume, choosing to emphasize issues not previously widely discussed from a woman-centred perspective. This book explores childhood trauma, alcoholism, sexual abuse, and sexual violence in relationship to the development of eating disorders and weight preoccupation. It also challenges the effectiveness of dieting, some commonly held notions about healthy eating and exercise, and the oppression of fat people in our society. It examines feminist ways of working as clinicians and activists, challenging the traditional medical model in which the individual is separated from her social and cultural influences. In broad terms, the essays collected here place weight preoccupation, eating “disorders,” and our experiences of our bodies within the context of Western patriarchal society. By intentionally avoiding the construction of a monolithic set of arguments or ideas for practice in this book, we encourage the reader to enter into dialogue with the diverse points of view represented by the contributing authors.
The women’s movement today is very concerned with diversity and complexity in understanding women’s experiences in society. While white middle-class feminists have had a long history of universalizing their experiences as all women’s, today a concerted effort is being made in feminist theory and practice to recognize difference as well as similarity in women’s experiences. This means that the women’s movement has become increasingly committed to examining a wide range of views and experiences in exploring issues in women’s lives. Thus, whereas women of colour, Jewish women, Native women, women with disabilities, lesbian women, and economically disadvantaged women have frequently been excluded when feminism has talked about women’s experiences, in this book we have tried to include as many voices as possible in an effort to bring forward a perspective that encompasses the complexity of women’s experiences.
As feminists we want to avoid medicalizing or disease-oriented language. Some readers will be uncomfortable with our use of the terms “eating disorders,” “anorexia,” and “bulimia.” Because these terms originated in psychiatric literature, they are associated with a medical or disease model, the very model we criticize here. We have chosen to use these terms because they are easily understood, having become part of everyday language. We do not accept, however, the medicalization or psychiatrization of eating disorders. Women who develop anorexia or bulimia should not be singled out as pathological. Their behaviour and thinking need to be understood within the context of a culture which produces weight preoccupation among women.
This book presents alternatives to traditional frameworks that dichotomize what is “normal” or “abnormal,” or that adhere to rigid formulas for what a person should weigh or eat. We wish to cultivate a climate which accepts diversity in body size, shape, and eating behaviour, and a social context that encourages women to meet their physical requirement for food and their needs for emotional nurturance.
Words like obese and overweight perpetuate the “normal”/“abnormal” dichotomy in that they have a pejorative connotation and imply a deviation from some objective standard, something “wrong” and in need of correction. Authors who have used these words have put them in quotation marks. However, in general we recommend reclaiming the word fat. While it has connotations of disparagement for many people, it has the advantage of simply describing, as does “thin,” a body type. Often we speak here in broader terms, such as “weight preoccupation” or “weight and shape issues,” which include anorexia and bulimia.
Mainstream approaches to women’s preoccupation with weight often view women as mentally ill. Women’s experiences are pathologized and their behaviours and feelings are removed from the context of their actual lives. Removing behaviour from its context makes it seem “irrational” or “crazy.” This book argues that women are not crazy or mentally ill when they are weight preoccupied or develop eating “disorders.” Rather, in controlling food and weight, women exercise some degree of control over their lives. Within the context of a weight-preoccupied and fat-prejudiced society, women “speak” with their bodies. This book argues that eating disorders are not separate from most women’s experiences of their bodies and eating, but instead are understood to exist on a continuum of weight preoccupation. The essays collected here will allow the reader to see some of the ways in which behaviours and emotions associated with weight preoccupation and eating disorders have meaning: how they make sense and how understanding that they do can be helpful in the resolution of weight, shape, and eating issues.
— Catrina Brown and Karin Jasper
Catrina Brown and Karin Jasper
The idea that thinness is attractive, desirable, and healthy is so pervasive in Western societies that it often goes unchallenged, despite the fact that it has not always been, nor is it everywhere the case. Widespread preoccupation with weight, dieting, and exercise has escalated to such a degree that it is an accepted, encouraged, and rewarded aspect of social life, and in North America has launched a multibillion-dollar industry. Alongside the social obsession with thinness and dieting is an alarming incidence of anorexia and bulimia among women. Women are seduced by the promises of happiness, success, and love that thinness is presumed to fulfil and risk their health in desperate attempts to achieve its rewards.
Why has weight preoccupation among women proliferated over the past twenty years? Why has the thin body come to be so valued, particularly in Western societies? What aspects of women’s lives today does thinness symbolize? Why weight? Why women? Why now? The thin beauty ideal is not simply an aesthetic style, it is a metaphor for the effects of social and economic changes on women’s lives. We argue that the idealized thin body, which is increasingly lean, muscular, and “surgically enhanced,” reflects the fragmented and contradictory expectations women experience in Western societies at a time when they have achieved greater equality, yet continue to be oppressed in fundamental ways. Thus, much can be understood about the world women live in through examining the pervasiveness of weight preoccupation.
By exerting control over their bodies, women hope to gain self-esteem and an increased sense of power and control over their lives. Powerlessness and dissatisfaction can be replaced by the self-satisfaction, social approval, and sense of accomplishment won through weight and shape control. Women’s bodies become the arena for their expressions of discontent and protest. Focusing on “improving” their bodies in order to feel better about themselves distracts them from the actual sources of their discontent. As the expressions of protest become obscured, a socially and politically generated problem becomes personalized. When women say they feel better when they are thinner, they really mean it. They actually feel better about themselves. Complex dissatisfactions are transformed by being shifted onto the body. Unhappiness fades and an uneasy well-being emerges as the body changes shape.
Generally through this essay we refer simply to “women” in Western societies, without specifying race/ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, or age. Although some epidemiological research has been published, especially in the last six years, the studies are yet too few and too small to allow firm conclusions to be drawn. It was originally thought that eating disorders affected primarily young, upper-class women; however, it now seems that more women of lower economic classes and more women who are older have difficulties related to food, weight, and shape (Rand and Kuldau 1992). Lesbian women seem to have higher ideal weights than heterosexual women or gay men, but are more dissatisfied with their bodies, more concerned with weight, and more often dieting than are gay and heterosexual men (Brand, Rothblum, and Solomon 1992). One study of Native American women reports that weight control is very important, and purging behaviours are common, especially among those who are heavier than average and including those who are older (Rosen et al. 1988). We found no studies reporting on the incidence of eating disorders among disabled women; however, it is possible that their lack of social power might lead them to seek greater control over their lives through their bodies. Western women still seem to be at greater risk for eating disorders than Black, Asian, Arab, Greek, Japanese, or African women, but the degree of westernization women of all backgrounds are exposed to seems to increase their risk (Dolan 1991). Dolan states that current reports must be read with caution — biased results may be occurring because research projects and clinical sampling operate within the dominant culture’s framework. Researchers and clinicians may not be aware of the extent of eating problems among non-whites because they do not ask the right questions or recognize the symptoms of those who are outside their framework. Nevertheless, all studies we know of confirm that women are at greater risk than men. Therefore, we refer to women in Western society in general, knowing that many non-white women are affected and that the numbers may be greater, but are not likely smaller than studies already show.
WOMEN AND THEIR BODIES
Historically, women’s social value has been inseparable from their bodies. Their social role has been identifed with and expressed through their bodies: in bearing children, in satisfying men’s sexual needs, and in the labour of caring for men’s and children’s emotional and physical needs. Interestingly, “ideal” body images for women tend to shift in tandem with changes in women’s social roles. The most notable among such transformations has been that from the ideal of being rounded and fertile-looking that predominates when women’s role as childbearer has been most important (Beller 1977; Bruch 1973), to the thin and muscular look of today. A declining emphasis on women’s fertility followed industrialization in Western societies, and as women experienced advances in economic, political, and social life, thinness came to symbolize wealth, independence, and freedom. Instead of the fertile rounded look being glorified, a thinner body ideal that emphasized non-reproductive sexuality became valued.
