The female quest for thinness rest upon both Western ideals of individual control of the body and the economic abundance that provides most people with enough to eat. Cultures in fear of starvation have historically favored larger body mass. In developing countries women continue to suffer more from the malnutrition of famine and poverty than from anorexia. In parts of West Africa, for example, “fattening rooms” prepare adolescent girls for marriage, fatness is associated with beauty, and obese women command a higher bride-price.
In those areas of Africa and Asia where body weight can be an indicator of wealth, women shown drawings of female bodies ranked the images of heavy women more highly than those who were thin. (Media’s Effect on Body Image). Contact with the West, however, can transform body image. African women who migrate to Britain soon come to share the Western aversion to body fat. In the South Pacific nation of Fiji, where pull-bodied women have always been considered healthy, the introduction of Western television programs via satellite changed young women’s body image.
Girls who watched television frequently were more likely to consider themselves “too big or fat” and more likely to begin dieting. The rate of eating disorder increased among Fijian girls along with Western cultural influence. (Media’s Effect on Body Image). The idealized female body creates not only health problems but also a social hierarchy privileges the white, thin, and able-bodied. For those who do not approximate the ideal, difference can extract a steep cost in self-esteem.
The Asian American writer Nellie Wong captured this phenomenon in a poem: “When I was growing up,” she explained “my sisters with fair skin got praised / for their beauty . . . to become / a woman, a desirable woman, I began to wear / imaginary pale skin. ” Historically, the use of skin-lightening cosmetic and hair strengtheners among African American women in the United States reflected the internalization of a racial hierarchy. (Media’s Effect on Body Image).
The social hierarchy of the body has material effects as well, for it keeps those who are fat, dark-skinned, or disabled at the economic margins. Excluded from certain jobs in which women’s conventional appearance is an asset, they earn considerably less money and are more likely to live in poverty than are the thin, white, and able-bodied. An extensive survey of Americans found that overweight women, but not overweight men, had lower household incomes and higher rates of poverty than those who were not overweight.
Knowing that economic penalties await those who are different may well reinforce the quest for light-skinned, thin, “perfect” bodies among women. (Media’s Effect on Body Image). Feminism has tried to extend to women the physical rights enjoyed by men. Western feminists initially responded to medicalization and commercialization by demanding women’s control over their own bodies, a principle grounded in the political theory of individual rights.
In democratic nations those admitted to the “body politic” of representative government-initially free white adult European males-enjoyed the right to physical liberty. Instead of the authoritarian control of bodies, democratic societies celebrated the virtues of personal self-discipline. Feminist politics have incorporated ideals of both individual physical freedom and internalized control of the body, but they have also changed over time to rethink the meaning of control.
Rather than being considered mere reproductive or sexual bodies, writer such as Mary Wollstonecraft insisted the women should be allowed a life of the mind. In the 1870s Elizabeth Cady Stanton reminded young women that “God has given you minds, dear girls, as well as bodies. ” Conservatives of her era disagreed, fearing that higher education drained women’s reproductive energies and reduced their fertility. (Smart female college graduates disproved this theory by showing statistically that education did not depress reproductive capacity. ) Early feminists also sought freedom from bodily constraint.