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

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

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

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

Synopsis

Whether they are rich or poor, tall or short, liberal or conservative, most young American women have one thing in common--they want to be thin. And they are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to get that way, even to the point of starving themselves. Why are America's women so preoccupied with weight? What has caused record numbers of young women--even before they reach their teenage years--to suffer from anorexia and bulimia? In Am I Thin Enough Yet?, Sharlene Hesse-Biber answers these questions and more, as she goes beyond traditional psychological explanations of eating disorders to level a powerful indictment against the social, political, and economic pressures women face in a weight-obsessed society. Packed with first-hand, intimate portraits of young women from a wide variety of backgrounds, and drawing on historical accounts and current material culled from both popular and scholarly sources, Am I Thin Enough Yet? offers a provocative new way of understanding why women feel the way they do about their minds and bodies. Specifically, Hesse-Biber highlights the various ways in which American families, schools, popular culture, and the health and fitness industry all undermine young women's self-confidence as they inculcate the notions that thinness is beauty and that a woman's body is more important than her mind. The author builds her case in part by letting her subjects tell their own story, revealing in their own words how current standards of femininity lead many women to engage in eating habits that are not only self-destructive, but often akin to the obsessions and ritualistic behaviors found among members of cults. For instance, we meet Delia, a bulimic college senior who makes the startling admission that "my final affirmation of myself is how many guys look at me when I go into a bar." We even learn of six-year-olds like Lauren, already preoccupied with her weight, who considers herself "a real clod" in ballet class because she is not as thin as her peers. We are introduced to women (and men) from different cultures who themselves have acquired eating disorders in pursuit of the American standard of physical perfection. And we learn of the often tragic consequences of this obsession with thinness, as in the case of Janet, who underwent surgery to reduce her weight only to suffer from chronic illness and pain as a result. The book concludes with Hesse-Biber's prescriptions on how women can overcome their low self-image through therapy, spiritualism, and grass-root efforts to empower themselves against a society obsessed with beauty and thinness. Am I Thin Enough Yet? brings into sharp focus the multitude of societal and psychological forces that compel American women to pursue the ideal of thinness at any cost. It will remain a benchmark work on the subject for many years to come.

Excerpt

Several years ago, the director of the Counseling Center at Boston College asked me to help find out why the Center was overwhelmed with female students reporting eating problems. The situation had been getting worse over the past few years. Numerous cases of bulimia (compulsive binge eating, often followed by self-induced vomiting) and anorexia (obsession with food, starvation dieting, and severe weight loss) appeared every week.

As the author of a previous study on female student career and lifestyle aspirations, a teacher of women's studies, and a faculty advisor, I was fascinated by the fact that eating disorders were much more common among women. I wanted to understand why such problems had recently exploded. Although bulimia and anorexia are individual diagnoses, one can assume that broader factors are at work when the incidence of a disorder suddenly increases. Was something going on in our society to foster such behavior?

Over the next several months I began researching the field of eating disorders. But the problem didn't strike home until one of the sophomores I was advising came into my office in tears. Janet broke into sobs and said to me, "I don't know what I am going to do. I'm too fat for the cheerleading squad."

Janet was fairly tall (5' 8") with a medium build. She weighed 125 pounds. She told me that when she showed up for the co-ed cheerleading tryouts, there had been a public weighing at the gym. All female applicants had to line up and get weighed, and, if they were over the 115-pound limit, they were rejected without a chance to demonstrate their skills. Janet had been starving herself for days, hoping to make the weight cut, but had failed.

A policy like this sends a clear message -- there is an "ideal" body image a woman must conform to if she wants to become a cheerleader. Society expects to find petite women on a college cheerleading squad, "girls" whom male cheerleaders can tumble and lift in cheerleading routines. The cultural message is the same for other popular collegiate groups such as sororities and high status cliques: a thin woman is a "valued" woman.

Compare Janet with her contemporary, Doug Flutie, Boston College's . . .

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