Where body size and shape are crucial to their social value, women learn to focus on appearance. As a result, policing and controlling appearance becomes an imperative for achieving both inner satisfaction and social success. Women internalize the fashionable body image, recognizing that how they appear affects how they are valued and treated. How women feel when they compare themselves with other women, including women depicted in the media, in advertising, and in the fashion industry, shapes their experience of their own bodies and selves. Self-esteem becomes deeply connected to body size and shape. In continuously scrutinizing and altering themselves, women anticipate being scrutinized and evaluated, and attempt to have some control over the results (Berger 1972).
Because the way women’s bodies look bears greatly on how other people relate to them and is directly connected with women’s economic value in society, women learn that looking good is a form of currency in the world. Even now that more (predominantly white, middle-class) women are gaining social power, appearance figures in women’s social value far more than it ever has for men. While women are now encouraged to be successful in the public world, they are still “given approval for continuing and even increasing their investments in their bodies” (Polhemus 1978, p. 120). It is no wonder, then, that women learn to believe they can change their lives by changing their bodies.
The female body has the power to create and nurture life. Yet, too often, women learn that their own appetites are to be controlled or denied rather than being indulged and enjoyed as sources of pleasure. Eating has become a major area of conflict for women as they are expected to provide physical sustenance and nurturance to others but must deny themselves food, or police their own eating in order to maintain the right body shape. Passionate, unrestrained eating is itself seen as unfeminine or unattractive, while dieting and asceticism are acceptable and encouraged. Mira Dana and Marilyn Lawrence (1988, p. 35) suggest that, “given the conflict and contradictory meaning which women’s bodies hold for us, it is hardly surprising that the body is often the arena within which women unconsciously choose to express conflict which they feel in their lives.”
The body is an instrument of communication which mediates social life. Examination of variations in body ideals through history shows that they are closely related to cultural values and social relations and highlights the shifting meaning associated with body ideals in relation to women’s social position. In both modern and traditional patriarchal society women’s reproductive and sexual roles have had direct expression in body ideals (Brown and Forgay 1987). Today’s body ideal emerged through the effects of industrialization, women’s entry into the labour force and the public sphere, and feminism and increased social equality for women. As is shown below, the contemporary thin ideal expresses the current circumstances in which women’s oppression co-exists with women’s emancipation.
THE BODY SPEAKS: EMERGING BODY FASHIONS AND THE SOCIAL POSITION OF WOMEN
One of the earliest known representations of human form is the “Venus of Willendorf,” a statuette dating from about 25,000 B.C. It depicts a female body of magnificently large proportions, that, in today’s medical terms, would be considered “morbidly obese.” During the Stone Age, the making and using of the statuette likely would have been part of ritual and ceremony designed to bring scarce resources forth from nature (Paglia 1991). People had little control over food supply or fertility, and this statuette represented the desire for sufficient food and fertility to sustain human life. At times when food is scarce and mortality rates are high, a rounder, fatter, body type tends to be valued.
In Europe, towards the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance, a rounded, fertile look for women continued to be emphasized. However, artwork from this period suggests that several beauty ideals existed (Seid 1989), including a slim female body with rather short legs and a full, rounded, pregnant-looking belly. Both the bride in Jan van Eyck’s 1434 painting Giovanni Arnolfini and His Bride and Eve in Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s 1432 painting The Ghent Altarpiece illustrate this ideal. The emphasis on the belly in these works reflects the conditions of a Europe plagued by disease and pestilence; it is probable that a fertile or pregnant look was reassuring against the ubiquitous fear of death.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the art of Raphael, da Vinci, Titian, and Rubens depicted even ampler bodies, while Bronzino and Cellini painted nudes representing a more slender, though not at all thin, ideal. Consistently, until the eighteenth century, we see evidence of more than one beauty ideal; we see men’s bodies, as well as women’s, idealized in nudes; and we know that, outside court society, few people would have had access to artworks or the economic means to dress fashionably, and that, therefore, the vast majority of people would not have expected to.
From the eighteenth century onwards, a number of significant changes occurred (Seid 1989). The food supply, which had previously been unreliable, began to stabilize, giving rise to restraint as an expression of refinement. In emerging industrial society, where the transfer of property through inheritance was relatively less important, arranged marriages declined. Women began having to “attract” male partners; thus, appearance played a greater role than it had previously for women seeking mates. Corresponding with this need to attract a partner, a new seductiveness combined with innocence became evident in women’s fashions. Men’s fashions, by contrast, changed less radically, and whereas female nudes became explicitly erotic, male nudes gradually ceased to be a genre in art.
In the Victorian era in North America, restrictive women’s fashions were emblematic of a conservative social code that enforced the strict separation of spheres for men and women. Because the arrival of German and Irish immigrants to America had ended an era of scarce labour, the social position of middle-class women changed from one of greater equality of work opportunities to one in which staying at home was encouraged. During this time, the “cult of the lady” emerged.
The beauty ideal for women, as epitomized in the American “Steel Engraving Lady” of the 1830s (images for magazines were produced from engravings in steel), was an expression of this society’s values and perhaps a reaction against the undesirable consequences of industrialization. This look emphasized qualities of delicacy, gentility, slenderness, and etherealness, though by current standards, only the waist was thin (Banner 1983; Seid 1989). A hearty appetite was considered unladylike, and doctors reinforced this view by arguing that women’s digestive systems were too delicate for “heavy meats” (Seid 1989). The thin, delicate appearance for women was a mark of gentility and implied that a husband or father had wealth (Seid 1989). The ideal also emphasized youth and purity, reflecting nineteenth-century romanticization of childhood and the simultaneous infantilization of women. The youthful aspect of the ideal offered a new optimism and rejuvenation for this period consistent with the promise of upward mobility carried by growing industrialization (Banner 1983).
Still, very few women would have expected their own bodies to match perfectly the ideal represented by “ladies” in the steel engravings. Because clothing was not mass produced, women would either have made their own clothing or had it made, accommodating their own unique proportions. Styles varied by age — mature women were expected to be large and, although a very fat person was considered unhealthy, a somewhat fat person was not (Seid 1989). In addition, a competing “antifashion ideal” that was “rosier, healthier, plumper and stronger” (Seid 1989, p. 67) was promoted by early feminists and others concerned with the ill effects of the steel-engraving look. By the 1850s, the pale, frail look was unpopular.
After the American Civil War, a more “voluptuous” beauty ideal represented the postwar increase in the importance of fertility (Banner 1983). Lillian Russell, a popular American beauty of the time, was by today’s standards a very large woman. Towards the turn of the century, as fashions once again changed, she, became one of the first public figures we know of who dieted. At two hundred pounds, she felt pressure to lose weight reflecting a new emphasis for women on having the right body shape and size and, more generally, a rising concern for eating the proper amount of “healthy” food (Seid 1989). The promise of industrialization to increase control over nature likely contributed to the development of this new emphasis.
Towards the end of the Victorian era, Lillian Russell was replaced by the tall and athletic “Gibson Girl.” Middle-class women of the late nineteenth century were expected to adopt the fashion of the day while simultaneously expressing a “unique personality” necessary for romantic love — fashionable beauty became a greater avenue for upward mobility through marriage. According to Wilson (1985, p. 123), appearance became increasingly intertwined with identity in this period. It was, she states, “the beginning of Self as a Work of Art, the ‘personality’ as something that extended to dress, scent, and surroundings, all of which made an essential contribution to the formation of ‘self’ — at least for women” (1985, p. 123).
The early twentieth century saw the introduction in North America of several new body ideals. At the turn of the century, a very narrow-waisted hourglass figure was popular and required the use of tightly laced corsets (only women of the urban upper and middle class would have worn these). Women could eat very little and had difficulty breathing with ease while wearing them. Fainting, headaches, and uterine problems were common complaints (Banner 1983).
