Ana, Mia and Pat: The female body image

Words by Celia Esteban Serna
Art by Ana Ovilo
CW: eating disorders

Naomi Wolf once said: “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience.”

Our society worships thinness. Indeed, there is a patriarchal interest in that women are small and docile, because for most of us it is much more difficult to lose than to gain weight. Consequently, if our self-esteem depends on fitting the standards of beauty, the more inaccessible said standards are, the more time we waste, and the more “submissive” we become, given that this time is not being invested on educating ourselves, setting goals of our own and, ultimately, rebelling.

Of course, making a more accessible beauty canon would help. But it would fail to resolve the underlying problem, which is that, from a young age, we are taught to perceive our body as something that does not belong to us, something foreign that chases and confines us, something dangerous and provocative that we must monitor and check compulsively, mutilate and punish to make it “suitable”. We live in an everlasting contradiction: we feel humiliated and unprotected when we are objectified, whilst simultaneously seeking external validation. Most of us are often unbearably aware of every angle, every pose, every skinfold, as if we saw ourselves from the outside. Because we have interiorised the male gaze. And it is this need for validation that binds us to men.

In fact, many women develop eating disorders to fix something that was never broken, precisely to return to a more ambiguous and childish body, which they can call their own, and which will enable them to run away from this sexualisation. Because they hate everything that having bust, hips or thighs entails; those body parts that they see as an extension, as the appendixes of a sexuality that they cannot control. Because they need to escape from that gaze that invades everything and respects nothing. Because they want to be seen as people.

That females have self-image problems is not the root of the problem, but rather, a consequence. It is sad that we have assimilated a contemplative role and that our self-esteem depends on the extent to which we successfully fulfil this social role. Therefore, I understand when Hollywood actresses – all of whom happen to be skinny – and mainstream male singers say: “you are beautiful/ perfect just the way you are.” But what if we did not need to be beautiful or perfect to deserve to exist?

It is also not a coincidence that whenever we hear someone talking about eating disorders, many of us automatically think of anorexia nervosa. As much as it is one of the most dangerous eating disorders, it is also one to which more visibility has been given due to its close relationship with the beauty canon. That anorexia is portrayed as a mental illness that only affects young white females provides clear evidence of this. What is often dismissed is that women of colour are as likely to be affected by anorexia – and eating disorders in general – but are considerably less likely to receive help . On the other hand, the prevalence of anorexia among men is also becoming increasingly significant . Even though, in a patriarchal context, the rate at which males affected by self-image problems will never be as high as that of females, it is important that they get enough recognition and acceptance to let go of toxic masculine habits that prevent them from asking for support.

Similarly, we know more about anorexia than about bulimia because, deep down, the system admires women with anorexia for their will to stop eating, for being “strong”, whereas it looks down on women with bulimia for being “weak”, as there has been a shameful episode of binge-eating before the purge.

Regardless of the type of eating disorder, it is important that we feel for women with eating disorders, instead of pitying them from a position of privilege. And, more importantly, we should always remember that, although we may not be suffragettes, loving ourselves the way we are in a society that encourages us to do the opposite can be considered, if only a bit, revolutionary.


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