Thursday, May 14, 2009

Hess-Biber: Am I Thin Enough Yet? - Cult of Thinness Book Analysis

"Am I Thin Enough Yet?: The Cult of Thinness and the Commercialization of Identity"


**Whenever it says "according to research" etc. No documentation was required by the professor because it was a summary of information written or summarized and sourced by the author of the book and contained in the book itself.

Number 1 is an introduction that tells the methods used during the Author's Research.

Number 2 summarize the content of the book including historic examples and current trends.

Number 3 is my reaction/opinion of the book and the Research.

Number 4 contains suggestions on updating the research content supplied in the book

Originally written: November 13, 2006

1. Hess-Biber develops the argument that a “cult of thinness” exists amongst women (and a small portion of men) in society. It is a reaction to economical, social and emotional oppression from men throughout history. According to Hess-Biber, this patriarchy still exists today and is commonly found in the media and advertisements. She explains that eating disorders stem from ideal body types being socially constructed and culturally defined.

While working at Boston College she was intrigued by the majority of eating disorders being reported by women. She sought to investigate this unsettling trend. She devised a study that would examine the source of these events. She conducted a survey with 395 participants (71% female) gathering information concerning their family dynamics and views of themselves and their diet/exercise programs. She also conducted a multi-year study on 60 college-aged women that amassed information from throughout that period of their lives. These studies have great value when examining the lives of young people and their interaction with society. She focuses on the impressionability of children and their ways of coping with stress, emotion, and body image. She examines how a person’s childhood sets the stage for how they cope with struggles later in life. Hess-Biber continuously stresses that people’s self-esteem and self-worth should not be derived from other people, only one’s inner self.

2. Like a cult, women with eating disorders are trapped in a vicious cycle of ritualistic purging and traditions. They strive to attain the ‘perfect’ body, but in their eyes, that status will never be attained. They worship the world around them… the sexy models, actresses on television, their friends and family members who look better than they do. They are soaked with envy and jealousy. When something goes wrong in their lives, they binge and use food as their only refuge. Minutes later, they purge themselves, removing the evil activity that they had partaken. They remove the sin and follow it with acts of contrition to atone for what they had done.

In our culture, there is a lot of pressure on females to be pretty. Sources such as magazines and television shows keep reinforcing the need to be perfect means to be skinny. To get a great boyfriend you must be thin. Many young women feel pressured by family members to stay thin. Delia was the first girl Hess-Biber spoke about in chapter one. Her mother often told Delia that she needed to lose weight and be thin so she could marry a rich man. Her mom was a “trophy wife” so she should live up to that standard. In a similar way, parents have controlled young women for centuries, convincing them that they must be beautiful in the eyes of culture to exist.

During 10th century China, they viewed foot binding as a symbol of beauty. This was a painful procedure that permanently disfigured the foot into a club and severely limited there physical mobility. In performing this ritual, it showed the power that a man, the head of the household, had over his family. One of the main reasons for this tradition was to keep young girls pure until marriage. The restriction on mobility limited the number of sexual encounters a girl could potentially have. In Chinese society, marriage was the only way for parents to get value out of a daughter. They were instantly famous and fortunate if their daughter married a wealthy man of nobility. Women were the lowest of all the lows. During the Victorian era, corsets were the fetish of choice to accentuate a slim waist. Men would decorate their wives with these tight garments that restrict mobility. These restrictions lead to more dependence and submission toward their husbands. More recently, during the post-WWII era, the rise of the flappers caused an increase in cases of anorexia as women attempted to get the perfect body and increase individualism. Women, throughout time, have used their bodies to gain power in a man’s world.

Self-help advertisements fill all types of media nowadays. Many show the type of women that are most desirable in our culture. They entice women to do whatever is necessary to achieve that image. Capitalism and greed has caused many corporations to exploit women and their desire to belong. Magazines offer beauty advice and advertisements for the newest cosmetic surgery. These ads point out which body parts start to fail first and which need the most help. Corporations are relying on the susceptibility of women to gain profit. On the other side of the coin, obesity is on the rise. Bombarded with ads for snack foods and fast food targeted at women, corporations want America in a cycle of destruction. The health & wellness industry is a multi-billion dollar business. To be what everyone else wants, you must change yourself. Women (and some men) are viewing themselves in the mirror and hating how they look solely because they do not fit the ideals found in magazines or the movie screen. They will spend $100’s on the latest fad diets and health supplements as they battle to achieve perfection. Are they pleasing everyone, but themselves? The story of Janet in chapter 4 demonstrates this. She lost a ton of weight and had stomach-stapling surgery, but she gained it all back and was saddened about how here life had changed. Nothing was better when she was thinner, compared to when she was fat. Her husband was not showing her any extra concern and she did not feel any better about herself inside. She only was happy when she left her husband and started losing weight to please herself, not everyone around her.

