Resources on Women
and Body Image
Dept. of Women’s
Wisconsin at La Crosse
An enormous volume of research and analysis explores the issues of body image
and eating disorders, especially in psychology and media studies. The reasons
for such attention originally rested in race and class. The under-eating
disorders were initially identified among white, economically-privileged girls
and women. That has changed, however: these disorders now increasingly
affect girls of all races and social classes, at ever-younger ages and
persisting into later stages of women’s lives as well. We are also seeing an
increase in these disorders among men, especially among gay teens.
What the research makes clear is that while eating disorders are not caused by
media portrayals per se, the media’s portrayal of how to achieve the feminine
ideal, in particular, offers a powerful cultural suggestion to young women and
girls for how to deal with their feelings of powerlessness and lack of
control, both real and perceived. At the societal level, researchers point
not solely to the media ideal as part of the problem, but also to persistent
sexism, both direct and indirect, including the under-education of girls and
the oversexualization and overcommercialization of girlhood.
Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa.
This is the book Brumberg wrote in response to a challenge from colleagues on
a committee to address eating disorders on her campus, who asked her to find
out how long anorexia nervosa has existed. Brumberg traced food refusal (not
quite the same as the disorder) to the rise of asceticism within Christianity
that argued for a separation of body from soul with the rejection of physical
needs as evidence of holiness. “Rejection of the body” meant celibacy for
men, food-refusal for women since chastity for women was already a given.
Brumberg recounts many stories of women who rejected eating as part of the
evidence that proved their sainthood.
Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s next book, The Body Project : An Intimate History
of American Girls, focuses specifically on the process by which
contemporary girls in the US have come to be focused on improving their bodies
rather than on improving society. She points out that young women have long
worried about their weight without the obsession with it that we see in
contemporary society. I recommend both of these books very highly – they’re
great reads and offer a vital – and rare – historical perspective.
Mary Pipher, Reviving Ophelia : Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls.
This is the classic, influential analysis of the sociocultural world in which
adolescent girls grow up.
Sara Shandler, Ophelia Speaks : Adolescent Girls Write About Their
Search for Self. Shadler collects responses to Pipher’s book from
Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism,
and the Future. This is the “new feminism” that one of Shandler’s
girl’s advocates – the one that, among other things, fights for women’s right
to eat. A very popular exploration of so-called “third wave” feminism, it
does explore the limits of young women’s focus on the individual, but it also
raises some of the vital conversations young women need to have with each
other about how to deal with the most destructive messages of femininity.
Richards, now married and a mother, maintains a website that organizes this
conversation and others. See below.
Slim Hopes. Here’s the Media Education Foundation’s website – they
produced Jean Kilbourne’s video on the role of advertising in promoting
disordered eating. Kilbourne has studied this issue for over 20 years, and
has produced several other videos. A bit too much talking-head, but
informative. Women’s Studies at UWL has a copy of this and her other videos
(Killing Us Softly and Still Killing Us Softly, but not Killing Us Softly 3).
Ask Amy Here’s Amy
Richards’ website. Look specifically under Health and Media for Amy’s
responses to the many questions she gets about eating disorders and media
portrayals of women. The activism section offers some good resources too.
Feminist.com, AskAmy’s home, is a
good resource on a broader range of issues. See also the
Third Wave Foundation
with which Richards is also affiliated. She has about 60 jobs . . .
About-face.org My students
like this site. About-Face critiques the media image of women with pointed
satire, and promotes self-esteem.
There are many others.
You should be aware that many websites exist that promote disordered eating
and actually teach new methods for doing it.
Women’s Studies at UWL
WILL is here, along with contact information to reach me. I maintain this
Women Involved in Living and Learning – a student organization and curricular
program at UWL. WILL creates activist projects in a class that I teach each
fall semester. So far, two of these projects at least attempt to work with
girls in the community. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” is an after-school “club”
that meets Wednesdays at Logan Middle School. It does not deal either with
sex and sexuality or with eating disorders directly, but provides role models
and the college connection for girls, many of whom are at-risk. A
new-this-fall and still developing program aims to educate young women about
sex and sexuality, although the problems of getting this into the schools
overwhelmed us this fall, so we’ll continue to ponder it, perhaps as an event
on campus to which we invite young women to come, perhaps with their parents.
Your ideas welcomed! Contact Sandi Krajewski for more information about WILL
The WILL website is part of the Women’s Studies website – although so far I’ve
only added the projects created last year.