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Body Image in Culture

American Culture and Eating Disorders

Just as body image is rooted in religion, it is rooted in culture. American culture, from pyschologists to theologians to reporters, has much to say about women's bodies. The very terms "body image" and "eating disorders" are used by just about everyone in America; they have become household terms. Women's bodies are much more than physical shells for the spirit; they have become an integral part of feminine identity.

As women have, over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, taken on more roles and power in American society, they have still been subject to a power greater than any individual: the media. The feminist movement has been satirized in the media. In the nineteenth century, politial cartoons poked fun at feminists (see sidebar). In the twentieth century, perceptions of feminists as women with armpit hair, a culturally unacceptable image, abounded. In reality, "feminism should be about looking however one wants to" (Wolf, 77). In addition to making fun of feminism outright, the media have sent the message to the American public that a woman's appearance is more important than her intellect and/or talent. An example of this occured in the early 1990's, when the Washington Post attributed part of Cokie Roberts's success as a journalist to her "elegant cheekbones" (Wolf, 276). The media, as the vehicle for the spread of American culture, dictate what is "in" or "out," that is, how women (and men, to a small but ever-growing extent) should dress and how their bodies should look. A recent article in the Dallas Morning News explored high fashion's continued ignoring of any woman whose clothing size is in the double digits. Fashion magazines almost exclusively use rail-thin models. Even so-called curvy models are much thinner than the average American woman (Dallas Morning News [Dallas], 11 April 2002). As American women have achieved more and more in society, they have been subjected to ideals dictated by a faceless media (see "Timeline" in sidebar).

In relation to women, religion, and a media-driven culture, an eating disorder can be defined as "...the process whereby a woman develops a distorted relationship to food, her body consciousness, and her weight because of living in a sex-exploitive family and culture where her power and worth are defined along a bodily plane" (Manlowe, 5). Food is a basic human need, and hunger is a basic human experience. Hunger and thirst bring pain, but eating and drinking relieve that pain and bring pleasure (Ashley, 423). Eating and drinking, along with safety and shelter, are basic fundamental human needs. According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, no further psychological development can occur until the most basic human needs are met (Funder, 294). The problem occurs when those needs either are not met or are met too fully. Sigmund Freud theorized that babies whose needs are not met will turn into neurotic adults, just as will babies whose needs needs are always met instantly (Funder, 220). The sins of gluttony and drunkeness can be defined in terms of addiction: one becomes so concerned with immediate gratification of hunger and thirst that one is kept from living a full, human life (Ashley, 424). In a way, an eating disorder is a behavioral manifestaion of the tension between immediate gratification and self-denial. Compulsive overeating ("gluttony"), is, in simplistic terms, a chronic need for instant gratification. On the other hand, anorexia is chronic denial of gratification. Bulimia falls somewhere in between: sometimes the bulimic is in a binge phase, where gratification is the goal; at other times she is in a purge phase, where denial is the goal. Clinical eating disorders are extreme behaviors; many women do not suffer from them but rather have disordered patterns of eating. These women fall into patterns of chronic dieting and binging that never reach clinical levels (see sidebar).

Throughout the last two centuries, women have both aquired new roles within American society and have molded their bodies to fit various cultural standards. They have sought redemption of their bodies, which are called sinful by some members of the Christian community, by obliterating all that is distinctly female about their bodies. The time has come for women to care for and heal themselves. Both caring and healing can occur within a Christian context. Some see in Christianity a tendency to hatred of the body, a view that may be used to justify abuse of the body (Tessier, 166). However, not caring for the body is a sin. Sin leads to us not creating a healthy state of being. Jesus, as our redeemer, is also the healer of our bodies and our help in creating mental and physical health (Ashley, 425). By letting go of values, both religious and cultural, that feed the cycle of vicitmization, and by allowing the healing that true faith brings, American Christian women can move beyond self-hatred and fully reclaim their rightful roles as equals to men.

Time Line


A curvy hourglass, achieved by a corset, is ideal.


Tunics come into fashion, erasing curves.


The flapper, a new skinny model, is ideal.


Thin is still in, with thin models the norm.


Curvy comes back, although thinner types are popular as well.


The skinny model returns, & power dressing comes into fashion.


The althletic ideal appears, & eating disorders become household words.


The athletic ideal & the skinny ideal coexist.


A nude, size 12 Kate Dillon appears on the cover of Mode's January issue.

Source: Mode, September 2000 & January 2001

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Body Image in Religion