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The everyday lives of people living in the 21st century are pervaded by the media. Due to the huge rise in modern technology the pressure on individuals to conform to a certain body type is more intense than ever. Tiggemann (2002) claimed that the media puts severe pressure on woman of all ages to be a certain size, `Repeated exposure to such images may lead a woman to internalize the thin ideal such that it becomes accepted by them as the reference point against which to judge themselves (Tiggemann, 2002, P92)`.
Unrealistic standards of what is considered “normal” in reference to body weight and appearance are constantly shown in the media. This portrayal of what is considered “normal” continues to become thinner and thinner. There is no surprise that the ongoing exposure to unrealistic ideas on what is said to be the ideal body shape for women within this media-driven culture has contributed to the current high levels of body dissatisfaction in females today. As schools include ‘healthy eating’ on the school curriculum and media images continue to reinforce the ideal of the slender women, young girls are becoming increasingly aware of the pressure to be slim (Fulcher & Scott, 2007:307).
In The Sociological Imagination, C Wright Mills argues that ‘neither the life on an individual nor the history of society can be understood without understanding both’ (Mills, 1959:3). Throughout, keeping C. Wright Mills statement in mind, a sociological outlook on the everyday issue of body weight will be a central focus, examining how specific eating habits and behaviors came to be constructed. From this, social and cultural concepts will also contribute to a better understanding of how bodily processes and social structures are in many ways contributing to the development of disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.
In modernity, the media represent a key cultural structure which influences eating behavior and in turn, what constitutes normal eating. According to Durkheim (1970), both cultural and social structures are external factors in society which have a constraining effect on the individual. In western society the media are responsible for spreading female body type ideals through the ‘glamorization of slenderness’ (Bordo, 1993: 103). In the 1950s the ideal female body type was a curvaceous, fuller figure (Fulcher & Scott, 2007: 307) as represented by Marilyn Monroe, one of the most photographed women of her time. As cultural ideals have changed, images of women portrayed in the media have become increasingly thinner. Furthermore, female body shape ideals are reinforced by advertisers who use slim models to sell products (Fulcher & Scott, 2007: 307). This leads to women comparing themselves with the cultural ideal and internalizing modern conceptions of femininity (Fulcher & Scott, 2007: 307). Therefore, women are becoming increasingly accustomed to altering their eating habits in order to achieve the cultural ideal of slenderness. One way women control their eating habits is through dieting, which involves the restriction of the amount and type of food consumed (Fulcher & Scott, 2007: 307), the steady increase in dieting over the past few decades is undoubtedly influenced by the pharmaceutical, cosmetic and fashion industries that emphasise the importance of dieting and healthy eating (Fulcher & Scott, 2007: 306). Furthermore, the media have a vital influence on the individual’s food choices (Ogden, 2010: 283). For example, in the summer of 1990 UK beef sales fell by 20% in response to widespread publicity about the health risks of beef (Ogden, 2010: 38). This demonstrates that the media can have a major effect on the food consumers buy. The combination of images in the media, publicity around the benefits and risks of certain foods, and the emphasis on dieting and healthy eating in today’s society contribute to what constitutes normal eating in today. Young girls begin controlling their weight from an early age (Bordo, 1993: 99) as a result of media images, and the normalization of dieting means that young girls view dieting as a good tool for weight loss (Fulcher & Scott, 2007: 307). Therefore, we can argue that images of femininity in the media and the emphasis on maintaining a slim figure contribute to the eating habits of the general public, especially women. In addition to this, negative publicity surrounding particular food produce can result in reduced consumption of certain products which highlights the media’s influence on an individual’s food choices.
To add to the emphasis on weight loss and slender figures, the media, particularly advertisers, often send mixed messages about food which further confuses what constitutes normal eating. On the one hand, advertisers promote weight loss products such as slimming pills and diet drinks; however, they also encourage women to indulge in unhealthy foods. Susan Bordo describes this conflict as the contemporary woman’s ‘dilemma’ (Bordo, 1993: 105) between making healthy choices and satisfying cravings. One way advertisers encourage the consumption of food products is through the eroticization of food (Bordo, 1993:112). Advertisers play on the feelings of women who are ‘overwhelmed by their relationship to food’ (Bordo, 1993: 108). What this means is that adverts for products such as ice cream and chocolate aim to tantalize the senses of the viewer and persuade them to buy foods by attaching emotional rewards to the consumption of these products. They do this by constructing food as a sexual object, therefore, making food appear to be a ‘sensual delight,’ (Bordo, 1993: 112).
