Inner Corset

If I lost 15 pounds, I'd fit into those size 6 jeans. If I flattened my stomach and trimmed my thighs, maybe I could wear a bikini this summer. If only I was thinner and more attractive, my life would be better.Almost every American woman has had thoughts similar to these at some point in her life. Our media-saturated society inundates women with images of the perfect body, and some will do almost anything to achieve it in the hope of happiness and success."It's been more than a century now that women in the United States have been preoccupied with slenderness and with the project of losing weight at all costs," writes Laura Fraser in Losing It: America's Obsession With Weight and the Industry That Feeds on It. "Despite all the gains that women as a group have accomplished in the past century, individually many of us feel inferior, ashamed of our size."In her book, Fraser debunks dieting fads, weight loss gurus and the doctors who insist one must lose weight in order to be healthy. She also talks about society's compulsiveness to be thin and how it's affected women and their well-being.Historically, women have been judged on appearance. Plump women were once considered the ideal, Fraser says, perhaps because, since women's main roles were as housewife and mother, a round figure indicated a woman who was a good cook and good child-bearer. But as women's roles have changed in society, so has the ideal. We went from Victorian ladies to Gibson girls, from Marilyn Monroe to Kate Moss, from curvy and feminine to stick-thin and boyish.Dr. Susan Wooley, professor emeritus in psychology at the University of Cincinnati and former director of an eating disorder clinic, also thinks that history has played a role in how women view their bodies. Throughout history women have been judged on their looks, she says, because other arenas just weren't open to them."That history is very much with us today," says Wooley. "We are judged how we look even out in the working world."Women are in a difficult bind, Wooley says. They still want to look feminine, but they also need to look more masculine to compete in business. This increasing pressure to be thin has led to a boom in the weight loss industry. It's also led to a boom in something else -- eating disorders. The two most recognized disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Recently a third one, binge eating disorder, has been recognized as well.With anorexia, food intake is severely restricted and an individual can lose 15 percent of her normal body weight. There's an intense fear of "fatness" along with a distorted body image and in women an absence or suspension of menstruation.Bulimia is characterized by consumption of a large amount of food in a brief time period followed by purging behaviors such as vomiting, laxative abuse and excessive exercise.Individuals with binge eating disorder have impaired control when it comes to eating (i.e., eating very rapidly or until uncomfortably full, eating alone because of embarrassment and feeling disgust and depression or guilt after overeating). There is no compensatory behavior.No matter which disorder you're discussing, though, the majority of those effected are women. With anorexia and bulimia, it's nine women to every man. With binge eating disorder, it's five women for every man.So why don't these disorders receive more notice? Is it because they effect mostly women? In Losing It, Wooley is quoted as wondering, "Would things be different if our hospitals and clinics were filled with young men whose education and careers were arrested by the onset of anorexia, bulimia, or the need to make dieting and body-shaping exercise a full-time pursuit?"What can women do to combat this dangerous combination of social pressure to look thin and unhealthy eating disorders that result? "Women have to protest by not playing ball with it," Wooley says. "Women have to say, 'We're not going to diet anymore. Take it or leave it.' ÓStudies are starting to show that being thin is no guarantee of good health. Women come in all shapes and sizes, and as long as moderate exercise and nutritional eating are a part of their lives they should maintain relative good health. Maintaining happiness and a positive self-image, though, is another story."Most of us don't recognize that the social forces that keep pulling us toward thinness are every bit as constraining as the corsets that kept our great-grandmothers from actively participating in the world," writes Fraser. "Nor do we realize that the inner corset we wear is one of the strongest and most insidious remnants of oppression against women that we still put up with. Instead, we hate our feminine bodies É and blame ourselves for not controlling them. We don't imagine that real freedom, choice and respect for ourselves would mean accepting our bodies the way they are."

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.