Women on the Front Line: Altered Images

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As the media panic about a 'nation of fatties', Hazel Croft looks at the pressures on women to conform to an ideal shape.

It's hard to pick up a newspaper or watch the TV news without being told that we are all getting too fat. Obesity has become the major health issue in both Britain and the US. Food, diet and body image are political issues. Whether or not we're overweight or get a nutritious diet is not down to our personal quirks of choice or our own culpability when we choose to eat a cream cake rather than an apple. On the contrary, our diet and how we feel about our bodies are intimately bound up with the structures and organisation of the capitalist world we live in.

Systematic oppression

Size has historically been used as a measure of class and status in particular societies. But in advanced capitalist countries like Britain obesity is itself a form of malnourishment, and the poorer you are, the more likely you are to have a less nutritious diet and a more stressful lifestyle, and consequently to be overweight or obese. But there are other factors which also affect what and how much we eat - most importantly the role of class and of oppression, particularly of women, in capitalist society.

Neither can we understand the question of obesity without looking at and understanding the particular pressures on women in a society which is deeply sexist. Despite being told by media pundits and former feminists that we've won equality, women are still discriminated against in every institution and area of life. Women's role in the family, especially the main responsibility for looking after and bringing up children, still plays an essential role for the ruling class in capitalist society. Bosses and governments avoid the cost of providing free or affordable childcare and the cost of collective facilities which would ease the burden on parents, particularly women. Indeed, despite its rhetoric about childcare and enabling women to work, the Blair government has continued the drive to privatise provision and cut public facilities that would make it easier for women to play a full role in the world of work (or, incidentally, to spend more time on preparing nutritious meals if they wanted to). The family,
despite the many changes in its structure and composition in recent decades, continues to suit the needs of capitalist rulers. And it is this which ensures we continue to face the double burden of a job and being the primary carer for children, that we work but earn less than men for doing the same jobs, or are stuck in so called 'female' jobs which are part time or have crappy pay.

Despite the fact that the majority of us work and do play a role outside the family, we haven't escaped from sexist imagery and ideas that judge us by the way we look, not by our talents and abilities. Far from it. These images are a reflection of women's continued oppression under capitalism, and if anything such sexist imagery is just as visible as it's ever been. We face sexist stereotyping and judgements about the way we look every time we apply for a job, or when we open a magazine or turn on the TV. Ultra-thin models stare down at us from advertising hoardings, bearing no relationship to how we actually look. Tabloids encourage us to find 'fulfilment' by imagining we're Victoria Beckham and by slating any woman who has the gall to be over a size 14.

Most of us have never matched up to the 'ideal' of womanhood that is thrown at us, whether it was Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s (who would have been castigated for being 'fat' by today's standards), Twiggy in the 1960s or the supermodels of today. But the gap between the image we're supposed to aspire to and the reality is getting wider. In the 1950s models weighed 8 percent less than the average woman. In the 1990s models weighed 23 percent less. That makes models thinner than some 95 percent of the population. As writer Deanne Jade says, 'There is no doubt that ideal body size, as reflected in style icons, is getting thinner. At the same time the increasing availability of high calorie foods means that people are actually getting bigger, so that the gap between actual body size and the cultural ideal is getting wider. There is a lot of dieting going on as a result, even if excess weight is all in the mind. Studies show that of all people who diet, half are not even overweight.'

Millions of women, even those whose body shape matches the stereotype, agonise every day about the way they look. A survey in the Daily Mail last year incredibly found that only 3 percent of women were happy about their shape, and some 73 percent said they thought about their size every day. On any given day in Britain a quarter of all women are on a diet, and half of all women are finishing, breaking or starting a diet. Many women spend most of their lives on a cycle of bingeing, dieting and worrying about their weight. This is preyed on by a diet industry making billions from our insecurity. If you look through magazines like Slimming or Weight Watchers, you might be shocked at how insidious the message is. There are endless 'success stories' where women proclaim they didn't really start living until they lost weight. No wonder with such pressure that millions of women never relax around food, hate their bodies or parts of their bodies, and one in 20 women suffers from an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia.

The pressure is particularly acute for young women just coming to terms with their self image. A study by Exeter University found that appearance is the biggest concern in the lives of more than half of teenage girls. And a survey by Bliss magazine of ten to 19 year olds found that nine out of ten were unhappy with their bodies, and a quarter of all 14 year olds had seriously considered plastic surgery. The 'nip and tuck' style TV shows may be sensationalist cheap TV, but they do reflect a growing trend. Some 2.5 million people had cosmetic surgery last year.

Unnaturally slim

Even when companies try a different tack, women don't escape the pressure to look a certain way. You'll probably have seen the Dove 'real curves' adverts which have dominated the advertising billboards in recent weeks. Certainly the company has tried to make as much capital as possible out of the fact that it has not used ultra-thin supermodels to advertise its new skin 'firming' products. That's better than many ads, except it should be noted that all of the women pictured remain within an 'acceptable' weight range (they are not 'too' fat), and we are supposed to buy precisely because we don't want to be too fat and flabby.

Women are supposed to match up to an 'ideal' that is increasingly unobtainable and then are castigated if they predictably fail to match up to a touched-up, unnaturally slim and smooth-skinned image of what is deemed 'attractive'. And more often than not the person who blames us the most for being 'too fat', being the 'wrong' shape or having saggy breasts is ourselves. We blame ourselves for being inadequate, and that self blame is only reinforced by the moralising tones of New Labour and the tabloid press.

