I wrote this paper as one of my assigned papers for a history class. It’s a rough draft, having only been composed in about 20 minutes, so bear with me as I realize it needs some work. However I feel like this is a topic I could research thoroughly and expand my knowledge and writings upon. Let me know if you have any thoughts!
A troubling dichotomy exists in the United States concerning the relationship our female citizens appear to have with food. Though nearly 58% of the female population is classified as overweight, we also exhibit the highest rates of anorexia and bulimia of any developed country. This trend has been slowly exacerbated since the 1950’s, when the curvaceous womanly figure had a brief moment in the spotlight. Beginning in France, the styles gradually shifted toward a lean, slight, almost childish physique. Something that I had never considered was the effect that pre-sized clothing had on the psychology of women. Before department stores began to mass produce clothing, women of any size could have a dress created specifically for them. However, once they had to fit into predetermined sizes they began to feel the pressure to be smaller and smaller, most notably because most women’s clothing was not offered in large sizes. This was a predicament unique to women, as men could have their clothing altered for free with no stigmatism, while in most stores this was an extra cost for women.
In addition to the pragmatic necessity of being able to buy clothing, the pressure for women to be waif-like extends to the realm of social standing and moral purity. For Victorian women, their dominance over their appetites was an outward reflection of their ability to control the desires of the flesh, and they felt superior to the more robust working class women who resided in a place of “moral inferiority”. On page 456 of Women’s America, the author discusses how these attitudes manifest in the modern woman.
“Sadly, the cult of diet and exercise is the closest thing our secular society offers women in terms of a coherent philosophy of the self. When personal and social difficulties arise, a substantial number of our young women become preoccupied with their bodies and control of appetite. […] Despite feminist influences on the career aspirations of the present college-age generation, little has transpired to dilute the basic strength of this powerful cultural prescription that plays on both individualism and conformity.” Clearly, women morph the basic biological need of hunger into an entity needing to be mastered and controlled. The outward appearance of thinness subconsciously becomes a symbol of a willful, diligent, and disciplined woman despite all the other achievements she may claim. Even though females have advanced legally and socially through the Susan B. Anthony amendment, the Equal Pay Act, their ability to retain independent citizenship in marriage, and many other legal advances, this is one dilemma that cannot be resolved in the political sphere. Rather, an ideological shift towards the value of women needs to occur that places more emphasis on their social and economic achievements rather than the size of their garments.
However, referring back to the astronomical rates of overweight and obese Americans, how can we promote health for all people without seemingly adding to the pressure for women to be thin? It is possible to separate the conversation of health from that of vanity? When addressing both the issues of obesity and eating disorders, it is important to have a full understanding of the psychological history women have with food, as it clearly has evolved into much more than a way to supply ourselves with energy.