Attitudes toward Weight. When one includes obesity, it becomes indisputable that unhealthy eating behavior is epidemic in America. The social pressures of Western culture certainly play a major role in triggering eating disorders. On the one hand, advertisers heavily market weight-reduction programs and present anorexic young models as the paradigm of sexual desirability; on the other hand, the media floods the public with ads for junk foods. Clothes are designed and displayed for thin bodies in spite of the fact that few women could wear them successfully. Although at highest risk are those whose entire sense of self is based on outside approval and physical appearance, few women are immune to these influences. One interesting anthropologic study reported that during times and in cultures in which women are financially dependent and marital ties are stronger, the standard is toward being curvaceous, possibly reflecting some cultural or economic desire for greater reproduction. During historical periods or in cultures where female independence has been possible, however, the standard of female attractiveness tends toward thinness. Once a person has achieved emaciation, a sense of accomplishment and status can be primary motivators for perpetuating anorexia. Weight loss brings a feeling of triumph over helplessness. In a country where obesity is epidemic, young women who achieve thinness believe they have accomplished a major cultural and personal victory; they have overcome the temptations of junk food and, at the same time, created body images idealized by the media. This false sense of accomplishment is often reinforced by the envy of their heavier friends who may perceive the anorexic patients as being emotionally stronger and more sexually attractive than they are.
The cultural attitude toward physical activity is a fitting companion to the disordered attitude regarding eating. Americans are encouraged to admire physical activity only as an intense competitive effort that few can attain, leaving most people in their armchairs as spectators. In the small community of athletes, excessive exercise plays a major role in many cases of anorexia (and, to a lesser degree, bulimia). The term "female athlete triad" is now used to describe the presence of menstrual dysfunction, eating disorders, and osteoporosis, an increasingly common problem in young female athletes and dancers. Anorexia postpones puberty, allowing young female athletes to retain a muscular boyish shape without the normal accumulation of fatty tissues in breasts and hips that may blunt their competitive edge. Coaches and teachers compound the problem by encouraging calorie counting and loss of body fat and by over-controlling the athletes' lives. Some are even abusive if their athletes go over the weight limit and humiliate them in front of team members or exact punishments. In people with personality disorders that leave them vulnerable to such criticism, the effects may cause them to lose excessive weight, which has been known to be deadly even for famous athletes.
The "PERFECT BODY"
Many elements of society promote the idea that having a "perfect body" is a guaranteed way to command other's admiration and approval. Society portrays this perfect body as the key—the secret to attracting a romantic partner, to landing a dream job, to having good health and to having popularity, success and self-confidence. In short, society seems to say that the perfect body is your passport to the good life.
And what does this perfect body look like? For women, the ideal is either a very thin supermodel/waif look, or an impossibly voluptuous figure. Men, on the other hand, may have to contend with ideals that demand muscularity or extreme thinness or both. You may be nodding your head at this point because you are aware of these ideals. If you are like most people, you have been criticized by other—or you may have criticized yourself—for being too fat or too thin or for simply not fitting the "standard."
Research suggests that images of women are much more confining than what is allowed for men. Not surprisingly, women far outnumber men in terms of preoccupation with body shape, size, and weight. The most dominant standards emerge from white, middle class culture, and include many contradictory messages about what women are supposed to look like. For instance these messages tell women to be thin, curvaceous, muscular and delicate-all at once! But did you ever stop and think about who sets these unquestioned standards?
Society's Messages about Body Image
Society's messages about body image are generally shaped by the media, the beauty industry and outdated notions of health and fitness. These messages define body shape and size as targets for regulation and control. Ironically, a majority of media photos that portray women with "perfect" bodies are enhanced by modern technology to achieve the effect, or portray women who may actually be seriously underweight. At best, such figures may be natural for only a small percentage of the population.
It is both unfair and unrealistic to expect everyone to look like these so-called perfect women, but the power of such images remains hard to resist. It may be difficult to give up the pursuit of this mythical perfect body size, even though that pursuit may end up being detrimental to one's emotional and physical health. Perhaps it would be easier if the ideals were not so tied to our sense of well-being. Perhaps it would be easier if media images did not tied to our sense of well-being. Perhaps it would be easier if media images did not carry so much "aspirational appear"—provoking an atmosphere of envy, intended to motivate people to buy products and services in the hope of attaining those images (Cooke, 1996). Instead, we have multi-million dollar diet, drug, and cosmetic industries having their products at women (and some men), implicitly saying, "Try me, give me your money, and I will promise you eternal happiness."
