Food is a feminist issue: junk-food, dieting and the beauty ideal

Milly Morris

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“Self-acceptance gets minimal support while entire industries devote themselves to the profitable pursuit of change. Our bodies have become like private correctional facilities, and we their prisoners.” 

      – Ophira Edut, Body Outlaws: Rewriting the Rules of Beauty and Body Image 

Fat: the word denotes 1,000 connotations and assumptions. Fat people are lazy, unhealthy and stupid. Their suffering is due to their own stubborn refusal to eat healthily and exercise. In 2015, David Cameron announced plans to make weight-loss programmes compulsory for anybody who is obese and claiming benefits. Seems reasonable, right? Why should fat slobs lounge on the sofa getting bigger and bigger, eating takeaway pizza paid for by hard-earned taxes? This simplistic stereotype and self-inflicted rhetoric is to be played out by the government and the media to demonize another corner of society. It is the language of self-righteous bullies, picking on vulnerable individuals and blaming them for society’s ills. It is a sophisticated version of professional shit-stirrer Katie Hopkin’s vile, senseless nonsense that claims that fat people simply need to “eat less, move more.” It plays into the public’s apparent desire to watch fat people cry and fail in TV shows such as The Biggest Loser for our “entertainment.”

These notions make sweeping generalisations about people’s lives and dismiss intrinsic and ubiquitous cultural factors as to why people are overweight. A growing literature in social science uses terms such as “foodscape” or a “toxic environment” explanation for the so-called epidemic of obesity: junk-food is everywhere and part of our everyday, normal diet whereas healthy and nutritious food is expensive and apparently getting rarer.

According to the tabloid press, the worst crime you can commit in 2015 is being a fat woman: red circles around stretchmarks and cellulite, paparazzi shots that hound pregnant women for not snapping back to a size 6 frame the moment they have given birth and numerous websites dedicated to documenting actress’s weight gain. It is important to note that these tabloids and magazines are the first to point out when a woman looks too thin, or “worryingly thin” as they are often referred to as.

The pressure for women to adhere to a beauty ideal has always been present, but has evolved throughout time.

In feminist academia, Susie Orbach’s Fat Is a Feminist Issue and Charlotte Cooper’s Fat and Proud draw attention to the fight against fat-phobia, fat discrimination and the stereotypes that they believe are often “held against fat women: success, beauty, wealth, love and sexuality are attached to and depending on slimness” for women.

As Victoria Pitts-Taylor notes, Cooper relates these associations to the current religious climate, which is one of Anglo-American Christian values, “the basic tenets of which are represented succinctly through the archetypes of the Madonna and the Whore”. Therefore, obesity is seen as a choice, a “defilement of the Divine gift of the body, and a rejection of the inherent values of obligation, will-power, control, discipline and focused individual achievement”. Pitts-Taylor suggests that obesity is not only rendered “medically dangerous and deviant, but that obese women are also positioned within the moral archetype of the Whore who is self-indulgent, out of control, and sinful”.

Yet if this pressure to be slim is so intense, why is female obesity growing?

In 2015, the World Health Organisation and UK-based researchers proposed that female obesity would be a problem of “enormous proportions” with predictions that 64% of British women will be overweight or obese by 2030.

This leads to the question: are levels of female obesity sustained by the reliance that the junk-food industry, the beauty industry and diet industry have on obese women? After all, if there were no obese women and there was not an immense pressure on women to be slim, would the multi-billion dieting industry even exist?

As Naomi Wolf argued in The Beauty Myth, beauty became a “currency system”, pressuring women into submitting to the beauty industry in order to rid themselves of their perceived flaws. Has weight now become the currency system that plays into the hands of big corporations to provide women with a ‘magic wand’ for the perfect body?

We now face a catch-22: we are told that we must be thin to be happy and successful, that it is immoral to not be slim. Yet society is currently in a choke-hold from the junk-food industry and in times of austerity, it is becoming increasingly difficult to buy and prepare nutritious food. Whilst a burger at McDonald’s costs 99p, a pack of fresh apples can start at prices up to three times as much.

Instead of tackling these issues at the roots by providing easier access to cheaper healthy foods, the dieting and beauty industries are offering quick fixes to these problems: drink these shakes and be thin, wear this mascara and be beautiful. These companies have only profit in their sights, not a healthier and happier world. For example, SlimFast, the liquid meal replacement company, is owned by the company that also owns Ben & Jerry ice cream.

We are being told to chase an ideal of beauty and branded failures when we cannot meet these unrealistic expectations, expectations created by companies to cash in on women’s dissatisfaction with their appearance. Trapped in an infinite cycle, women are left funding the industries that rely on and feed their insecurities.

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