Love Me Slender: For almost all of recorded history, an "eating disorder" meant only one thing: You weren't getting enough food. A few years ago, a historian did a study of dreams in the Middle Ages. What did people 500 years ago lust after? Power? Sex? Fame? Nope. Food. In that world of scarcity, it's hardly surprising that dreams of unlimited victuals fueled the most soothing night's sleep. I got a glimpse of this kind of hunger a few years ago, when my wife and I brought to America a student we'd taught as Peace Corps volunteers in Africa.
At home, like any hungry, desperately poor villager, eating filled his thoughts. Once he scrounged up breakfast, he'd think about rustling up lunch. Then he'd worry about dinner. Every day. Seven days a week. Twelve months a year. When we took him to an all-you-can-eat buffet, the concept astonished him. "We couldn't have this kind of restaurant in Senegal," he marveled. "People would eat until they collapsed." What, then, could possibly impel thousands of women to starve themselves in America today? A new book by philosopher Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body (University of California Press, $25), gives an interesting feminist slant to the study of anorexia nervosa.
Oddly enough, only 50 years ago, this disorder was so rare that few clinicians had ever encountered it. Now it's estimated that one in every 250 women between 13 and 22 suffers from anorexia. And the key word to Bordo is women: The overwhelming number of anorectics--more than 90 percent--are women. The swift, sudden rise of anorexia as a typically female disorder suggests to Bordo that the old ways of understanding the disease are incomplete. Psychiatrists, doctors and therapists used to blame it on some underlying psychological, familial or even biological malfunction. Not so, she argues. The phenomenon of anorexia, she says, stems from recent anxieties about women's changing role, and American society's inability to come to terms with it. The anorectic, she claims, is a victim, "the bearer of very distressing tidings about our culture." How interesting that as opportunities for women have expanded, the female body longs to shrink. What cultural currents converge to inspire anorexia? First, twisted notions about the body. For many women, she says, it's the enemy, something to overcome.
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Second is the element of power. As one anorectic put it, diet "is the one sector of my life over which I and I alone wield total control."
Third, the "tyranny of slenderness" is a reaction to the fears of threatened men. More than a century ago, Bordo notes, when women first sought political and legal equality, fashion style decreed that women be tightly corseted.
Today, it's male-dominated advertising that laces women in, spreading pathologies like anorexia. Much of the book "deconstructs" advertising to show how it supports anorectic behavior.
Getting thin, she concludes, can't furnish mature self-esteem. Nor can it provide genuine emotional satisfaction or a real sense of accomplishment. But once they've picked up all of society's cues, asks Bordo, how can women think otherwise?