Eradicating the cult of thinness

January 26, 2000

Am I Thin Enough Yet? The Cult of Commercialization of Identity
By Sharlene Hesse-Biber
Oxford University Press, 1996, 190 pp.

Review by Rachel Evans

This book is a worthy successor to The Beauty Myth (1991) by Naomi Wolf. While Am I Thin Enough Yet? is only half the size of The Beauty Myth, its breadth, analysis and readability matches, and in some aspects surpasses, Wolf's book.

Hesse-Biber's analysis is that the profit-driven campaign of the 1980s and '90s to impose unrealistic cultural standards of thinness and beauty on the United States population has succeeded. While her statistics come from US studies, Hesse-Biber argues that "the Cult of Thinness" dominates most First World countries. She argues that white women are the main casualties, with black and migrant women targeted less by the industry.

In 1992, a study reported that 65 million people in the US, about 25% of the population, were dieting at any one time, spending more than US$30 billion on the 17,000 diet products and programs available. Women obsessed by their weight are good for profits, explains Hesse-Biber. As one researcher says, "We're being fattened up by the junk food industry and slimmed down by the diet and exercise industry".

Am I Thin Enough Yet? examines the industries that promote the cult of thinness. Sales of diet food and beverages in the US have grown three times faster than the rest of the food market since 1984. "Lite" and "low-cal" products reap great rewards. Often they are cheaper to make (a number of low-calorie products have more water in them) but sold at a higher price.

Dieting books are frequently US best-sellers. In 1991, 7.9 million people enrolled in commercial weight-loss programs, spending more than US$2 billion. The fitness industry, including health clubs, exercise videos and clothing, is worth US$43 billion.

Weight obsession has become so acceptable (Oprah Winfrey and other celebrities regularly give weight-shedding advice) that hospitals have jumped on the diet program bandwagon, catering for the rich. The hospital-based weight-loss market was estimated at US$5.49 billion in 1989, generating fast money for cash strapped hospitals.

Am I Thin Enough Yet? quotes studies showing that dieting programs usually fail in their promise to enable customers to "keep weight off". Medical research indicates that, rather than the reduced overall food consumption promoted by diets, it is aerobic exercise and different eating habits that result in long-term weight loss.

The book explains how many diet programs encourage food fixation. One company produces a "foodmeter" which shows how many calories are consumed for breakfast, lunch and tea. There's also a "colour me thin weight loss kit". All this makes sense for the capitalists; the programs will make more money if clients return to their original weight and do the program again.

The "ideal" body promoted by the fashion industry and diet programs is not healthy. The average model is white, 178cm tall and weighs 50kg. She is 14kg lighter than the average female US teenager and almost 15cm taller.

Hesse-Biber compares the "ideal" weight-for-height for women and men promoted by diet centres with that in the insurance industry's tables. She found the average difference between the two to be 2.3kg for men and 9kg for women.

The US plastic surgery industry is worth US$5 billion each year and has expanded to include low-income workers, mainly women who find that they have to have a certain look to get work and keep it. (The book describes how air hostesses who exceed a minimum weight are sacked.) Nearly one in three plastic surgery patients earns less than US$25,000 per year.

Ninety-four per cent of the plastic surgery industry's patients are women. In the early 1980s, US plastic surgeons were referring to small breasts as a disease, "micromastia". A small hiccup temporarily halted the breast enlarging craze in 1994 when women successfully sued Dow Corning and other silicon breast manufacturers. However, there were plenty of other techniques to keep the industry happy — liposuction, fat grafting, stomach stapling, nose jobs, and eye tucks.

Hesse-Biber reveals that some hospitals employ doctors with no plastic surgery experience other than watching a video on how to perform liposuction, thereby undercutting hospitals that employ certified plastic surgeons.

In a study of university students conducted by Hesse-Biber, 37% of women and 15% of men dieted all the time. The same study revealed that 75% of women are dieting at any one moment. Statistics on US pre-teens are particularly alarming; one study found that 81% of 10-year-old girls were on a diet.

The physical problems associated with dieting include malnutrition, destruction of tooth enamel, organ failure and death. The American Anorexia/Bulimia Association estimates that up to 10% of those diagnosed with anorexia may die. Bulimia is thought to be four or five times more common than anorexia, but it is more difficult to detect.

Am I Thin Enough Yet? also explores the diet and beauty industries' growing focus on men. While nine times as many women as men have eating disorders, the number of men with such disorders is increasing, and some sections of the male population, gay men, athletes and so on, are showing a developing preoccupation with dieting and body image.

The book criticises the most common theories about the causes of eating disorders, which blame them on individual women, their immediate family, chemical imbalances or "disease". The "cure" for anorexia and bulimia, according to these theories, is to grab a self-help book to raise self-esteem, see a psychotherapist, seek medical treatment for depression, or attend an Overeating Anonymous group.

Hesse-Biber rejects this approach of blaming women for problems created by the profit-oriented diet, beauty, health and media industries. She urges women to organise to boycott companies that sell the anorexic look, initiate public education campaigns and fight sexism in classrooms and workplaces.

She writes, "Eradicating the Cult of Thinness will require women to become politically active in changing basic institutions — education, economic, family, legal, political and religious. Women must challenge the industries that feed on body insecurity and change the message girls and women absorb from families, schools and jobs — all places where women are rewarded or punished daily for being in the 'right' or 'wrong' body."

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