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OUR BODIES, OURSELVES READING ROOM
BODY IMAGE
The following is an exclusive excerpt from the "Body Image" chapter of Our Bodies, Ourselves for the New Century. For complete information and resources, we recommend that you consult the chapter and the book in its entirety.

BODY IMAGE, WEIGHT, AND SIZE

In many cultures and historical periods women have been proud to be large--being fat was a sign of fertility, of prosperity, of the ability to survive. Even in the U.S. today, where fear of fat reigns in most sectors of the culture, some racial and ethnic groups love and enjoy large women. For example, Hawaiians often consider very large women quite beautiful, and studies show that some black women experience more body satisfaction and are less concerned with dieting, fatness, and weight fluctuations than are white women. However, the weight loss, medical, and advertising industries have an enormous impact on women across racial and ethnic boundaries. These industries all insist that white and thin is beautiful and that fatness is always a dangerous problem in need of correction. The popular notion that some communities are less influenced than others has meant that women of color in particular have a hard time being taken seriously when they have eating disorders. A black woman suffering from an eating disorder says:

After all, don't black people prize wide hips and fleshy bodies? Isn't obesity so prevalent in our communities because it is actually accepted? Don't black women have very positive body images?...Anorexia and its kin supposedly strike only adolescent, middle- and upper-middle-class white girls...Women like me are winging it, seeking out other sisters with the same concerns, wondering if we are alone on this journey.

Fat women daily encounter hostility and discrimination. If we are fat, health practitioners often attribute our health problems to "obesity," postpone treatment until we lose weight, accuse us of cheating if we don't, make us so ashamed of our size that we don't go for help, and make all kinds of assumptions about our emotional and psychological state ("She must have emotional problems to be so fat").

Yet, as many of us have long suspected, it is now being acknowledged that it is cardiovascular fitness and not fatness we need to look at if we are concerned about health. Some of our ill health as fat women results from the stress of living with fat-hatred--social ridicule and hostility, isolation, financial pressures resulting from job discrimination, lack of exercise because of harassment, and, perhaps most important, the hazards of repeated dieting. Low-calorie dieting has become a national obsession. Many of us are convinced that making women afraid to be fat is a form of social control. Fear of fat keeps women preoccupied, robs us of our pride and energy, keeps us from taking up space. I don't like myself heavy, I want to feel thin, streamlined and spare, and not like a toad. I have taken antifat thinking into myself so deeply that I hate myself when I am even ten pounds "overweight," whatever that means. We can be more relaxed about our weight

  • By experimenting with what weight feels comfortable to us rather than trying primarily to be thin.
  • By being more accepting of weight variations through the life cycle.
  • By developing a clearer understanding of which health problems are truly associated with weight (See chapter 2, Food).
  • By exercising and eating nutritious food to feel healthy, and letting our body weight set itself accordingly.

"We need a widespread rebellion of women who are tired of worrying about their weight, who understand that weight is not a matter of health or discipline but a weapon our culture uses against us to keep us in our place and feeling small. We need to quietly say no to ridiculous weight standards, reassuring ourselves that we're good and worthwhile human beings even if we aren't a size 6, and further, to protest those standards more demonstrably, on behalf of others as well. Both decisions require a change in attitude which, while not necessarily impolite, is rather less tolerant of the everyday demeaning comments about body size that women now accept as their due. In other words, we need to begin to throw our weight around."
--Laura Fraser

WORKING TOGETHER FOR CHANGE

A better self-image doesn't pay the rent or cook supper or prevent nuclear war. Feeling better about ourselves doesn't change the world by itself, but it can give us energy to do what we want and to work for change.

Learning to accept and love our bodies and ourselves is an important and difficult ongoing struggle. But to change the societal values underlying body image, we need to do more than love ourselves. We need to focus our attention on the forces that drive wedges between us as women: racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, and our national obsession with size and shape. To truly create change, to create a world in which all women can make choices about our appearances for ourselves and not others, we must incorporate all women into the heart of how we see ourselves. From this expanded horizon of sisterhood, we may begin to value the lives of women who previously meant nothing to us. We may begin to realize that understanding their lives is essential to understanding our own lives and realizing our full potential as women. If we can begin to eliminate the hatred and ridicule levied against women who don't fit the ``state-of-the-art'' ideal, we can lessen the stress of ``not fitting in.'' We also open the possibility of building a social-change movement that links all women who seek a world where each of us can celebrate and delight in our physical bodies. Working together to change the attitudes and conditions that restrict us, we feel proud and more able to take control of our lives. We need each others' help to change the deeply entrenched attitudes that make us dislike our own bodies and that interfere with our relationships with other women. Here are some things groups of women can do together:

  • Find ways to diversify our circle of friends--learn about the concerns of older women through the Grey Panthers; attend a meeting of a disability rights group; find out if there is a Fat Liberation group in your area and see what it is doing.

  • Find women who are exploring ways to combat racism, and form or join an antiracist group.

  • Support magazines that show women of all colors, sizes, shapes, and abilities-- real women as we know them, not airbrushed, white-looking, thin models (see Resource section).

  • Take a course or attend a lecture on race and gender studies, disability issues, women's body image, or the psychology of women to understand the complex dynamics of body image in our culture.

  • Write a letter to a TV station or magazine or clothing store that shows positive (or negative) images of women of color, and let them know what you think.

  • Read whatever you can find on race and body size issues that support self- acceptance instead of trying to make your body conform to any "ideal.'' Discuss with others these ideas and how to put them into daily practice in your own life.

  • Plan together how to challenge ourselves and others when we judge women on the basis of skin color and appearance.

  • Form or join a group or organization that promotes self-acceptance and self-love for all our sizes and in all our diversity.

  • Learn more about how our bodies work, through self-help sessions and/or discussion.

Shifting to a body perspective in which every woman matters in a public sense takes a major shift in consciousness. Breaking the silent hold of state-of-the- art body image on female self-esteem, relationships, and social and economic opportunities requires us to adopt a conception of womanhood that is informed by physical, emotional, and spiritual diversity. Valuing this diversity is critical to dismantling the insidious and toxic effect of discrimination based on how we look. Finding ways to change the societal forces that make accepting ourselves so difficult is a process that can begin at any point in our lives and can continue as long as we live. This mission, if taken on, will lead us toward a future in which every woman can experience the joy of being valued completely for who she is.

BODY IMAGE CONTINUED >