The Body Police
Very likely, you and people who may truly love you have acted as Body Police at some time. The Body Police enforce and reinforce society's messages about body standards (Cooke, 1996). They echo notions, for example, that a woman is not supposed to have hips, that a man is supposed to look like a fashion model or that nobody is supposed to have, or all things (shudder!), fat. They tell us, "Your are not OK as you are; your body is not OK the way it is." When we accept that message, we say to ourselves, "I'll feel good about myself only when I look like this." We put certain conditions on ourselves that we've got to meet a particular standard before we can fully accept ourselves.
The Body Police also support size oppression. Size oppression occurs when a person is harassed or discriminates against simply for being, or not being, a certain size. For the most part, the desired size is one into which less than five percent of the people in this country fit. At this time of great progress against other forms of prejudice and discrimination, we remain steeped in size oppression, denigrating ourselves and each other because of our body sizes.
It is worth noting that while there is much pressure to be thin, size oppression does not spare those who are naturally thin either. Thin people often are oppressed by the voluptuous and muscular ideals and can be just as dissatisfied with their bodies and themselves as anyone else. And if not that, they are often the target of other's envy, jealousy and ill-will-for no reason other than their body sizes! In that respect, the Body Police are equal opportunity oppressors!
In her book, Cooke asks, "What size should I be?" For her answer, she does not refer to the usual insurance company height-weight charts. Instead, she points out that people's body shapes and sizes are results of many factors. These factors include people's genetics, the environments they grew up in, their stages in life, their nutritional intakes, their cultural norms and their life styles. Ultimately, Cooke's answer is ... "Me-size." As silly as that may sound it's true. Believe it or not, body size diversity is normal.
As you seek to understand normality of body shape and size, question the media's and advertiser's images of perfection. Make your own decisions. Don't be fooled. We don't expect anyone to be the same height; how is it that we expect everyone to have the same body shape or size? When you think about "normal," think diversity.
Crash Diets and Related Fads
In contrast to what many self help books and tabloid formulas say, avoid crash diets. It's simply not effective to cut out this or that or to eat just salads or diet milkshakes to make your body fit some pair of jeans. (How about getting a pair of jeans that fit your body?) Crash diets rarely lead to permanent weight loss. In fact, they often lead ultimately to weight gain. Diets can even create other serious health problems.
So what SHOULD you do? Flexibility is the key. Pay attention to your body's cues. Eat when you are hungry and stop when you feel satiated. Don't outlaw any food. Indulge the occasional craving. Take a long-term view of nutrition—balance can be achieved over a number of meals. Most importantly, enjoy food; remember it is fuel for your body; treat it as a friend. If you respond to your body's needs, your body will find its appropriate weight, size and shape. Health—not some arbitrary dress size—is the overall goal.
Avoid the "crash" mentality with regard to exercise, too. Setting an exercise goal of getting to l ook a certain way can be discouraging and frustrating. Instead, exercise for the goals of health, fitness, relaxation, and sheer good feeling. Everyday examples of reasonable exercise include walking about a half-hour a day, three days a week, and taking the stairs, if you can, instead of the elevator. Have fun being physical; if exercise feels like a form of self-punishment reevaluate its place in your life
Health and fitness are about enhancing your overall sense of energy, vigor and enjoyment of life, and about helping your weather the lows and enjoy the highs of life, whether physical or emotional. These things are possible at many body sizes, but not if you are starved or malnourished by the latest fad diet, or if you are in poor condition due to an inactive routine.
The next time you feel guilty over having eaten a donut or the next time you compare your body shape with that of someone you pass on he street remember that body size diversity is normal. Remember that body size is not the determining measure of your's or anyone else's health or worth as a person. Remember that crash diets don't work and that exercise should be fun, not punishment. Remember to think critically and to not be conned by the media stereotypes of the "perfect body." And above all, accept yourself and others for who they are, not for what their measurements might be.
What Can I Do?
In today's society, size oppression is so prevalent that it is sometimes difficult to imagine that things could be otherwise. However, you can take a proactive position in challenging prevailing standards. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Question standards before accepting them.
Don't buy fashion magazines—at least don't buy into them!
Imagine what fashion photographs look like before they are technologically enhanced.
Ignore height-weight charts.
Ignore or challenge the Body Police.
Take time to become aware—without judgment of the body size diversity around you.
Get rid of your bathroom scales.
Wear clothes that fit.