Ugly children, according to research, face different treatment than good-looking ones. When shown pictures of children negative attributes were said about the ugly children and positive attributes about good-looking ones. In academia, better-looking children received more positive feedback on report cards than bad-looking children did. Children chose an obese child last, out of a photo array of handicap children, as whom they liked the most.

Doctors and health care providers use medical charts to identify ideal weight. There are large discrepancies between women’s views of themselves (culture) in comparison to the medical chart. For men there was only a 5lb differential; however for women there was a much larger 20lb difference. This proves how much the cultural stereotype plays into health choices. Women view themselves as fat even if they are medically safe. Statistically the college students who expressed strong concern with the cultural stereotypical weight were more likely to feel anxiety and extra pressure about how they look. The cult of thinness breeds behavior that mimics full-blown anorexia and bulimia. Obsession with exercising all the time, using fat burners, and severe calorie restrictions take control of their lives. Pain from the past hurts them. Notoriously, according to research, mothers put the most pressure on young girls to be thin and diet; fathers rarely said anything. Siblings have a strong influence on how each other views themselves. Words can hurt, especially when it comes from the lips of family.

3. I think the word “cult” is justified. Bulimia and anorexia, responses to culturally defined stereotypes, are not typically viewed as the norm in society. It is possible that routinely no one admits publicly to suffering with these conditions. I would suggest that they suffer in silence. They find support with the many people who suffer silently as well. They are closest with friends who are alike in their body image ideals, this shields themselves and acts as a support group. Exercise, fat burners and calorie restrictions are the pathway to paradise. Misinformation filtered throughout society breeds all of these harmful practices. The fact will always remain that fad diets will not work in the long term. This “cult” has been fed the same lies as the rest of the dieting community.

You have to make a lifestyle commitment. You must get your heart right before making an endeavor to changing your body. Make the commitment to feel better because you want it, not because other people say it is what “should be”.

Hess-Biber swears that capitalism is the source of most eating disorders. If people want something, the market will provide. I think she is blaming the wrong people. I would claim that it is a natural inclination to want to look the best to potential mates. Since beauty is socially constructed, it existed long before the term capitalism ever took form. The definition has been constantly changing throughout time. Even today, men find unique characteristics attractive that differ from woman to woman. Women have the same view, each are looking for something specific.

Many of the young women in the book had been born into self-fulfilling prophecies. Their mothers instilled into them the need to be thin. Mothers told their daughters that they needed to focus on their natural physical assets because that is all they had. The daughters continue to due what is necessary to achieve beauty in their mothers’ eyes. Dr. Phil has always said that you do not need to be externally validated. You need to work on your internal issues first.

One can logically compare the article about rape and frat parties with the “cult of thinness.” Both represent gang mentalities and having their own cliques. One owes its loyalty to a glass of beer and the other an empty plate. I think everyone is a member of the “cult of thinness” everyone wants to improve in some area of their lives and it does not have to be their body image. Some want to be smarter, some want to be faster, some richer. Everyone covets what others have in some way. This correlates with everyone exhibiting characteristics of members of a frat. When you have close friends you hide secrets and protect members of your group. They are family. Members of frats recruit members who are alike… usually people with eating disorders come in pairs. You surround yourself with people who understand you.

4. Further studies should be performed to examine recent changes in body image and the emphasis placed on body image. The most recent study mentioned occurred in the mid-1990s, a lot has happened since then that has drastically changed many behaviors. The studies mentioned middle to upper class white women being the majority of eating disorder cases. Newer studies found an increase in males (50% increase in 4 years) and ethnicities. More studies should be performed to see how rates have progressed. Studies should also track culturally defined stereotypes year-by-year to examine the driving factors. An in-depth study should focus on only men and the influence of advertisements on their mental/physical health. Too much of Hess-Biber’s case studies thought the ideal was ultra-skinny, is this a prominent misconception? A study should be performed to examine what is the new definition of beauty. Use photo arrays and background information to survey a large group of men to see what they find attractive physically and non-physically. Have them rank in order the most important to least important characteristics. I think there will be a large variety of what men find attractive.


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