Wearing Thin

Feminist theories about brainwashed, anorexic women don't stand up to scrutiny

By Stephanie Zacharek

Published April 6, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

In the world of "Am I Thin Enough Yet?", Sharlene Hesse-Biber's study of what she calls the "Cult of Thinness," a goofy hairbrush ad becomes the enemy of women's sense of self-worth and ambition; food ads take control of the featherbrained women who do the family grocery shopping, forcing them to load their shopping carts with equal quantities of Ho-hos and UltraSlimfast; and therapy for children of parents obsessed with their offspring's weight and appearance isn't likely to do much good, because society's evil messages will still be whipping around us all like an ill wind. In the world of "Am I Thin Enough Yet?," if you're born with a vagina, you may as well just throw in the towel: you can't resist advertising, you're culturally predisposed to have a serious Twinkie problem, and not even therapy can help you. You've come a long way, baby, and you still don't know diddley-squat.

At least, that's what Hesse-Biber would have you think, and her smug superiority is so thick you can cut it with a cake server. She's one of the enlightened, holding the lantern aloft so that her less-fortunate sisters can see the way. It's not a new trick. "Am I Thin Enough Yet?" addresses the way social, political, and economic forces -- you know, the patriarchy -- have screwed up women's attitudes toward eating and body image, and we've heard most of it before. Future Trivial Pursuit question Naomi Wolf is barely mentioned; it's likely she's too "pop" for Hesse-Biber, an associate professor of sociology at Boston College. Hesse-Biber is authoritative-sounding, using scads of footnotes from psychiatric and academic journals, just in case anyone should doubt she knows what she's talking about. And almost every paragraph gives you reason to.

Hesse-Biber never uses the word "conspiracy," but she's big on the idea that a collusion of "forces" are making women feel bad about themselves. She marshals lots of figures: figures for the rise in plastic-surgery procedures and diet plans and products -- which probably are&nbsprealistic measures of women's desires -- but also figures for the increase in health-club memberships, ignoring the fact that not every woman goes to the gym to turn herself into a stick figure. We get sales figures for giant food conglomerates that produce both junk food and diet foods, so Hesse-Biber can claim that big business is consciously trapping women in a vicious circle. The idea that those businesses may be trying to give people more choices -- and so, naturally, make more money, which is what businesses in the real world want to do -- eludes her.

Like a lot of other feminist theorists, Hesse-Biber wants to help women but doesn't seem to think they're all that smart. Even if you believe that advertising affects all of us on some gut level, that it can convince our subconscious that a certain lipstick or cologne will change our lives in at least some tiny way, it's something else again to suggest that consumers don't know when they're being sold to, that they're incapable of ever resisting advertising's pull. That's the kind of superiority that academics and other well-educated types often try to get away with, and Hesse-Biber is guilty of it big-time.

She slams food advertising, telling us that "most of these messages target children, who are very impressionable, and women, who make the purchasing decisions for themselves and their families," oblivious to the insult inherent in that juxtaposition. And like those theorists, she's clueless about how the media really works, drawing loony parallels between images that have nothing to do with one another. One of her alleged pieces of evidence is a hairbrush ad from Teen magazine whose caption reads, "If this is your remodeling job, then here's your tool kit," from which she draws the conclusion that "beauty is depicted not only as a job, but as a lifelong career that requires time, energy, and. . . the proper tools" -- God forbid a girl should just want to brush her hair.

Conversely, an ad from MacUser -- a magazine for an adult, mostly professional readership -- shows a computer gizmo strapped to a male construction worker's tool belt. The image "sends a message about achievement in the male world of work -- the world of the mind, not the body." Hesse-Biber doesn't seem to get that she's comparing apples and oranges, citing two magazines with completely disparate audiences -- never mind that when most of us see a tool belt wrapped around a hunky male torso, "the world of the mind" is the last thing that pops into our heads.

Hesse-Biber has been a busy bee, conducting her own studies, squirreling away her own statistics. But if, as research cited in the book claims, anorexia nervosa affects one in every 250 women between 13 and 22, and up to a third of college-age women control their weight through vomiting, diuretics and laxatives, then Hesse-Biber's cavalier attitude toward the treatment of eating disorders is appalling. She tells a heartbreaking story about a young woman named Barbara who'd suffered from serious eating disorders, and whose father had always demanded that her mother stay trim and tan -- he even pitched a fit when the mother went out of the house in sandals without having painted her toenails. He would cut pictures out of fashion magazines for his daughters, suggesting what outfits they should buy. What should Barbara do, according to Hesse-Biber? Family counseling wouldn't be enough. "Her problem is wider than that, reinforced at every turn by the world she lives in."

Hesse-Biber would probably argue that Barbara's father got his ideas from the culture around him. Then again, maybe he's just psychotic, but Hesse-Biber doesn't allow for that possibility. What's strangest, though, is that although Hesse-Biber seems to feel some compassion for Barbara -- it's hard not to -- she's so gung-ho on changing the world that she's pretty much numbed herself to the actual individuals who inhabit it. "Clearly," Hesse-Biber says, "it is important to help individuals or families overcome their personality and even chemical 'deficits' by identifying those at risk. But this approach often amounts to 'blaming the victim.'" What she calls "blame," others call "treatment" -- and sometimes it's the only thing that will keep a young woman alive.

Elsewhere, Hesse-Biber derides self-help books and weight-loss programs that urge people to take responsibility for solving their own problems: she never acknowledges that sometimes it's healthier to change your attitudes than to eat five Sara Lees in one sitting. And in her suggestion that therapy and medication for women with eating disorders really can't help all that much in the face of that nasty old culture, she's granting the culture more power than it should ever be allowed, only reinforcing the sense of helplessness that, she claims, so many women feel.

Hesse-Biber's solutions for halting all these evil forces, from toenail-obsessed dads to big business, include boycotting consumer goods whose marketing uses ultrathin models and organizing a "10K walk/run in which women of all shapes and sizes are encouraged to participate." (That sound you hear is Calvin Klein cashing in his chips and heading for South America.) She beams at Gloria Steinem's burblings about restoring women's self-esteem by reclaiming the inner child. But what about reclaiming the Inner Amazon -- the woman with a sense of humor and of self, who can acknowledge Kate Moss' beauty and also recognize that 99% of the population doesn't look like that? During the Enlightenment, Hesse-Biber tells us, "women were viewed as incapable of scientific thinking." In the world of "Am I Thin Enough Yet?", a world where children and women are equally susceptible to advertising, that's still true.

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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