By 1910, Mary Pickford and Clara Bow embodied the new, small, boyish ideal. The flapper era, with its flat-chested, straight-bodied, and shorter-hemline look, celebrated women’s emerging social mobility and independence (Lurie 1981). Certainly, the feminist “dress reformers” played a role in influencing the popularity of this fashion, their intention being to free women from the restrictiveness of the previous long, heavy, and crinolined fashions. Increased physical mobility mirrored advances in the social mobility and independence of women. The suppression of curves suggested a freer sexuality for women with less emphasis on reproduction, but implied that women’s sexuality was still limited and controlled (Seid 1989).
Women’s reproductive role was affected by the changing social and material conditions of industrialization. The shift from an agrarian to an industrial society created a new occupational environment away from the home. Improved standards of living also resulted in a decrease in infant and child mortality. It was no longer necessary for urban middle-class women to be pregnant throughout their lives. These factors contributed to freeing women from the confines of the reproductive role and represented a further stage in the emancipation of women. The look associated with thinness was symbolic of this change (Brown 1987a). As sex became eroticized in popular culture, its associations shifted to pleasure and away from reproduction (Epstein 1983, p. 88). With that shift, roundness, which had always been an image of fertility and reproduction, gave way to thinness, which came to be associated with the pleasure of sexuality.
While rural societies traditionally viewed plumpness as a sign of prosperity and thinness as a reminder of famine, urban society during the early 1900s saw thinness for women as a symbol of freedom from hard physical labour and, therefore, as a sign of success for their husbands and fathers. During this period of increased automation and gains in social wealth, the pursuit of fashion again suggested leisure, pleasure, and self-indulgence, all status symbols of the wives (and property) of rich men (Banner 1983). For complex reasons then, including the increased liberation of women during the first wave of the women’s movement, our society adopted a clear preference for thinness in women (Bennett and Gurin 1982).
In the first thirty years of the twentieth century, a growing medical bias against fat developed, body size became connected with health, the science of nutrition began to use of the concept of the calorie, and growing prosperity made fashion and health messages available to larger numbers of people (Seid 1989). At the same time, inexpensive mass-produced clothes in standard sizes came on the market, democratizing fashion by making fashionable clothing accessible to most women for the first time. However, increasing standardization also meant that, in practical terms, women encountered the idea that their bodies were wrong when the standard size didn’t fit them (Seid 1989). Thus, a serious, multi-determined social investment in slimness took hold, evidenced in 1917 by the first best-selling book on weight control, Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters’s Diet and Health, with Key to Calories (Seid 1989).
In the 1930s, the social climate changed in response to threatened food shortages as a result of two world wars and the Depression. Attitudes towards the body at this time were ambivalent, as seen in the March 1933 issue of Butterick’s Delineator magazine, which carried an ad for a weight-loss product, and one for a yeast-fortified beer with the caption: “Dangerous to be skinny. New discovery adds solid, healthy flesh quicker than beer.”
After the Second World War, women were required to leave their jobs and return to the home in order to reopen jobs for men returning from war. Emphasis on reproduction generally follows war, but the baby boom generation born out of the postwar era also signified the success of a postwar public campaign aimed at women to reclaim the role of “homemakers,” short-circuiting any inclination they may have felt to remain in the public sphere as equals to men. Having fewer children on average than previous generations helped the new suburban families of this period to maintain a higher standard of living. The slim yet curvaceous body ideal of the time allowed for emphasis on women’s return to their roles in reproduction, as mothers and housewives, but also on the increased freedom and mobility provided by suburban living, higher levels of education for women, and the economic success of their husbands. It was perhaps the first time in history that women in large numbers had a personal experience of what emancipation could bring, through having worked in the public sphere in responsible positions during the war and through access to higher education. Just as they could taste emancipation, women were once again restricted by the limitations of the private sphere.
Body weight was well on its way to being seen as an indication of character as well as of health. Fatness was connected with poor moral character because it was mistakenly identified with gluttony. The distinctions between “overweight,” “obese,” “plump,” “chubby,” and so on slowly died, eventually leaving only two categories — fat and thin (Seid 1989). Just the same, the era differed from our own in that it still differentiated styles suitable for adolescents from those suitable for adult women, and though the emphasis was on thinness, what counted as thin was far closer to “average” than our current standard.
In the late 1960s, the radical politics of the civil rights movement, the revived women’s movement, and the hippie subculture influenced a rebellious, natural or unadorned look, which emphasized youth. For the first time, standards of beauty were challenged by a variety of racial and ethnic looks that were seen as attractive (Banner 1983). But while “Black is beautiful” made an appearance, the fashion icon of the time was a white English schoolgirl called Twiggy, who, at 5’ 7 1/2”, weighed 91 pounds. Her emaciated shape perfectly expressed the values placed upon youth and thinness and gave new meaning to the fashionable image of etherealness. The recommended route to perfecting the female body seemed to be getting rid of it altogether. The emphasis on sexual freedom and youth culture of the hippie era was offset by this pre-pubescent body shape. It managed simultaneously to de-emphasize differences between men and women and to communicate a very sexualized yet innocent image. For young women who had grown up with frustrated mothers struggling to reconcile their heightened awareness with their lack of real power, the childlike body was also insurance against being defined through reproductive capacity, against being burdened by the real responsibilities of having children. Its immateriality promised the freedom to ascend to heights never before reached by women.
In the 1960s, television eclipsed film as a primary influence on what was considered beauty in North America (Banner 1983). Mass communication through television, the growing sophistication of advertising, and vivid images in full-colour magazines ensured the promotion and consumption of new ideals throughout Canada, the United States, and Europe. The result was a greater emphasis than ever before on outer image, both instead of and as a measure of inner worth. In addition to the changing role of women, television, advertising, fashion magazines, celebrity fashion models, and the mass marketing of clothing comprised a very powerful coalition of influences shaping our ideals of beauty.
The widespread communication of a very thin beauty ideal corresponded with an increased incidence of anorexia and the advent of bulimia in the 1970s. Not a new phenomenon, anorexia had first been diagnosed as a medical illness in 1874 by Lasegue in France and in Britain by Gull in 1873. The first Canadian case reported was by P. R. Inches in the Maritime Medical News in 1895. Anorexia had remained a rather obscure “illness” until the 1970s when it, and bulimia, became practically epidemic among women and an explanation that went beyond the language of “medical illness” was required. Eating disorders seemed to reflect the shifts and uncertainties in women’s lives as they entered the labour force in soaring numbers and the second wave of the women’s movement took hold.
In the 1980s, ever new rigours were recommended for those wanting to avoid the scourge of fat. Increased exercise was required to meet the new more muscular, but still thin, ideal, and “healthy eating” became synonymous with various forms of food fetishism designed to ward off fat as well as a number of vaguely defined illnesses (Seid 1989). Cosmetic surgery became touted as a way of perfecting the body. With the fashionable reappearance of large breasts came a corresponding rush for breast-augmentation surgery, but the newest surgery to emerge was liposuction. An article in the Toronto Star in the late 1980s described liposuction as useful for correcting the “violin deformity,” an indentation between hips and thighs on most women’s bodies. It is one thing to distinguish between actual and ideal body shapes. It is another to describe a typical female body shape as a deformity. Increasingly, “eating right,” losing weight, and perfecting the body with all means available came to be seen as the road to perfecting the self and achieving happiness. Women’s fashion magazines now exhorted women to “take charge” through controlling body shape, and to “control yourself” through eating calorie-reduced foods. By the end of the 1980s, most North American women regularly dieted to lose weight and said that they disliked their bodies.