One of the aspects of capitalist society that Karl Marx identified was how the capitalist structure of production alienates human beings not only from the products of their labour but from each other. The more the world of work exhausts and stresses us, the more we try to pour our energies, our 'real life', into our lives outside the workplace. Yet we do not have real control even over the parts of our lives that we see as most intimate and unique to us. As capitalism has developed, it has encroached into more and more areas of our lives. New markets are carved out of our hopes, needs and desire. The market reaches into our family lives, our relationships with each other, our sexuality and our desires to look 'attractive'. There is a relentless profit-making industry selling us diet products, face creams and self improvement programmes, preying on the insecurities created by oppression and the lack of control we have over our lives.

The paradox is that being obsessed with food or embarking on a miserable cycle of dieting is more likely to increase the likelihood of obesity. The fact is that most women who diet regain the weight they put on. Partly this is because the factors that led them to overeat or eat unhealthy foods are never really addressed, and partly it's a physical result of dieting itself. If you diet, especially if you go on a crash or very low calorie diet, your body responds by lowering its metabolic rate to suit the new conditions. Consequently when you revert to eating normally, even if you don't overeat, you are likely to gain weight. Dr Luisa Dillner from the British Medical Journal explains, 'Researchers carried out a study of 36 young active conscientious objectors in the Second World War, cutting their food intake by half in six months. The men became obsessive about food, listless and lost interest in life. When the study stopped, they started overeating. The effects were felt for many years after the study, so this small amount of extreme restriction set them up for a lifelong struggle with their weight.'

Laura Fraser, in Losing It: False Hopes and Fat Profits in the Diet Industry, argues that many of the US's most prominent obesity researchers have direct financial stakes in the weight loss industry. She writes, 'Diet and pharmaceutical companies influence every step along the way of the scientific process. They pay for the ads that keep obesity journals publishing. They underwrite medical conferences, flying physicians around the country expense-free.'

There is no doubt that being overweight can cause health risks, especially conditions like Type 2 diabetes. But, given the stereotyping women face and the fact that much of the official obesity research is conducted by the diet industry itself, it is worth questioning just what is considered overweight. There is a very different health impact on someone who is a few pounds overweight and someone who is several stone overweight. And yet often the obesity figures lump everyone together. Indeed, much scientific research suggests that it is fitness and not fatness which is the key to good health. Dieting to try and attain an 'ideal' smaller size may actually be far more detrimental to a woman's health, especially if it leads to a lifetime of 'yo-yo' dieting, than if she'd stayed the same size she was in the first place.

Money-making opportunity

This is a point explored by lawyer and author Paul Campos in his new book, The Obesity Myth. He told Socialist Review why he has come to the conclusion that the obesity crisis has been over-hyped:

'In the US, life expectancy rose from 75.2 to 77.4 years between 1990 and 2002, at the same time that there was supposedly an explosion of "obesity",' he says. 'Weight loss is a $50 billion per year industry in the US alone. So part of the current panic is a product of the fact that panic over weight is profitable for many powerful social interests. In the last six months alone the entire US food industry has retooled itself to cash in on the low-carb diet craze. Each new diet fad is a huge money-making opportunity for economic interests all along the chains of production and consumption.'

Campos also says that gender stereotyping plays a crucial role in terms of the obesity crisis: 'The feminine ideal in regard to weight is drastically different than it is for men. For example, if Jennifer Aniston had the same body mass index figure as her husband Brad Pitt, she would weigh 55 pounds more than she does.

'Dieting is detrimental to health, because weight cycling (the outcome of almost all dieting) appears to be more dangerous than maintaining even a quite high stable weight. Plus, weight cycling makes people fatter, on average, than they would be otherwise. Thus the diet industry is actually causing the "disease" it claims to be curing.'

I asked Campos what he thinks is the biggest health problem, particularly for working class people. He says, 'By far the biggest problem in the US is lack of adequate health insurance. This is a gigantic risk factor far larger than anything in relation to weight, and no less than 45 million Americans have no health insurance at all. Yet there are now literally 20 stories in the mainstream media about the supposed risks of obesity for every story about the health insurance crisis.'

We should not underplay the fact that being overweight can lead to serious health problems, but surely Campos has a point when he says we must put the question in perspective alongside all the other factors leading to serious health problems, most critically whether we are rich or poor. He told me, 'Healthy habits benefit people of all shapes and sizes, and people with healthy habits come in all shapes and sizes (as do people who are completely sedentary and eat nothing but junk food). Focusing on weight as a marker of health is just another way of not focusing on class privilege, economic injustice, social discrimination, and other cultural and political factors that have far more to do with health in the true sense of the word than our current obsession with a scientifically baseless body ideal.'

The question of obesity confronts so much of what is wrong with capitalist society. It is a symptom of a profit-driven society, where we are given limited and in some cases no choice at all about what is available to eat, how it is produced, who can afford it and how nutritious it is. It is a society where systematic oppression has created a situation where women are supposed to try to match up to unobtainable images, and end up hating and damaging their own bodies when they can't match up. Governments and much of the media blame those who are overweight or obese for not being in control, when in fact it is the capitalist system itself which strips us of any control, which created the problem in the first place, and which should be indicted for its destruction of our health.