According to the British Government, the growing pressure on women to be thin is damaging their health and stripping them of their self-esteem. On June 21, 2000, ministers of the government, including Tessa Jowell, the Minister for Women, hosted the Body Image Summit in London. It aimed to consider the effects of advertising on teenage girls and women in the hopes of developing an agreement from within these industries to incorporate a social and ethical awareness in their promotional activities.
The Summit brought together leading figures from the fashion industry and the publishing industry to discuss the problem along with ordinary British teenagers who were invited to explain how the pressure to be thin affects their life. The medical industry are also concerned that images of thin fashion models and the rise of the so-called “superwaif” are to blame for an increase in eating disorders among young women. An estimated one million people in the UK are anorexic or bulimic, although few sufferers are actually diagnosed or treated (“BBC News”).
Anne Marie Cussins, author of the article, “The Role of Body Image in Women’s Mental Health”, has contributed to an understanding of why women are suffering from eating disorders. She offered both a sociological and a psychoanalytical based discussion of the problem women have with body image. The first argument presented concerned the consumer industry. Cussins explains how the consumer industries are to blame for the increase of eating disorders in the female population (2001; 106).
She argues that we once lived in a world with substance, dependability and real values, but this world is long deceased. It has been replaced with superficial standards and images of self-gratification (2001:106). Adolescents cannot grow in a culture like this because presently our society encourages lack of self-confidence, lack of self-identity and a homogenous body image. “Without a culture offering its adolescents a framework to grow up in that can be widely understood, there will be crisis” (2001; 106).
The second argument was adopted from Margaret Whitford, who has written extensively on the work of psychoanalyst and philosopher Luce Irigaray. Irigaray argues against the masculine-gender-based idea of subjectivity. Irigaray believes that women are not sufficiently represented by existing symbolic systems. She argues that they are not given a proper place in a patriarchal world. According to Irigaray, social order determines sexual order. In a patriarchal society, the males are the “producer subjects and agents of exchange” and the females are the “commodities” (Irigaray 192).
The economy as a whole is based on homosexual relations because all economic exchange takes place between men. In this society “woman exists only as an occasion for mediation, transaction, transition, transference, between man and his fellow man, indeed between man and himself” (Irigaray 193). Irigaray’s main point is that one patterns oneself to fit the “proper” gender role, which is determined by the sexual order of the society which is in turn established by the social order in that society.
By a man projecting his own ego onto the world, which then becomes a mirror, enables him to see his own reflection wherever he looks. This can lead women to the path of destruction, which may be eating disorders. In a culture such as this, women may feel forced by cultural projections into either a position of conformity or rebellion and denial. It seems that no matter which path a woman may choose, she may very well be criticized externally for her identifications with the male fantasy. Cussins firm belief on gender with reference to the study of female sexuality is just what society needs.
There is a need for women to segregate themselves from male communication in order to independently map out their gender identity. Although Cussins makes a well-researched point, she failed to include a significant support group for her case: The Riot Girl Movement. This movement was specially formed to encourage women to resist the dominant culture by removing themselves from male discourses. It bolsters women to declare themselves, support one another and express their emotions on their own terms.
It is concerned with issues such as rape, homophobia, sexuality, feminism, abortion, women’s subordination, eating disorders, body image, and fat oppression. This movement helps young women avoid, and actively resist the dominant culture that requires their obedience and their subordination. It promotes awareness of the restrictive nature of such a role in a dominant culture. The third argument is based on the feminist object relations theory, which suggests that humans are motivated from their earliest moments with the need to have significant relationships with objects (Cussins 2001).
For example, if a mother is unhappy and/or dissatisfied with her social role in her culture it may interfere with the development of the “female dyad” (Cussins 2001). This theory illustrates that trust and security must be fostered between the mother and daughter otherwise calamity may arise. If a mother is unable to teach her child, at the appropriate age, values and attitudes that are needed to enter the next stage in development, the mother may have the burden of responsibility for emotional problems such as eating disorders.
Evidence for this argument comes from Susan Gutwill who developed a useful theory of how society’s command about the “right” body and the “right” diet become imprinted in individuals and then join with their intrapsychic emotional life. She merged her theory of the internalization of culture with the object relations theory to produce a powerful therapeutic model. Many treatments for eating problems make controlling the symptom their goal; this approach merely reproduces in the patient the loss of agency created by internalized messages from a fat-phobic society.
In evaluating the article, the Body Image Summit presents many unanswered questions. It is questionable whether this organization was helpful to the problem of eating disorders or a complete failure. However, on the other end of the scale, obesity constitutes as a social problem in line with dieting and thinness. In this respect, the Summit could be regarded as a failure because it did not address this issue. However, it has drawn attention to the need for a greater availability of improved services for people with eating disorders throughout the UK.
Throughout the presentation of the arguments, it was unclear if the author was motivated by an outside source to write the article. However, after her last argument she began writing in first person about her own past and personal experiences. This is where her drive for writing this article became evident. In her experience, Cussins facilitated a homogenous group of women with eating problems and helped them understand the effects of their culture on the way they interpret society and themselves.
Cussins gives the impression that by facilitating this group therapy session, she realized how large and widely dispersed this issue is on teenagers and women across the country. The Summit provided the country with information pertaining to the effects of advertising images on teenage girls and women, but what was lacking in the Summit were the other possible reasons for why teenage girls and women are suffering from eating disorders, like culture and maternal introject. Cussins developed an article with extensive research on these two possibilities and provided the country with more information regarding this issue.
Cussins gave the impression that the article is illustrative of a feminist critique because of the arguments she used to support her ideas, but it was not intended. She wrote the article to further support the Summit by researching more on the topic. Cussins knew this issue was greater than what it seemed. She knew that it needed more attention and a great deal of more research. It’s not enough for these women to believe that the media is the cause for their eating disorders.