Today’s continuation of the thin body ideal for women is more substantial than its Twiggy predecessor and includes a limited range of shapes that can all be characterized as thin and muscular and are glamourized as “being fit.” It ranges from the delicate but toned look commonly seen in fashion magazines, to the more obviously muscular look of Jane Fonda. Unlike the ideals of most other periods, today’s ideal female body is very low in body fat and muscular, and tends to have tight abdominal muscles, thighs toned by many hours in the gym exhibited in Spandex outfits cut high on the hip, discernible biceps, and large yet perky breasts. This image expresses both the strength and the sexiness consistent with the “super-woman” ideal of today. This perfect all-round woman is expected to perform the contradictory roles of the nurturing and caring mother; the soft, sexy, and giving wife; and the sexually independent, competitive, and ambitious, career woman. The current body ideal embodies all of these qualities, conveying through the body the contradictions women face in their lives today.
While feminist analyses of the current body ideal have tended to focus on the shift in women’s social power, emphasizing either women’s continued oppression in a male-dominant world or women’s increased social equality, most fail to consider the contradictory nature both of women’s lives and of the body ideal. Susan Wooley (1987) argues that women are expected to make their bodies more masculine in an effort to fit into the masculinist labour force. Kim Chernin (1981) views the thin body ideal as an expression of society’s resistance to women’s increased social power. She argues that, at a time when women have achieved greater equality, the thin body ideal portrays women as small, vulnerable, weak, and powerless. She points out a correspondence in the development of the “women’s reduction movement” of the 1960s with its emphasis on losing weight, and the feminist movement as it re-emerged in the 1960s. Chernin notes that, while the women’s reduction movement promised increased happiness and self-esteem through weight loss, the feminist movement increased its efforts to improve the possibilities for women’s happiness through social change. However, Chernin does not address the feminist movement’s own ambivalence about the new body ideal, despite its potential to be damaging to women. The thin ideal was too perfect a symbol of women’s freedom from “anatomy is destiny,” or the limitations of women’s reproductive role in society.
Other feminist writers suggest that the emergence of the thin body ideal parallels women’s increased social power. Janice Cauwells, for instance, believes that the thin body represents women’s increased equality, and communicates the superwoman image of the competent, sexy, and successful woman (1983). Similarly, Ann Hollander maintains that the thin body ideal that emerged in the 1920s, and continues today, symbolized increased equality in the image of women as mobile, independent, and active (1980).
Susie Orbach (1986), however, has observed that the thin ideal of today represents increasingly contradictory messages about what it means to be a woman; the thin body expresses the ambivalence of society towards increased social power for women. According to Orbach “today’s role confusion is negotiated by transforming the body” (1986, p. 24). Similarly, we argue that the current body ideal is a complex metaphor for the contradictory aspects of women’s lives today. It portrays both women’s continued oppression and their growing emancipation, alongside women’s conformity and resistance to these conditions.
From the 1960s to today, thinness appears to be an antipatriarchal rebellion. The thin body image expresses liberation through its connotations of mobility, independence, sexuality, and freedom; however, it can also be said to express women’s continued oppression in that, despite its current muscular manifestation, it also connotes diminutiveness, dependence, and vulnerability, through its delicacy and smallness. A recent resurgence of Twiggy-like images reflects our era’s continued ambivalence towards women’s power. The liberation of women attempts to define woman as more than her body; however, the same body type that symbolizes patriarchal influence also symbolizes liberation. The thin body image, then, incorporates both the patriarchal conditions of women’s lives and women’s opposition to patriarchy. Although many feminist analyses suggest that the pressure for women to be thin, and thinness itself, reflect women’s oppression in patriarchal society, we suggest that a more layered and complex analysis allows us to understand the contradictory elements related to women’s oppression and emancipation.
Recently, Catherine Steiner-Adair (1990), a psychologist who is a research associate with the Project on the Psychology of Women and the Development of Girls, at Harvard University, has described in developmental terms the effect of these contradictions on girls who are becoming young women. She suggests that girls face two developmental double binds, the first of which is related to body development. At puberty, both boys and girls face the challenge of coming to terms with a body that is biologically different from the one they’ve been living with, but for boys there is consistency between the characteristics they are supposed to demonstrate as they become young men and the changes in their bodies. The development of muscle, the increase in height, the lowering of the voice are associated in our culture with power, effectiveness, and authority. For girls, in contrast, there is an inconsistency between what their bodies are going through and the characteristics they are supposed to demonstrate as the “New Woman,” such as assertiveness, independence, and self-control. They are betrayed by an increase in body fat required for menstruation, as fat is a cultural sign of powerlessness, ineffectiveness, and lack of control. This bind has the following result: a female who is effective and in control in her life, but who has a fat body, or has fat on her body, will probably feel this fat belies her effectiveness and control. A female who starts out not feeling or being effective and assertive will probably feel that the fat on her body makes her failure immediately evident to everyone. In both cases, the learned dissatisfaction with their bodies’ normal fat levels will probably drive these girls and women to lose weight.
The second double bind is related to self development. Steiner-Adair describes girls as spending a lot of time during the first eleven years of their lives learning the ins and outs of relationships. During this time they use a wide range of emotions in talking about themselves and about relationships, and they are very realistic, saying that it’s not always possible to be both nice to someone else and true to oneself at the same time. Their tendency is to try to resolve conflict, which they accept as a part of relationship, through the use of empathy in order to deepen friendship. Beginning around age twelve or thirteen, and certainly by the age of fifteen or sixteen, some major adjustments are required of girls. As they begin to relate more and more to boys, they come up against barriers to practising relationships in the way they are used to. Boys learn to relate differently: their play with one another is more rule-based and more competitive, often culminating in finding out who is the winner and who is the loser. (The adjustments boys have to make to tolerate this kind of relating have their own problems). However, girls learn, according to a superficial and idealized model of care-giving that seems to come into play as heterosexual relationships begin, that it is their role to be the primary caregiver and maintainer of these relationships. Clearly the role of the ideal nurturer as one who experiences no conflict between what is good for herself and what is good for the other is inconsistent with what girls know about relationships from their own experience during the first eleven years of their lives. They have to “forget” what they know in order to approximate this ideal. Typically girls lose confidence at this time in their lives.
In terms of the self-development double bind, girls are encouraged to show both the traditional characteristics of the abundant caregiver and the characteristics of the “New Woman,” who looks after herself before anyone else. Girls, then, are getting contradictory messages about their role in relationships and what is expected of them as individuals growing up in a society that values independence, individuality, and competitivenes. These contradictions raise conflicts for girls that make them doubt themselves. Feeling self-doubt in the context of our current body ideal, girls often try to generate self-esteem by losing weight, a strategy that is reinforced by the body-development double bind.
THINESS AS METAPHOR: WOMEN’S FRAGEMENTED IDENTITY
Weight preoccupation can be understood as the product of the coincidence of the prevailing body ideal and the fragmented identity women experience in their ambiguous and contradictory social role. Uncertain how to proceed with their lives through a maze of conflicting expectations, possibilities, and desires, many women have attempted to gain control of their lives by controlling their bodies. Weight is something that can be controlled, and exercising such control can, at the same time, satisfy a major social expectation: being sexually attractive. Indeed, it requires a strong sense of self and high self-esteem to resist the social pressure to be thin (Lawrence 1984).
Anorexia nervosa can be described as a “psychological bridging mechanism” for women as they enter the public sphere (Orbach 1986, p. 103). Entry into a masculinist culture requires that women retain qualities traditionally associated with femininity, but which the society devalues, and also adopt and value what have traditionally been male workforce characteristics. Tremendous conflict also exists between social expectations and women’s subjective experience of their capacities. While feminist pressure has resulted in gains in opportunity for many women, there have not been corresponding changes in the culture that would fully support women in taking advantage of those opportunities, including expansion of the role that men take in domestic labour and in caring for relationships and children. Feminists have expressed concern about the “double day” required of women as they continue to perform most of the domestic labour in addition to their work in the labour force. The burden of this double day is compounded by the lack of adequate childcare services provided by society. Such changes, even if they are forthcoming, will be slow. In the meantime, anorexia, bulimia, and weight preoccupation today may be the most common ways women have to cope with the desperation and uncertainty they feel.
