Obesity and anorexia, as well as other, less “categorical” disorders, have joined sex as a central issue in a modern western society. Eating disorders have become part of a distinguished social context in which feminism has been an integral catalyst. The changes in women’s roles, allowing for more freedom has resulted in an often lack of stability in the home, job roles and society in general. Second wave feminism saw for the disintegration of a typical women’s role of “housewife” and “mother”. Consequently, resulting in women being put under pressures which they did not once have to face. This alongside the rise in a capitalist culture has resulted in society measuring their successes in the form of material goods and the wealth of the individual. This superficiality in a contemporary society has forced women, more than ever, to live up to the ideals of feminine beauty. This ‘beauty’ being a prime influencer in the ideologies of current gendered behaviour. According to the NHS (2015), a report commissioned by Beat estimates that more than 725,000 people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder. This ever-growing issue of body image in all forms is central to a discussion surrounding whether obese and anorexic bodies are a result of a repressive patriarchal society, whether it’s an individual mental health problem or a mixture of both. In this essay, I plan to discuss the feminist literature on anorexic and obese bodies incorporating the significance of Foucault’s theory of power. I then intend to discuss an alternative view of how this body of work has been challenged and examine how relevant some of the arguments are in a contemporary society.
In a modern society, thinness is idealized as fatness is stigmatised. From an early age, society has preservations in place to control, limit and distort a person’s relationship with food thereby, shaping their identity. The importance placed on weight continues through teenage and adult life with the ideal woman’s body being portrayed in TV, film and advertisements. Healthy eating has become an obsessive part of western culture, as has strict dieting and intense exercise regimes. Therefore, it is not surprising that, according to the NHS (2015), 1 in every 250 women develop some form of eating disorder in their lifetime. The interlink between thinness and femininity has become deeply internalised in a woman’s psyche, thinness has come to represent achievement, intellect and power. Many women believe that with thinness comes happiness (Lawrence 1984, Orbach 1989). However, the myth of beauty is ever-evolving with that of society and therefore in chasing beauty, women face an impossible task. Nevertheless, women learn to accept the inconsistency of beauty and can be counted upon to keep in pursuit, even if it means pushing it to the extremes (Wolf, 1991, p. 57).
As anorexia and obesity are considered mental illnesses, feminists first need to delve into the route of the issue at hand. Slade (1994) notes that obese and anorexic bodies don’t have a permanent distorted image of their bodies, as some may assume. Yet, they have an “uncertain, unstable and weak body image” which causes them to misjudge food portions based on a bias towards overestimating/underestimating the needs of their bodies. He further proposes from his research that this bias is primarily influenced by social and cultural factors such as celebrity endorsements of diet-related schemes e.g. Opera’s endorsements of Weight Watchers. Many feminists take issue with these factors as they have a strong influence on women’s diets by imposing the view that the female body has become objectified and is there to be perfected (p. 38). The weak body, as talked about by Slade (1994) masks any objection to women striving towards this impossible ideal and therefore, obese and anorexic bodies may derive as a result.