Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Fragmented Histories, Fragmented Selves: Body Weight Preoccupation among Women in Post-Communist Romania

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Fragmented Histories, Fragmented Selves: Body Weight Preoccupation among Women in Post-Communist Romania

Article excerpt


The objective of this paper is to examine a particular aspect of cultures undergoing rapid economic, political and social transformation: the emergence of body weight preoccupation in societies previously characterized by food insecurity and scarcity. While multiple authors offer different perspectives to account for the global phenomenon of the emergence of eating disorders in developing countries, most rely on western-centric sociocultural models of understanding when grappling with this issue. These models fall short in describing the amorphous environment characterized by change and the agency of the women navigating these worlds. In cultures that are undergoing rapid and often tumultuous changes--from agrarian modes of production to industrial followed by a post-modern information age in a short span of time--it is imperative to contextualize the issue of the body and the self in this unstable environment.

In thinking about why eating disorders have migrated to less developed countries, research often points to the evils of marketing and the cult of physical appearance sustained by corporate interests (Wolf, 1991). From here, others make the short leap to western cultural norms infiltrating the global east and south along with contradictions that arise when women try to embody changing gender norms (Prince, 1985; Katzman & Lee, 1997). Economic development becomes the scape-goat for self-doubt, powerlessness and "gender role confusion" that women experience (Gordon, 2000; Silverstein & Perlick, 1995). In addition, we find women portrayed as vulnerable and powerless.

The present paper seeks to contribute to the above theoretical landscape. While changing gender norms, economic climates and corporate drivers surely play a part in the emergence of eating disorders in developing countries, we need to venture a little deeper to uncover other social forces driving this phenomenon. As Nettleton (2005) points out, "social circumstances--in particular material and social deprivation--become inscribed upon people's bodies" (p. 59). Health is to a significant degree socially determined; therefore we must locate the social body in history as shaped by the currents of globalization, and contextualize the issue of body weight preoccupation accordingly.

Before proceeding further, I must situate myself as a researcher in this work while also narrowing the focus on my work. After all, developing countries are not homogenous entities that easily lend themselves to theorizing at such a grand scales. Similarly to Mamo's (1999) introspective ethnography, I also occupy a unique position within the phenomenon under exploration, in that I grew up under the isolationist regime of formerly communist Romania as a member of a minority group. Therefore, I occupy the position of the research participant who once spent a large chunk of time standing in lines for food rations, while also having had the privilege of traveling back to Romania after the fall of communism. To re-acquaint myself with the country I fled as a refugee, I decided to hitch hike through Romania after a 10 year absence, as this gave me the opportunity to immerse myself in the culture as a stranger of sorts. While talking to the people I met in the picturesque towns and villages of Romania, the subject of the past communist regime, the present economy and everyday hopes and dreams occupied our conversations. This is when I realized that my new female friends, who once were in my shoes in that they too lived through severe food shortages, were now concerned about restricting their food intakes and were taking up smoking in order to control their weight.

These conversations provide the personal and intellectual impetus for this paper. After all, it is mind-boggling how fast the women I talked to went from being near-starvation to worrying about their figures! At the same time, I am not sure that it would be appropriate to follow the existing research literature in labeling these women as anorexic. …

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