In the face of such conflicting, unrealistic, and indeed oppressive social expectations, it is no wonder that women experience tremendous conflict about having their own emotional needs met. In fact, the way a woman deals with food and eating may reflect how she deals with both her own and others’ needs (Dana and Lawrence 1988). Eating behaviour, can be seen as a metaphor for the receiving and giving of nurturance.
Metaphorically, then, a woman who eats emotionally is aware that she needs something but is not aware of what it is; is usually able to nurture others, but receives little nurturance back. Conversely, the anorexic woman tends to deny or minimize her needs and has difficulty taking anything in. Because relationships are often experienced as intrusive, she focuses on self-sufficiency and absolute self-control. The bulimic woman, in contrast, may experience elements of both, as she can take things in but has difficulty sustaining or absorbing the good or nurturance in them. She acknowledges she has needs, although she is not comfortable with them. Indeed, she may have a pervasive sense of guilt about her needs and feeding herself. While this metaphor seems to have general applicability, the issues for individual women are bound to be complex and, in some cases, may be quite different.
It is clear that the issues women face with meeting their own needs is a reflection of women’s psychology, their life situations, and the social roles they play. Women have too often learned to take care of others’ needs at their own expense. The particular intersection of this issue with the demands made on women in the workplace for more individualistic, less other-orientated behaviour creates internal conflict. Because food and the body are themselves conflictual issues in women’s lives, it is logical that they become the arena in which women react to the conflict and distress they experience in other areas of life.
The physical and sexual violence that many women and children are subjected to contributes significantly to a lack of control and a fragile sense of self. Attempting to attain self-esteem and a sense of being in control through controlling the body is a significant issue for many women who have experienced such abuse. Many develop serious weight-preoccupation issues. Other childhood traumas including various forms of deprivation, violation, or neglect teach girls that their worlds are not emotionally or physically safe. While most women learn that their needs are insignificant and unworthy, this lesson is compounded for those who have experienced such trauma, increasing the chances that they will develop eating disorders.
We argue that women may express conflicts in their lives through their bodies and food at this time in history for two important reasons: the propagation and internalization of the thin body ideal, and the conflictual relationship women in our society tend to have towards food and the body. The violence and childhood traumas women experience in their lives add an additional layer, and seem to increase the likelihood that women will develop weight preoccupation or eating disorders as a consequence of looking for a greater sense of control and self-esteem by regulating food intake or body shape. These factors together make “eating disorders” a viable response during this contradictory and uncertain period of women’s history.
In this section of the book, a number of these themes are elaborated. Kim Buchanan discusses the prevalence and significance of weight preoccupation in the lives of Black women in Western society. In the context of racism, the meaning of weight preoccupation shifts.
Catrina Brown describes a continuum approach to understanding weight preoccupation and eating disorders. In laying out the criteria for diagnosing eating disorders, medical practitioners create the impression that there is a clear and qualitative distinction between women who are anorexic or bulimic and those who are not. This impression obscures the significant similarities among all women who are preoccupied with weight and shape in our culture, pathologizing some as “ill” and rewarding and normalizing others who “just diet.”
In her essay on fat oppression, Beth MacInnis discusses the pervasiveness of weight prejudice and fat intolerance in our current beliefs about health and fitness, and in the related practices of health professionals. She explores the idea that fat oppression acts as a form of patriarchal social control.
Research on the effects of weight-control practices, the health risks of being over or under average weight, and the role of genetic factors in determining weight is often complex and inaccessible. In reviewing this information, Donna Ciliska disputes the assumption that fat is unhealthy and presents a compelling case against dieting.
Some of the most compelling arguments being offered in promoting weight-loss efforts among women link fitness and health with thinness. This link, argues Helen Lenskyj, has been exploited in the sports and fitness industries at the expense of many female athletes, both competitive and recreational. Rooted in the hetero-sexist and male-dominated sports culture, it serves to enhance the power and authority of male coaches while disempowering women. Some women-centred alternatives are suggested.
Once free of obsession with body size and shape new avenues are opened to appreciate our bodies as sources of pleasure and passion. Farah Shroff describes some ways in which pleasure and passion related to eating and sexuality are socially mediated and how women might be able to enjoy their bodies more.
Kim Shayo Buchanan
As a Black feminist, I was quite hesitant to write about beauty and body image. Although I have discussed the issue with a number of my Black women friends, my concern over such an individualistic matter seemed somehow self-indulgent, given the numerous more urgent issues — poverty, police violence, miseducation of ourselves and our children, racist immigration policies, sexual and physical assault, inadequate child care, and employment discrimination, to name just a few — that currently face Black women and Black communities. Discomfort with appearance pales in comparison.
But the material inequalities that result from white supremacy can have a debilitating effect on the health and self-esteem of individual Black women. As Opal Palmer Adisa (1990, pp. 13–14) puts it: “Did you ever wonder why so many sisters look so angry?... Stress from the deferred dreams, the dreams not voiced; stress from the broken promises, the blatant lies; stress from always being at the bottom, from never being thought beautiful, from always being taken for granted, taken advantage of; stress from being a black woman in white America. How long do you think you can hold your breath without asphyxiating? Yes, black women do commit suicide!”
The stress of being a Black female in a misogynist, anti-Black culture that denies our humanity, and often denies Black women our basic physical needs, has damaging effects on our psyches and helps to place Black women at higher risk for some health crises, such as stroke, heart disease, and hypertension (White 1991, p. 28).
Black feminists, then, have rightly prioritized addressing the structural inequalities of racism and sexism. African American feminists such as Angela Davis (1983) and bell hooks (1981, 1992), for example, have placed more emphasis on representations of African women in the dominant culture than they have on the ways Black women see ourselves. Meanwhile, white feminists who write about body image, such as Naomi Wolf (1990), often fail to acknowledge the particular concerns that Black women face because of the combination of racism and the “beauty myth.” Because relatively little has been published on the subject of Black women and body image, I turned to my own experience and that of other Black women to identify appearance issues that particularly concern us. African women are subject to the same pressures to attain an ideal of beauty as are white women in North American society, but efforts to approach the blonde, thin, young, white ideal are made at even greater cost for Black women. Weight preoccupation is not a central concern for many Black women, but weight is one among many factors that preclude Black women from attaining “beauty” according to the cultural archetype. Three issues came up again and again when I talked with other Black women: skin colour, hair texture, and body size.
Black women in Canada live in a culture of white supremacy that not only constructs white privilege and Black subordination, but also produces a racist ideology that makes that inequality seem natural and inevitable. The white-supremacist aesthetic negates or denigrates (“darkens”) all that is associated with Africa and Blackness. Julia A. Boyd (1990), an African American feminist therapist, points out that this anti-Black ideology erodes the self-image and self-esteem of Black women. Blackness is a symbol of the inferiority of Black women and men: “Most folks in this society do not want to openly admit that ‘blackness’ as sign primarily evokes in the public imagination of whites (and all the other groups who learn that one of the quickest ways to demonstrate one’s kinship within a white supremacist social order is by sharing racist assumptions) hatred and fear” (hooks 1992, p. 10).
In her essay “Revolutionary Attitude,” bell hooks argues that “loving blackness” is a political stance that can subvert the ideology of white supremacy (hooks 1992, p. 1–7). While I am not convinced that individual self-love and self-esteem in themselves threaten entrenched white domination, they do provide an essential grounding for Black women and men to mount an effective challenge to it.
