Many sections of this book may be read as something of a celebration of the conquest of food shortage, of the growth in the security of supplies and of the varieties of food available. It is true that there are issues about access to food by the very poor but, for the majority, food resources are readily available. As a consequence, it may seem rather surprising to be introducing debates about the control of eating by dieting amongst some of the most prosperous groups in society and drawing attention to attempts to explain why some eating disorders, notably those which involve reducing food intake, are so severe that they threaten the life of the individuals concerned. However, these are some of the issues to be addressed if we want to understand current patterns of dieting and the powerful fear of fat which is expressed in popular literature about food, health and body shape in modern western societies.
Although there are many established ways in which these issues may be considered, addressing them also involves the sociologist in a relatively novel activity, one which has been absent from mainstream sociology until relatively recently: the analysis of the ways in which our bodies are socially constructed and experienced in modern society. Featherstone, Hepworth and Turner (1991: vii) argue that the sociology of the body is a way of focusing on ‘one of the crucial instances of the complex interrelationships of nature, culture and society’. However, it was neglected as an area of study for a range of reasons, in particular because the early sociologists concentrated on questions concerning society, social change and social relations as a denial of the ‘natural’ as an explication of the social (Turner 1991:8). Of course, these interests remain in current sociology, expressed in the continued interest in the social relations of production and the use of occupation as a key to understanding individual social position, but they are no longer considered to be the only ways of understanding social organization and social relationships. The new emphasis is on how people present themselves and appear to others. For example, Cash (1990:52) argues that ‘Physical appearance is often the most readily available information about a person and conveys basic information about that person—most