Social structures like family and education play a major role in determining the eating habits of young people which can have an effect on an individual’s diet for the rest of their lives. An example of how normal eating can be effected by the social institution of the family is the prevalence of eating disorders such as anorexia, in women from white middle class backgrounds (Fulcher & Scott, 2007: 309). Although anorexia can affect women who do not fit into this social class bracket the disorder is particularly prevalent amongst this social group. In white middle class families typically, the protestant value ethic and puritan ideas of self control are observed (Giordano, 2005: 139). Therefore, being overweight is viewed as an indicator of laziness and self indulgence; this means that amongst this social group body shape represents an individual’s moral values (Giordano, 2005: 139). Bromwell (1991) provides further support for this argument, suggesting that society in general equates slenderness with ‘moral perfection’ and assumes that people who are thin have achieved this ideal through hard work, ambition, self control and purity (Ogden, 2010: 91). This attitude to eating and body shape suggests that being fat is a sign of lacking self control. This is demonstrated in the young anorectics belief that fat is associated with mental decay whereas slimness represents ‘triumph’ over the body’s appetite through self control (Bordo, 1993: 147). Therefore, young middle class women can infer that to achieve a slender figure one must invest time, effort, hard work and willpower (Bordo, 1993: 105), into moulding her body to achieve the cultural ideal of femininity portrayed in the media.
Bordo describes the typical anorexic as someone who lacks power in most aspects of their life and explains that often the anorexics parents have made most of the important decisions for her in her life (Bordo, 1993: 33). Therefore, these young women feel powerless in their environment and use their eating disorder as a way to exert control over one aspect of their lives (Giordano, 2005: 153). Furthermore, in the families of anorexics high expectations are placed on children by their parents, (Giordano, 2005: 144) therefore, through the development of an eating disorder like anorexia, women from middle class backgrounds find an activity they are able to achieve in – losing weight (Fulcher & Scott, 2007: 310). As the Western woman believes that thinness equates beauty, (Giordano, 2005: 149) attaining a slender figure through hard work is seen as a personal achievement as well as the fulfillment of the young anorexics parents’ expectations of her appearance (Giordano, 2005: 33). The role of social class in the development of eating disorders suggests that social structures have a cardinal effect on normal eating.
A century ago disorders such as anorexia and bulimia were almost non existent, but in the present day they are reaching epidemic proportions (Bordo, 1993: 139). Therefore, we can suggest that over the last century changes in cultural and social values must have played a crucial role in the increasing obsession with health and fitness in modern society, which can affect normal eating behaviour. Pathological disorders in individuals often reflect the character of a society (Lasch, 1979: 88) and what is wrong with a particular culture (Bordo, 1993: 141); which means that the increase in eating disorders in the 20th century is most likely influenced by the society we live in. In The Sociological Imagination, Mills’ explains that in order to understand the personal struggles of an individual, sociologist must observe the society the individual belongs to (Mills, 1959: 3). According to Bordo, ‘disorders reflect the central ills of our culture’, (Bordo, 1993: 139). This further indicates that abnormal eating behavior may be caused by the society an individual is raised in. Therefore, the connotations attached to being a slender attractive woman in today’s society, such as representing independence (Fulcher & Scott, 2007: 306) and freedom (Bordo, 1993: 60) create a desire to be thin. Furthermore, the view that obesity is a self inflicted state (Ogden, 2010: 95) contributes to the development of abnormal eating patterns because of the cultural attitudes towards individuals with certain body types. In addition to this, Bordo cites the words of Michael Sacks, an associate professor of psychiatry who argues that in the post modern age people no longer feel able to control events outside themselves, however, they can control what they eat (Bordo, 1993: 153).
In conclusion, normal eating refers to the eating patterns of individuals in a particular society. Although eating is influenced by biological mechanisms in the body which inform a person when they are supposed to eat however it is the social and cultural influences in society which will determine whether or not a person actually does eat. Mass media, family, and even education have all become a circuit linking bodily processors and social structures. Replacing history and promoting social movements.
Cultural structures such as the media are not the only structures in society that have an influence on what constitutes normal eating. This means we can infer that social attitudes towards obesity and slimness can dictate eating behaviour amongst certain groups. This suggests that the sociological approach to normal eating is valuable because it can explain how social and cultural values affect the individual’s attitudes towards eating. This means that normal eating can be viewed from a sociological perspective because the prevalence of eating disorders in some social groups suggest that social factors have an fundamental role in determining eating behaviour. Furthermore, a sociological approach is useful for understanding eating behaviour because it can explain why eating disorders appear in certain sections of society as opposed to others. Additionally, a sociological understanding of eating disorders can be applied to the treatment of eating disorders which could help people suffering from anorexia.
Therefore, The Sociological Imagination is relevant because the development of eating disorders in the individual is undoubtedly influenced by the social and cultural structures and ideals prevalent in modern Western society. Therefore we can argue that individuals within modernity use their diet as a way of exercising control over their bodies; apparently one of the only aspects of their lives that they can regulate. For anorexics dieting appears to restore the sufferers’ sense of identity (Fulcher & Scott, 2007: 309) therefore, we can argue that anorexics are individuals who best represent the effects of perceived loss of control which seems to be a central ill in modernity.
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