Most Black women are very concerned with physical appearance because, like all other women, our “beauty” or lack of it determines our value in Western society (Collins 1990, p. 80). But the Western tradition of dichotomous thinking has created a concept of beauty that has always been two-edged: “Blue-eyed, blond, thin white women could not be considered beautiful without the Other — Black women with classical African features of dark skin, broad noses, full lips, and kinky hair” (Collins 1990, p. 79). So, when beauty emerged as a dimension of female value in the nineteenth century, the construction of economically privileged white “ladies” as beautiful and virtuous was made possible by contrasting them with degraded, ugly Black womanhood (hooks 1981, p. 32).
Western Black women learn at an early age that our Blackness is abnormal and ugly. As Audre Lorde (1984, p. 151) says, “We are Black women born into a society of entrenched loathing and contempt for whatever is Black and female. We are strong and enduring. We are also deeply scarred.” Black women and men who emigrate to the West from African countries experience a shocking transition. In African countries, despite Western influence, Blackness is normal. It is taken for granted, much as white Canadians do not often notice their whiteness. Suddenly, on arrival on Canadian soil, African looks signify to others inferiority, ugliness, and shame. Several continental Africans living in Canada have told me, “I wasn’t Black until I came here.”
Bizarre and irrational as the pathologization of Blackness is, the negativity which defines Western images of Africa and Blackness has a profound effect on the self-image and self-esteem of Black children, male and female: “My six-year-old niece has an ulcer. Where does that come from? This kid used to put chalk on his face and hide beneath the desk. My son’s name is Osaze which means ‘One whom God loves’, it’s a name from Malawi. He came home and wanted his name changed to Tom” (Brand and Sri Bhaggiyadatta 1986, p. 54).
Both boys and girls learn that whiter is better. But the anti-Black aesthetic is even more damaging to Black girls and women because this culture ties women’s self-esteem so closely to our appearance. In her essay “Eye to Eye,” Audre Lorde (1984, p. 149) describes her childhood as the darkest of three sisters:
They were goodlooking, I was dark. Bad, mischievous, a born troublemaker if there ever was one. Did bad mean Black? The endless scrubbing with lemon juice in the cracks and crevices of my ripening, darkening, body. And oh, the sins of my dark elbows and knees, my gums and nipples, the folds of my neck and the cave of my armpits!
Although feminist theorists such as Susan Faludi (1991) and Naomi Wolf (1990) point out that white women are forced to struggle for an unattainable ideal of femininity, never feeling beautiful enough, they choose to write about beauty as though Black women did not exist. All women are objectified when they are judged by their physical appearance and heterosexual appeal. However, as Patricia Hill Collins (1990, pp. 79–80) points out:
[White women’s] white skin and straight hair privilege them in a system in which part of the basic definition of whiteness is its superiority to blackness. Black men’s blackness penalizes them. But because they are men, their self-definitions are not as heavily dependent on their physical attractiveness as those of all women. But African-American women experience the pain of never being able to live up to externally defined standards of beauty — standards applied to us by white men, white women, Black men, and, most painfully, one another.
The beauty ideal is even more unattainable for Black women than it is for White women because Blackness is considered — in itself — ugly.
“From childhood on, if you read books, watch television, see movies, beauty is always a white girl with blonde hair and blue eyes. It is something that works its way deep into you,” a Dutch Asian woman observes (quoted in Chapkis 1986, p. 60). This Nordic ideal is a cultural self-image that doesn’t even reflect the way white North Americans really look. Natural blonde hair is actually extremely rare on Canadian adults. One Black woman put it succinctly: “Albinism is considered the most attractive.” So the light-skinned Black woman with straight hair who most closely resembles the blonde ideal has traditionally been deemed the most attractive by whites and by Westernized Black men and women (Boyd 1990, p. 227; hooks 1992, p. 73).
European characteristics are considered beautiful in themselves. In Toni Morrison’s Jazz, (1992, p. 201), Felice, a young, dark-skinned Black woman, describes her murdered friend: “Dorcas should have been prettier than she was. She just missed. She had all the ingredients of pretty too. Long hair, wavy, half good, half bad. Light skinned. Never used skin bleach. Nice shape .... If you looked at each thing, you would admire that thing — the hair, the color, the shape. All together it didn’t fit.”
Similarly, while traveling in the Caribbean and Latin America, Black nationalist Ann Cook noted that “no matter whether the language of the countries I visited was English, French, Spanish, Dutch or Portugese, there were phrases for ‘good hair’ and ‘marrying light to improve the race’ “ (1970, p. 152). This colour prejudice persists today. For example, a dark-skinned Black woman I know was in a relationship with a mixed-race man who looks white. White strangers would approach them in the street and tell them, “Your children will be so beautiful!”
The white people who “complimented” my friends this way probably thought they were being anti-racist in supporting a “mixed” relationship. But my friends were deeply offended. Their children would be deemed Black in North American culture, but because they would look more European, they would be considered beautiful, for Black people. Clearly, Black and white people who think that “mixed” children are all good-looking have accepted that “marrying light” does improve the Black “race.”
Because light skin is more valued in a white-supremacist culture, it does confer some privileges: in Toronto, young Black women and men find that racist whites treat light-skinned Black people more favourably than they do their darker peers because they see them as “less Black” (James 1990, p. 16). No wonder, then, that a Black South African woman recalls that, as a child, she longed for blonde hair and blue eyes: “It wasn’t just that these things were supposedly beautiful, but they seemed to represent a special kind of life, the life I imagined white people had” (quoted in Chapkis 1986, p. 69).
No wonder, either, that a few Black people have turned to chemical skin lighteners. A 1980 advertisement in Pace, a Black women’s magazine, equated paleness with a prosperous lifestyle: “Clere for your own special beauty. We are a successful people and have to look successful. We use Clere for a lighter, smoother skin. Now, Clere will work its magic for you, and make you more beautiful and successful” (quoted in Chapkis 1986, p. 89).
Today, skin bleaches are euphemistically called “fade creams” and advertise their ability to “even out skin tone.” Little, however, has changed — the August 1992 issue of Essence, for example, carried this advertisement: “Nothing succeeds like Palmer’s Skin Success Fade Cream.”
Historically, though, Black women who were “pretty” — i.e., European-looking — did not necessarily benefit from this distinction. “Harriet Jacobs, an enslaved light-skinned woman, was sexually harassed because she was ‘beautiful,’ for a Black woman” (Collins 1990, p. 81). The light-skinned Black woman is defined by white society as more “beautiful” because she looks like a tanned white woman. But her attractiveness has an added frisson of the sexually exotic, since white men define her, and all Black women, as available for sex (Collins 1990, p. 81; hooks 1992, p. 74).
Dark-skinned women fare even worse: “Nowadays, black women are included in magazines in a manner that tends to rein-scribe prevailing stereotypes. Dark-skinned models are most likely to appear in photographs where their features are distorted. Biracial women tend to appear in sexualized images” (hooks 1992, p. 72).
Most contemporary Black people recognize the preference for European features as a manifestation of internalized racism. Nonetheless, most Black North American women continue to process their hair.
bell hooks (1992, p. 73) observes that when dark-skinned models with African features are featured in white fashion magazines such as Vogue, they are often posed nearly nude against a background that evokes the stereotypical image of the Black woman as “sexual primitive.” Currently, darker-skinned models with non-European features tend to be photographed wearing ridiculous long, straight wigs (hooks 1992, p. 71). This reflects an “aesthetic that suggests black women, while appealingly ‘different,’ must resemble white women to be beautiful” (hooks 1992, p. 73).
Orlando Patterson (quoted in Collins 1990, p. 90) argues that hair texture is much more important in assigning status than is skin colour, since the differences between African and European are much more pronounced in hair than in skin, and those differences persist longer with intermixing.
