Fat is (still) a feminist issue

Distorted unattainable sexist images, contends Sarah Stephen, are the inevitable consequences of a social system in which those with power benefit from the exploitation of women in the home and the workplace. The most effective way to combat this phenomenon is to develop strong campaigns involving large numbers of women which aim to change women's unequal living conditions in a whole range of spheres and out of which alternative images, created by women themselves, will develop.

'A WOMAN can't be too rich or too thin.' So said the Duchess of Windsor, and so says every fashion and beauty magazine, every television ad, every weight loss centre and even many families, friends and doctors.

Fat is bad; thinness will bring you happiness. This is being taken to extremes in the fashion industry's 'waif' look: hollow cheeks and skeletal bodies.

The Beauty Myth, written by Naomi Wolf in 1990, powerfully documents the effects of the unattainable body ideal on women's physical and mental health, and indicts the fashion, cosmetics and plastic surgery industries, which benefit from women's misery to the tune of billions of dollars a year.

These profits are made by creating a deep sense of dissatisfaction amongst millions of women about their bodies, a dissatisfaction that is growing with the growing gap between the 'ideal' body and reality.

A 1987 US study revealed that one generation earlier, the average female model weighed 8% less than the average US woman. By 1987, she weighed 23% less. This increases the pressure on women to spend more time and money, and undergo more physical and psychological stress, to try to reach the ideal.

But why can't women simply ignore all the ads and fashion magazines? They know from their own observations of reality that these ideals are fantasy.

Media images do have a powerful effect, but they are also continually reinforced in everyday life. Comments on women's appearance are so commonplace and accepted that we can underestimate the effect they have on how women see themselves.

Women are described in terms of what they look like; rather than what they think or do, far more than men: 'Mr Jones and his beautiful wife Sandy'. Weight loss is commented on favourably by family and friends: 'You're looking so well. You've lost weight.' Approval for being thin, and disappproval for being fat, have more impact on a woman's self-perception when coming from people whose opinions matter to her.

The facts

Anorexia nervosa is thought to affect 1-5% of women. Bulimia affects a similar number of women, but may affect as many as one in six tertiary students. More than 90% of cases are adolescent girls or young women.

While there is now more public awareness of these two conditions, obsessive weight loss, depression and self-image problems extend much further:

  • 1987 studies of Australian adolescents revealed that dieting and weight control practices are undertaken by 20-45% of adolescent boys and girls, and may begin as young as eight years old. Girls presented with Barbie dolls as the ideal woman are not told that a real woman of Barbie's weight would be too thin to maintain a normal menstrual cycle.

  • Ninety per cent of readers' letters to Dolly magazine, almost all from teenage females, are about appearance.

  • 1992 data from Australian school children showed that 22% wanted to maintain the same body size, 71% wanted to be smaller and only 7% wanted to be larger.

  • A 1996 Sydney study of year 7 and 8 students found that 21% were dieting to lose weight at the time. The resulting health problems are significant. A 1985 national study found that 9.2% of 15-year-old girls were clinically iron deficient. A high proportion also had inadequate intakes of calcium, retinol and zinc, all essential for healthy bones, blood, skin and eyes.

  • A 1994 survey found that at any time at least 30% of women in Australia are on some sort of diet. Fifty-seven per cent of those surveyed had attempted to lose weight in the previous 12 months.

  • A 1993 Victorian study of high school students found that 47% of young women reported using an extreme weight loss method (fasting, crash dieting, vomiting, diet pills, laxatives and fluid tablets) at least occasionally, and 13% reported at least weekly use.

  • A 1993 Tasmanian survey found that 79% of women said they were over their preferred weight. According to the ABS' 1989 National Health Survey, however, only 30% of Tasmanian women were actually overweight.

  • Seventy-two per cent of all teenage women want to be thinner, even though many of them are normal or underweight for their height (1994).

A 1989 study found that one in three women between the ages of 20 and 24 were underweight. Yet another survey revealed that 45% of medically underweight women think they are too fat.

Combating the beauty myth

The Australian Medical Association's national conference late last year adopted a proposal for a voluntary code of practice to regulate media and advertising images. According to the AMA's youth health advocate, Kirsten Cross, the organisation would like to see industry: not use extremely underweight women in photos; identify those images which have been digitally altered; and not use pre-pubescent girls to market adult women's clothing, especially lingerie.

Another proposal was that advertisements using super-thin models be required to carry government messages warning of the dangers of being seriously underweight, similar to the health warnings on cigarettes. The weight loss industry, with an annual turnover of $500 million, should also be forced to carry warnings on diet products.

The AMA's proposals reflect the broader consciousness that now exists about the problem of young women and body image. They are useful measures in that they aim to educate people about both the fakery and the real dangers involved in the media ideal.

But these ideological campaigns don't go far enough. They don't address the fundamental causes of the problem and cannot therefore solve it.

Distorted, unattainable, sexist mass images are a product of the exploitation of women as wage workers, unwaged domestic labourers and sex objects. They are an inevitable consequence of (and prop for) a social system in which those with power benefit from the exploitation of women in the home and the workplace. Undermining women's self-confidence not only keeps them buying more and more products in their struggle to attain an ideal, but also helps to keep them from challenging their roles.

Campaigns to change the images without changing the social conditions which produce them and give them their power can advance things only so far. Legislation to ban particular types of advertisements, or regulating the size and shape of fashion models, doesn't challenge the basis upon which it is so lucrative for industries to use such images to sell their products.

The most effective way to combat sexist images is to develop strong campaigns involving large numbers of women which aim to change women's unequal living conditions in a whole range of spheres and out of which alternative images, created by the women themselves, will develop.

In earlier times a large, well-organised, united feminist movement had the ideological weight to challenge sexist images in the process of struggling for immediate improvements for women in the law, the workplace, the home and the streets.

Small support groups play an important role for a lot of individual women, but it will be the strength and public profile of a movement which exposes why such images exist, how they are used and their effects on women, that will make the difference.

In the process of organising to end gender inequality and exploitation, self-confidence and feminist consciousness will be strengthened for masses of women. This is why any strategy for tackling sexism, such as the AMA's, which leaves the majority of women out of the process of changing things, will fall short.

Being part of a movement - learning to question everything, to rely on their own skills and understanding, and to assert much more control over their destiny - is what will make women less vulnerable to sexist marketing and more able to pose real alternatives. (Third World Resurgence No.92, April 1998)

[c] The above article first appeared in Green Left Weekly (11 March 1998) and is reproduced here with the kind permission of its editors. Sarah Stephen is based in Perth, Australia.