Thursday, April 15, 2010

Dreaming of Disappearing: What Skinny (Sometimes) Really Means

There's this old belief that a woman is "a lack"-- that is, essentially, that men are whole and women are a lesser version of that whole. Feminist theorist Judith Butler explains in her Subjects of Sex, "For [Simone de Beauvoir], women are the negative of men, the lack against which masculine identity differentiates itself."

The idea of woman as a lack was once commonly held.

And, honestly, I don't think that idea has changed much over time. There is no way that we can look at the standards women are required to live up to and not question why they are what they are. Why must women be thin-- and to greater degrees than ever before? There is research showing that being very thin is no healthier than being overweight, and that, in fact, being overweight may not be a good indicator of overall heath. Many doctors would argue it isn't weight or BMI (which is an awful indicator of health) alone that determine health. So why do we want to be thin? What will keep women wanting to be thin when we learn that our health is mostly independent of the number on the scale?

Because society says we are a lack, and to fit in, we must embody that.

Extreme thinness in runway models is often explained away by designers as being their way of better showcasing clothing. The girl should not be the distraction. The girl is the walking coat hanger on which the designer's art can be displayed. Yes, a model is a human and we're not "supposed" to criticize other people's bodies, but a model's body is objectified to a horrifying degree. Models are often encouraged to lose weight or are hired at extremely young ages so that their bodies are underdeveloped (no boobs or hips)-- at which point many will fall into the cycle of using eating disorders and substances to control their weight for the careers' sakes. I won't even go into how using pre-pubescent girls as a beauty standard for adult women is wrong-- or how being subjected to such rigid weight requirements at a young age is surely damaging both mentally and physically for the models themselves.

Runway models are supposed to fade into the clothing. We are not supposed to see them, just the clothes.

And you know? This is a sentiment we often hear mirrored in the accounts of young women with anorexia: they often report feelings of wanting to disappear, to take up less space, to become invisible.

For instance, Aimee Moore, a bulimic woman, is quoted as saying of her disorder: 

"'I want to disappear,' she said. 'I want to be so small that nobody sees me because of everything I’ve done that has hurt people. I would like to be hidden. I’ve always felt like I was a failure. I can’t stick to anything. I can’t stay in treatment, can’t eat, can’t function normally.'"

Yes, this is a disorder, and Moore's brain, like every other ED-sufferer's, is telling her what to feel. But women are starting to develop disordered eating patterns and dangerous mindsets concerning weight at younger and younger ages. And this idea that there is, in many cases, a thought process about wanting to disappear is deeply disturbing to me.

No eating disorder is really about food. And our culture of forcing women to be thinner and thinner to be acceptable members of society, to me, is just another form of social control. It's the same as forcing women to cover their bodies, to suppress their sexuality, to be demure, to listen to what men say, to speak only when spoken to. Skinny is natural for some people, but skinny has become an engine of patriarchal power-- one that many women perpetuate by consenting to it.

When do we stop consenting? We are not lacks. We should not treat ourselves as such. We do not have to hide. I do not want anyone to feel like they want to hide their body, especially not because they feel like "failure" or that they "hurt" people otherwise. This standard of being skinny? I'm ashamed to sometimes want it, because it's just another way to brainwash women into believing that they should be something less, that small size means that they are doing their part to fit into society.

Not to mention, of course, extremely thin female bodies are often compared to male bodies. Perhaps, somewhere in the back of our minds, we shun the idea of breasts and hips and menstrual cycles for the power potential in becoming more male. Male, after all, is the whole: the ideal sex. Perhaps if women make their bodies closer to male bodies, they can get power, respect. I cannot tell you how many times I've been told my large breasts will make it hard to earn respect in their workplace, to be seen as more than a sexual object.

Fuck that. I am a woman. I am not a lack. I do not need to disappear. I will take up all the space I want. 

And, yes, I believe thin women are women too-- and I certainly don't want to alienate any of my skinny readers. I just believe that our culture has a really messed up way of looking at weight, and if we don't start questioning it, women will keep disappearing until they are completely silenced.


Anonymous said...

Wow! That was an eye opener! You shed a new light on the matter. Every woman should read this! Great post!

Jem said...

You said it, sister! We should be proud to be a women, women can be just as powerful as men without having to compromise their identity.

Kim said...

hm i don't totally agree with you on some of this. i struggled with an ED throughout part of h.s. and college and honestly, it was just because my life seemed out of control and it was one thing i could control. i was never overweight, by ANY means, but i had low self esteem and so when i needed to control was what i had the lowest esteem body.

men, media, the "world" had nothing to do with it. a lot of girls that i have mentored have the same problem. it's still sick and messed up, but it's not about trying to look like models...its a matter of control.

Vanessa said...

Ashley: Thanks so much!

Jem: I totally agree :)

Kim: Thanks for commenting on this, since you have personal experience with eating issues. Eating disorders do often seem to revolve around the idea of control, and I think that's definitely important to note, so thanks for bringing it up. Control is definitely a common theme in both undereating and overeating disorders (with overeating, I've often read that some women who suffer sexual abuse use gaining weight as a buffer and a way to become "less desirable).

I can definitely respect that you disagree, though thinking about it now, I see how issues of control can tie into the themes in this post: women sometimes have very little control in a world run by men (whether we want to believe it or not)-- but we can control our bodies, even if, according to what I wrote, the way we're controlling it may be influenced by male standards.

Kim said...

maybe...i think you're making huge generalizations.

Vanessa said...

Kim: I see what you're saying and I'm sorry if this post and my response were a bit too general. That's likely my fault for trying to take the Feminist theory I'm reading in class and apply it to a very personal issue.

Everyone is different, and I didn't mean to imply that I think what I've said can be applied to every single person with an eating disorder. I thought it would be interesting to look at it through the lens of some of the criticism I've been thinking of lately, but maybe this was out of place?

If anyone else has an opinion on this, I'd love to hear from you, too. It will help me if I can get a gauge of your reactions.

Elaine said...

This was an interesting post. I know I am skinnier than most girls but when I said on my blog a while ago that I wanted to lose weight, I got a lot of negative response. But nobody asked me why I was doing it. Not everybody wants to lose weight to be thin and model-esque.

clothed much, a modest fashion blog

sarah. said...

Thank you- this was great to read!

Zmaga said...

This is a really good article. I've never thought about skinniness this way.

Jessica said...

Love this post. I've struggled with food from another angle - trying to control what I ate for digestive reasons - and even that became an issue, because in the end I focused so much on the 'right' foods to eat that I lost interest in eating.

I wish the emphasis in our culture could be more on women feeling sensual, and feeling good about their lives, rather than trying to look like they are.

Great post!


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