Good hair is straight hair. Bad hair is natural — kinky, nappy, African hair. Essence, a popular Black women’s magazine, occasionally challenges this anti-Black aesthetic by running articles that celebrate Black women’s natural hair texture, or by creating space for Black women and men to discuss the social meaning of straightening African hair. However, this magazine also relies heavily on advertising for chemical “relaxers” and the many expensive conditioners and moisturizers that this damaging process necessitates. There were thirteen ads for such products in the September 1992 edition alone, as well as those for wigs, hair extensions, and, most disturbing and harmful of all, chemical skin bleaches. Perhaps to reassure the dubious consumer, some hair products carry ironic names such as “Affirm” and “African Pride.”
Some Black women have internalized the idea that processed hair is superior to their natural hair texture. On an Oprah Winfrey show in 1991, Winfrey asked three Black singers who process their hair whether they felt that relaxing their hair had anything to do with their feelings about being Black. Gladys Knight’s answer was revealing: “Whatever you feel like you can do to improve upon yourself, do it, because you’ve got to feel good about yourself” (quoted in Gregory 1992, p. 91).
Tania, a Black South African woman, observes the colonial impact of imposed white beauty norms: “By taking away a people’s culture and pride in their appearance, you literally change the way they see themselves” (quoted in Chapkis, 1986, p. 69).
Nonetheless, most Black women who “relax” their hair are comfortable with their Blackness and express no desire to look more white. My Black friends who straighten their hair tell me that they do it because processed hair is “easier to take care of” or because they “prefer” the look. I find that my own natural hair is much healthier and easier to take care of now than it was when it was “relaxed.” But, as Patricia Hill Collins (1990, p. 81) points out, “Institutions controlled by whites clearly show a preference for lighter-skinned Blacks, discriminating against darker ones or against any African-Americans who appear to reject white images of beauty. Sonia Sanchez reports, ‘sisters tell me today that if they go in with their hair natural or braided, they probably won’t get the job.’ ”
Black women’s concern that employers prefer straightened hair is well founded. In 1987, Cheryl Tatum, a hotel cashier, and Renee Randall, a cafeteria food server, were fired from their jobs for refusing to unbraid their cornrows. Sydney Boone, a hotel telephone operator, was ordered by her employers to wear a wig over her braids if she was to keep her job. All three women pursued their cases with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (Wheeler 1988; Sanchez 1988; The Washington Post, 1988). Pamela Mitchell, a Mariott Hotel receptionist in Washington, D.C., had to pursue a complaint with the D.C. Office of Human Rights to defend her right to wear a hairstyle that represented “part of her African heritage” on the job (Duke 1988).
While Mitchell won her case (Sanchez 1988), few Black women have the time, the money, or the will to take their employers to court over their hair. Several Black university students who braid their hair have told me that they will relax their hair when they start looking for full-time work. And they are realistic: Black people who are seen as rejecting white beauty standards will be penalized. As bell hooks (1992, p. 17) says:
On our jobs, when we express ourselves from a decolonized standpoint, we risk being seen as unfriendly or dangerous.
Those black folks who are more willing to pretend that “difference” does not exist even as they self-consciously labor to be as much like their white peers as possible, will receive greater rewards in white supremacist society.
In an Essence article discussing Black women’s intense relationship with our hair, Brenda Wade, a clinical psychologist, frankly acknowledged that “I know that to get asked back on shows like The Today Show, I would be more acceptable to most of the audience if I had straight hair. As Black women, we straighten our hair to look more acceptable to white society” (quoted in Gregory 1992, p. 91). Straightening our hair, then, is not so much a rejection of ourselves as an adaptation to the reality of white supremacy: “For black women, learning to comply publicly with white standards has been not as much a choice as a dictate necessary for survival” (Boyd 1990, p. 231).
One of my friends, a Black feminist law student who has considered the racial implications, but continues to relax her hair, argues that relaxed hair does not emulate white hair because the styles that Black women create are completely different from those of white women. In fact, a look around downtown Toronto shows that white women copy Black women’s hairstyles, from cornrows to combing their hair tightly off the face into a high bun.
So while Black hair is defined by mainstream white society as inferior and unappealing, at the same time, the styles that Black women (and men) evolve are considered the cutting edge of “cool” fashion. As long as styles such as natural hair, braids, and dreadlocks are seen as apolitical fashion statements, they are admired, and even copied by whites. This trend reflects a consumer attitude towards cultural and racial differences in the social mainstream. “Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture” (hooks 1992, p. 21).
Thus, while Blackness is considered ugly, Benetton has mounted a successful advertising campaign that features very dark Black people with natural hair; “exotic”-looking Asians; and very pale, Nordic-looking whites. Racial difference is unthreatening as long as it is confined to colour and style in the context of cultural consumerism. But the distinctive styles Western Black people wear evolved within Black communities created by displaced Africans as havens from white supremacy and as sites of resistance to it. Multicultural tourism fails to acknowledge that Blackness in North America means “more than just skin color and hairstyle, but a generational lifestyle that is rich in culture and value” (Boyd 1990, p. 229).
Evelyn White, editor of The Black Women’s Health Book, observes that almost 35 percent of African-American women between the ages of 20 and 44 exceed the “ideal” weight for their height and age by more than 20 percent (1991, p. 28). Some 50 percent of African-American women between 45 and 55 years old are also defined as obese. As Rosemary L. Bray (1992, p. 54) points out: “When you consider how many Black women are raising children alone and how gleefully social commentators lay every problem Black children have at the feet of their drained and exhausted mothers; then you think about the disproportionate number of us who are poor and have no idea what having enough means, you begin to get a sense of the emotional weight we carry.”
Rosemary Bray goes on to say that Black women bear heavier responsibilities than Black men and other women: “We are forever working, loving, volunteering, scolding, nurturing and organizing — but nearly always for others” (1992, p. 54). Often, Black women’s support systems — families, churches, and each other — revolve around preparing and sharing food.
But the fat Black woman finds herself even more despised than the fat white woman. In the eyes of racist whites, her body evokes the racist-sexist stereotype of the Black mammy, the opposite of the thin, blonde ideal (Bray 1992, p. 90). bell hooks (1981, p. 84) observes that, historically, slave nursemaids were typically young Black women with few family attachments. Southern white men and women created the Black mammy image as old, fat, and somewhat unclean — in order to reassure themselves that white men would never be attracted to them. This insidious stereotype can further undermine a fat Black woman’s self-esteem. “We are just too much to be tolerated, so excessive that we should be hidden, kept from view, trotted out only to be laughed at. And that is a contagious attitude, an attitude that makes every woman who hates her body a little more filled with self-hatred, a little more disgusted, a little more intolerant of herself” (Bray 1992, p. 90).
Fat Black women have to deal with a thin, white ideal that they can never achieve. The more a Black woman identifies with white beauty standards, the more she will value thinness (Gray et al. 1987, p. 739). For example, only five British women of colour had been diagnosed with eating disorders by 1989; “problems of racial identity were prominent in these patients, four of whom had been cared for by white women” (Dolan 1989, p. 73).1 Fortunately, Black communities accept fat on women far more than the white beauty standard allows (Rand and Kuldau 1992, p. 43; Gray et al. 1987). Traditionally, African American communities had a feminine ideal that was realistic and sexy: “Women’s bodies were substantial. They had breasts and hips and curves and softness” (Bray 1992, p. 54). This ideal is refreshingly tolerant of real women’s bodies. It persists today in a “cultural standard from our African heritage that allows for more voluptuousness and padding on Black women” (White 1991, p. 28). African cultures present an alternate vision of feminine beauty that allows more Black women to be comfortable with their size, and to enjoy it.
