A tendentious argument by a feminist sociologist that eating disorders are the product of patriarchal social and economic interests that regard women primarily as wives, mothers, and decorative objects. Hesse-Biber (Sociology/Boston Coll.) surveyed nearly 400 male and female students about their eating habits and attitudes and, over an eight-year period, conducted in-depth interviews of some 60 college-age women, primarly from white middle- and upper- middle-class families, to investigate why so many women see weight as defining their identity. She rejects the idea that eating disorders are a sign of psychopathology, finding instead that the fault lies not in the individual woman but in the messages society sends women. In her view, it is to the benefit of ruling patriarchal interests—the government, corporations, the media, and the traditional family—for women to be obsessed with their own bodies, for then they ``lose control over other important aspects of selfhood that might challenge the status quo.'' Today's cult of thinness, she argues, is comparable to the practice of foot binding in prerevolutionary China and to the wearing of tight corsets in the Victorian era, customs by which male-dominated societies effectively controlled not just the appearance but the behavior of women. Unless social activists change the institutions that have shaped our culture's view that women are defined by their bodies, Hesse-Biber asserts, the cult of thinness that now afflicts primarily upper-middle-class white women in wealthy Western societies will spread to people of color in these countries and to developing nations around the globe. She suggests ways in which women can initiate social change through personal gestures within their own circle of family, friends, and coworkers. Too academic to have wide appeal, but likely to stimulate lively discussion in classes devoted to women's studies.
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