Am I Thin Enough Yet?: The Cult of Thinness and the Commercialization of Identity

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Whether they are rich or poor, tall or short, liberal or conservative, most young American women have one thing in common—they want to be thin. And they are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to get that way, even to the point of starving themselves. Why are America's women so preoccupied with weight? What has caused record numbers of young women—even before they reach their teenage years—to suffer from anorexia and bulimia? In Am I Thin Enough Yet?, Sharlene Hesse-Biber answers these questions and more, as ...

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Overview

Whether they are rich or poor, tall or short, liberal or conservative, most young American women have one thing in common—they want to be thin. And they are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to get that way, even to the point of starving themselves. Why are America's women so preoccupied with weight? What has caused record numbers of young women—even before they reach their teenage years—to suffer from anorexia and bulimia? In Am I Thin Enough Yet?, Sharlene Hesse-Biber answers these questions and more, as she goes beyond traditional psychological explanations of eating disorders to level a powerful indictment against the social, political, and economic pressures women face in a weight-obsessed society.
Packed with first-hand, intimate portraits of young women from a wide variety of backgrounds, and drawing on historical accounts and current material culled from both popular and scholarly sources, Am I Thin Enough Yet? offers a provocative new way of understanding why women feel the way they do about their minds and bodies. Specifically, Hesse-Biber highlights the various ways in which American families, schools, popular culture, and the health and fitness industry all undermine young women's self-confidence as they inculcate the notions that thinness is beauty and that a woman's body is more important than her mind. The author builds her case in part by letting her subjects tell their own story, revealing in their own words how current standards of femininity lead many women to engage in eating habits that are not only self-destructive, but often akin to the obsessions and ritualistic behaviors found among members of cults. For instance, we meet Delia, a bulimic college senior who makes the startling admission that "my final affirmation of myself is how many guys look at me when I go into a bar." We even learn of six-year-olds like Lauren, already preoccupied with her weight, who considers herself "a real clod" in ballet class because she is not as thin as her peers. We are introduced to women (and men) from different cultures who themselves have acquired eating disorders in pursuit of the American standard of physical perfection. And we learn of the often tragic consequences of this obsession with thinness, as in the case of Janet, who underwent surgery to reduce her weight only to suffer from chronic illness and pain as a result. The book concludes with Hesse-Biber's prescriptions on how women can overcome their low self-image through therapy, spiritualism, and grass-root efforts to empower themselves against a society obsessed with beauty and thinness.
Am I Thin Enough Yet? brings into sharp focus the multitude of societal and psychological forces that compel American women to pursue the ideal of thinness at any cost. It will remain a benchmark work on the subject for many years to come.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Hesse-Biber provides a 'tour de force' examination of the cultural factors that contribute to women's obsession with thinness. She weaves together a review of historical materials, an exploration of current psychological and sociological research, and interviews with women. Am I Thin Enough Yet? is a scholarly yet highly readable analysis of why women get so caught up with the quest for thinness."—Ruth H. Striegel-Moore, Ph.D., President of the Academy for Eating Disorders

"The discontent of American women is nowhere stronger than in the way they look—almost everyone thinks she is too fat. Sharlene Hesse-Biber's book combines research data with the voices of lamenting women to show us that we have not come a long way at all! We are right where we started—loathing ourselves and victims of a distorted image. We may think we have risen high in our organizations, but we only care about whether we have risen on our scales. Hesse-Biber's book asks women to liberate ourselves from this meaningless concern."—Shulamit Reinharz, Department of Sociology, Brandeis University

Whitney Scott
A cult of thinness envelops us, says Hesse-Biber, and is evidenced by a growing number of eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa and bulimia, that now affect 1 of every 250 women 13 to 22 years old. Hesse-Biber examines the socioeconomic forces affecting body perception, emphasizing the differences between men's and women's perceptions of their bodies. Most significantly, she explores the importance of body image as a major indicator to women of their worth and identity. Examining the role of the family in delivering society's messages about women as physical objects, she makes the politics of weight personal as she provides therapeutic options for those seeking to overcome weight obsessions, eating disorders, and the mind-body dichotomy that a culture that values minds more than bodies uses for social control and oppression. A good addition to collections concerned with eating disorders.
Kirkus Reviews
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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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195082418
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 4/4/1996
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

About the Author:
Sharlene Hesse-Biber is Associate Professor of Sociology at Boston College. The former director of the Women's Studies Program at Boston College, she is founding director of the National Association for Women in Catholic Higher Education and has published widely in the field of women's studies.

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