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EATING DISORDERS: THE MIXED MESSAGES OF OUR MEDIA – A HUNDRED YEARS OF HATING OUR BODIES

When did the obsession with slimness start? Peter N. Stearns, author of Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West, has studied the history of dieting in Western nations and traces it to the 1890s, when fashion began to dictate the desirability of slenderness (although the meaning of “slim” then would seem heavy by comparison with today’s standards). As corsets went out of fashion and women’s clothing began to reveal more of the body’s natural shape, the premium on slenderness grew. Each decade has seen some oscillations in the ideal, although the overall trend has been toward a greater exposure of the body and greater thinness. While women have been affected most by fashion’s dictates, in recent years men’s fashions have emphasized a move in this direction as well.Further pressure to lose weight began in the 1940s and 1950s, when the connection between cardiovascular disease and weight became more apparent and family physicians started to urge their overweight and with shorter life expectancy have resulted in doctors and insurance companies prodding people toward the goal of leanness.The problem is, meeting rigid weight requirements in Western societies, where food is plentiful and of central importance in so many situations, is no easy task. As Stearns notes: “Modern American history, in this area, is something of a civil war between injunctions for dieting, which lots of people take seriously on the one hand, and the increasingly available attractive presentations of food on the other. And food often wins.”The French, who also place an emphasis on being small and who have the same love of food, have been more successful in keeping their relationship to food healthy, possibly due to a difference in outlook. In America, being overweight has moral implications, while in France it does not. As Stearns explains, “Overweight people are not seen as merely unhealthy or even unattractive, though they are seen this way, but also as somehow immoral.” In this country, weight is taken to be indicative of a flawed character, one characterized by laziness, lack of self-discipline, or slovenliness. Sadly, for many men and women, this belief may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It has other unfortunate consequences as well. Stearns elaborates: “Various campaigns at different points in time have tried to exclude overweight people from certain job categories, partly on grounds that they were health risks, but more on grounds that they had bad character, that the weight was something that was an index of flaws that would carry over into work.”*56\233\8*

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