and ain't i a woman?: One down ...

Issue 

and ain't i a woman?

BY MARGARET ALLUM

The National Eating Disorder Information Center (NEDIC) in Canada conducted a study of nine- and 10-year-old children's fears. It found that most children were more afraid of getting fat than of losing a parent, getting cancer or living through nuclear war.

Fifty-one per cent of the girls in the study said they felt better about themselves if they were on a diet. A 1995 study of college women found that 91% had attempted to control their weight through dieting and 22% dieted "often" or "always".

It is with horrific statistics like these in mind that I greeted with glee the news that Gloria Marshall Figure Salons in Australia had collapsed. Along with Jenny Craig, Marshall's name is synonymous with weight loss "clinics" in Australia.

In the industrialised capitalist countries, the weight loss industry is big business, especially in the United States where around US$40 billion is spent on products and programs annually. The diet industry in Australia is similar.

Around half the money spent by those desperate to lose weight is on diet soft drinks; expenditure on artificial sweeteners, low-calorie foods, meal replacements and appetite suppressants contribute another 20%. The rest of the billions spent is on exercise equipment and weight loss programs offered by the likes of Gloria Marshall.

Almost every image of women in the media show that successful, happy women are slim and beautiful, while overweight women are desperately trying to lose weight. Very large women (and men) are made fun of for their size, or they are pitied. Occasionally, they pop up as grandmotherly "comforting" characters.

Just about the only time large women are portrayed as having any sexuality is in comic roles, the most common being where a young man is tormented or pursued by the fat woman.

The women's liberation movement in the late 1960s and '70s made some headway in combatting the diet and cosmetics industries' drive to make women feel inadequate and oversized. However, as the movement and its influence on society have declined, and the ideological backlash against feminism has grown, unrealistic media images of women are on the rise again.

Even those people who are conscious of women's oppression are not immune to the pressure to conform to the ideal body image and the promise of happiness and fulfilment that is supposed to go with it. Some feminists even try to politically justify dieting, by claiming that feeling better about oneself improves a woman's political confidence.

Being fit and healthy is not the same as dieting to achieve an unrealistic body shape which is imposed by the capitalist fashion, diet, cosmetic and media industries.

Around 35% of "normal dieters" progress to pathological dieting, according to a 1995 study. NEDIC estimates that 10% of women and girls (10 million) and 1 million men and boys in the US are struggling with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge eating. The Australian Longitudinal Women's Health Study (1997) found a rate of 0.7% of anorexia in 15,000 women aged 18 to 22 years.

About 60% of people with anorexia nervosa and about 40% of people with bulimia nervosa will remain chronically unwell. Medical complications are common.

During a 12-year study of 103 people with anorexia nervosa treated at one US hospital, 15% died. The causes of death included suicide, infection, gastrointestinal complications and severe emaciation. Thirty-five per cent of the survivors had an associated medical disorder.

Weight loss centres like Gloria Marshall's do not encourage women to relate to their bodies in a healthy way. In all their advertising, the emphasis is on weight loss rather than health. Despite knowing the extremely low long-term success rate of weight loss programs (only around 5% sustain a significant weight reduction), these predatory outfits promise clients a "magic" formula to lose weight.

The healthier and fitter we are, the better we can apply our energy to what we have to and want to achieve. The epidemic of dieting (and the disastrous health consequences) among women, and an increasing number of men, in the past century is a response to increased pressure to conform to an unrealistic body image which is generated by capitalist organisations out to maximise their profits.

I take enormous pleasure in seeing one of those organisations fail.