All of the Black women and men that I have talked to agreed that, although white men seem to find thinness an important criterion of attractiveness, Black men are much more appreciative of female curves. Black men often openly admire Black women who would be considered overweight by white beauty standards. Part of the reason for this is that a large, round butt is considered a sign of heightened sexuality in the “black pornographic imagination” (hooks 1992, p. 63). It is hardly surprising, then, that social researchers find that “almost twice the percentage of white as black girls wished for smaller hips and thighs” (Hsu 1987, p. 120). Skinny women are not considered as attractive as women who are “built.”
Many Black women — especially, it seems, women from Africa and the Caribbean — carry their weight with pride and style. In many poor countries, excessive thinness is a sign of poor health (Chapkis 1986, p. 166). In Tanzania, where my extended family lives, men expect their wives to gain weight after they get married: “If she doesn’t get fat, people will think I’m not taking good care of her!” men often say.
Senegalese filmmaker Osman Sembene observes the same fat-positive thinking in West Africa. In his film Camp Thiaroye, a Senegalese war veteran asks a tailor to make his girlfriend two dresses — one tight, one loose. “Why?” the tailor asks. “Is she fat or thin?” The veteran replies: “She used to be fat, but she writes me that she’s gotten thin because she misses me so much. But when she sees me at home, she’ll be happy, and she’ll get fat again!” Thus, it appears that, despite increasing Western influence, many African cultures continue to celebrate real women’s bodies.
CREATING BEAUTY IN BLACKNESS
African American feminist bell hooks (1984) argues that Black women’s location at the bottom of the hierarchies of race and gender provides us a “privileged perspective” from which to analyse those systems of domination. The dominant white culture has deemed Black women ugly (or, at best, as exotic imitations of “beautiful” white women). African women and men have always had to challenge the unlikely European image of beauty that white culture presents as ideal, and we have: “The oppositional black culture that emerged in the context of apartheid and segregation has been one of the few locations that has provided a space for the kind of decolonization that makes loving blackness possible” (hooks 1992, p. 10).
To keep our self-respect and to restore our pride, politicized Black women and men — artists, writers, nationalists, and feminists — are engaged in creating a cultural space that validates and celebrates Africa and our Black bodies. “We are laying claim to our selfhood, making bold to assert ourselves as women .... We write in order to create new models for our young, and a new fortitude” (Ngcobo 1987, p. 1)
This responsibility extends to popular Black North American culture. Essence, the largest Black women’s magazine in North America, for example, is in many ways typical of mainstream women’s magazines. It features articles on beauty and health, although its (relatively few) articles on dieting, unlike those in white women’s magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Glamour, explicitly relate weight loss to health, and not to slimming. But unlike white women’s magazines, Essence consistently features light, dark-skinned, and brown models with various hair lengths and types. Unlike any mainstream white women’s magazine, Essence often uses fat models as well as typical thin women in its fashion editorials.
The pro-Black woman content of the articles in Essence is undermined, however, by the numerous advertisements it carries, for hair relaxers and for products such as makeup, cars, and cigarettes that continue to feature thin, light-skinned, European-looking models almost exclusively. But there is an evident effort in this popular magazine to resist the dominant white aesthetic and reconstruct real Black women, in all our sizes and shapes, as beautiful.
Outside the commercial pressures of mainstream publication, Black women are freer to construct alternative images of Black beauty. For example, Marlene Nourbese Philip, a Toronto poet and writer, deliberately works to appropriate the English language to create empowering Black images. She challenges the white construction of Blackness as unbeautiful in her book of poetry, She Tries her Tongue: her silence softly breaks (1989, p. 20): “when we hear certain words and phrases, such as ‘thick lips’ or ‘kinky hair’, the accompanying images are predominantly negative .... From whose perspective are the lips of the African thick or her hair kinky? Certainly not from the African’s perspective. How then does the writer describe the Caribbean descendants of West Africans so as not to connote the negativity implied in descriptions such as ‘thick lips’?”
Works such as Philip’s poem “Meditations on the Declension of Beauty by the Girl with the Flying Cheek-bones” and African American filmmmaker Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, reflect the beauty of African women in all our diversity. Dash says that, through her work, she wants to “continue to challenge ... the conventional images of black women on screen” (Rule 1992, p. C15). Black women in contemporary film are typically portrayed as either mammy or slut (hooks 1992, p. 74).
The characters in Daughters of the Dust do not conform to these traditional representations; yet Dash resists the facile white aesthetic that says Black women can be “beautiful,” as long as we look like Whitney Houston or Rae Dawn Chong. The little-known actresses in this film are stunning — and they look like real Black women. They represent a range of sizes and ages. Their natural hair is styled in beautiful and unusual ways. All but one of them are dark-skinned. And all of them are beautiful. “I wanted it to be healing, cleansing and empowering, so when they leave the theater people feel good about themselves,” Dash explained in an interview (Rule 1992, p. C15). A viewer could never emerge from Dash’s film believing that Black women must look alike — and white — to be beautiful.
The tall, hungry, blonde, blue-eyed ideal of the “beauty myth” is unattainable for most women of any race. It rests, then, on the fundamental premise that real women are not beautiful. Artists and writers such as Dash and Philip are restoring a vision of female beauty that challenges this belief. The images that they create powerfully show that Black women are beautiful in our real bodies. Works such as theirs are steps towards creating what Patricia Hill Collins (1990, p. 88) calls an “alternative feminist aesthetic” that “involves deconstructing and rejecting existing standards of ornamental beauty that objectify women and judge us by our physical appearance. Such an aesthetic would also reject standards of beauty that commodify women by measuring various qualities of beauty that women broker in the marital marketplace.”
Currently, the struggles of liberal white feminists such as Naomi Wolf to resist what she calls the “tyranny of beauty” are receiving unusual attention in the popular media. But Wolf bases her argument on what she believes to be the experience of Western women: “As the economy, law, religion, sexual mores, education, and culture were forcibly opened up to include women more fairly, a private reality [the beauty myth] colonized women’s consciousness” (Wolf 1990, p. 16).
As Black women, we do not have individual access to powerful positions within these institutions, nor is inclusion the kind of “liberation” that Black feminists seek. “Only those who find Jeane Kirkpatrick and Margaret Thatcher shining examples of feminism will believe that this sort of individual success is the same thing as women’s liberation” (Chapkis 1986, p. 84). Black feminist theory has focused, instead, on the ways in which racism, sexism, and economic inequality are integral components of existing political and social institutions; it is relations of power, not women’s bodies, which need to be radically transformed.
The creation of a feminist aesthetic is not an end in itself. Rather, it is a small part of a wider struggle against systemic patriarchy and white supremacy, and the lethal conditions that they create. bell hooks (1992, p. 50) warns against “the narcissistic-based individual pursuit of self and identity [that] subsumes the possibility of sustained commitment to radical politics.” A healthy individual identity is meaningless in the absence of commitment to collective effort for fundamental social change.
As Black women, we need and deserve to love ourselves; but this self-love must be grounded in a wider commitment to working with and for our communities if we are to challenge the white supremacy that creates the conditions that force us to struggle for our identity and for our very survival.
1. This is not to suggest that problems with racial identity are the sole explanation for the incidence of eating disorders among Black women; obviously, women of colour share many of the beauty imperatives that white women respond to in this society. Rather, the issue here is that the less restrictive weight standards in African and disasporic cultures have to some extent as Hsu (1987, p. 120) points out, “protected [Black] females from developing the eating disorders.”
Preoccupation with weight among women is not restricted to a few women, nor does it include only women who are bulimic or anorexic. Dieting and weight control have become an accepted and rewarded way of life. Today, women who are not concerned about their weight are the social anomaly. Anorexia (self-starvation) and bulimia (bingeing and purging) are the extremes on a continuum of weight preoccupation among women in affluent Western societies.
The statistics are alarming: almost 95 percent of anorexics and bulimics are women (Bemis 1987; Striegel-Moore, Silberstein, and Rodin ...