The construction of gender generally has been influenced by social processes. There is a day to day negotiation on what it means to be a man or a woman. Being a female is a continuous learning process that is continuously negotiated depending on the society. There is a mutual existence of the female body and the society. The society causes the female body to have different selves which are associated to different things. The female body becomes part of the embodiness which is shaped. The female body is a social skin which involves the individual and the society governed by norms and desires. This social skin links you with the outer world.
Though the body experiences certain freedom it is usually constrained by the surrounding environment. They way people make their identity and how they make is part of that society. Wenzel E (1983), explains that "body awareness, bodily experiences and bodily expressions are not only subject to individual choices of one lifestyle over another; they are primarily structured by social communication and interaction, both of which are dependent upon the symbolic structure of the social system, i.e., the value system, normative expectations and symbolic categories such as health, wealth, happiness, satisfaction, power, etc. This is also applied to dieting which is a practice amongst most women which is forming and maintaining the body image that the society wants.
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This paper therefore focuses on how the society controls the female body through food and dieting. Showing how there is a continuous negotiation on the image of the female body.
The Social Construction of Feminity through Food and Dieting In the Contemporary Society
The contemporary society is continuously attributing different meanings when it comes to women, food, eating and dieting. Eating play an important role in the way the female body is being controlled. Food intake promotes different reactions depending on the space and time. Counihan C.M (1999) acknowledges that, although there are other components of female identity and other sources of their authority, the power of women has often derived from the power of food. It is a paradox that though women are the providers of food and making food is often associated with female roles in most societies, the society indirectly restricts them from consuming this food. Though some men give a helping hand in food preparation, the task of ensuring that meals are ready on time still belong largely on the woman. Women therefore consider dieting not just as a set of rules but a practiced they need to full fill so as to fully integrate in the society they find themselves. Feminity image today especially in most western societies is attributed to slenderness.
The construction of feminity is highly influenced by popular culture. Most women are forced with the idea of watching their weight through dieting and keeping fit. These women, young or old are very much concern in watching their weight by controlling their food intakes. The ideal female body portrayed on magazines is a slim body not a fat one. Multiple products are being advertised to maintain these ideal female body shapes. Most contemporary women strive to look like the models on the magazine which is usually a slim woman. It is rare to see a product being advertised for increasing weight. These magazine controls the female body because they want to be what they see on the magazines. Though the idea of slim female bodies was attributed mostly to women in developed countries, the media has made the idea to be globalised. The issue slimness being the ideal shape for women is increasing in non developed countries as well.
In the past in the African society, fat women were in mode. Most men preferred getting married to fat women because they were considered physically healthy and appealing especially when it came to sex. These women with big buts and breast were more appealing and sexually enticing. Also, being fat meant that you were living a good life. They sizes of the member of a man's family determined his wealth. Having fat children was a sign of good living. Men who got married to slim girls eventually fed them to become fat. Dieting was out of question and fattening course was encouraged. To know that a man is taking good care of his wife was seen in has physical morphology after marriage. If she grew fatter after marriage, it meant the marriage was ok. This practice is still common in some parts world, but generally fattening courses are out of question in the contemporary world.
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Today it is the reverse in the modern society, most husbands prefer their wives to look slim. Being slim does not make her look younger but also sexually flexible. Most women want to remain young for life and the ideal shape they need is being slim. The post modern concept of youthfulness is universal and has made the female body to become an object of social power. The society appreciates slim female body because it is more elegant and easier to manipulate than a fat body. Most boys in my town will enjoy taking their slim girl friends for a party than fat girls. Even when they get married to a fat girl, they will always encourage her to slim down. There is a continuously manipulation of the female body all linked to sexuality. Most of these women want to stay young and look sexually attractive.
Dieting therefore becomes a cultural phenomenon in most contemporary societies because it is common amongst a particular group of people. It is also determine by a social class. In order to have an effective diet control, you need to have the means. Also, if you want to integrate in that particular society, you need to have a particular body shape as a woman. Images of female that are fat are associated with lower class. Identity is not determined by what you do in the Western world but what you consume. The shape of the female body doesn't present only the social class but also the moral value. A welled shaped woman shows that she is morally upright, because the way the society appreciates you from outside is what you are inside.
Slimness is considered as clean and desirable, while looking fat is seen as dirty. These women have therefore taken dieting to be a way of life so as to be comfortable in the society. They chose what to or not to eat, how to prepare it and when to eat. Most often, the first reason advanced by women for dieting is maintaining a particular body image and health reasons only come in as secondary. Women in the contemporary world are generally dissatisfied with their body shapes. African American women might prefer style to shape but there is a general appreciation for slimness. They always need to do something or to amend something, they want to look like their ideal model.
This has made the number of women with anorexia nervosa to increase. The female body continuously suffers from violence caused by the society. Violence suffered by starving the body creates the female identity and is considered normal. This goes in line with Michel Foucault who explains that the society through political, social, cultural and economical measures has shaped the human body. The impact of these measures on the human body has been exaggerated to a point that we could not imagine it will reach. The female body through extreme dieting reflects a clear indication of Foucault's work. The body has been manipulated by the society beyond expectations.
Feminity is continuous constructed by the influence of the society. The female body image is what it is because the society wants it to be that way. Food, eating and dieting are not the only issues that the society uses to control the female body but there are other aspects of control.
Wenzel, E. (1983): "Lifestyles and Living Conditions and Their Impact on Health - A Report of the Meeting" in Scottish Health Education Group ed. European Monographs in Health Education Research. Vol. 5. Edinburgh: pp.1-18