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Redefining Womanhood (?): Gender, Power, and the “Religion of Thinness”

Michelle Lelwica


This paper examines women’s use of dieting as a means for negotiating dominant cultural gender norms in the United States during the past few decades. Although women who are devoted to losing weight do not constitute a “religious” group in the traditional sense of the word, the symbols, rituals, and beliefs surrounding their pursuit of thinness have come to function much like a religion. Drawing on women’s narratives about their struggles with food and body image, as well as a variety of popular cultural images, rituals, and beliefs, I analyze this secular religion, which I call the “Religion of Thinness,” highlighting how it serves as a vehicle through which women seek the kind of power and visibility that has historically been the prerogative of men. In the end, I argue, the Religion of Thinness resurrects the dynamics of patriarchal religion, in which a woman’s “salvation” (liberation) is tied to her sacrifice and obedience to dominant social norms.

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1During the past few decades, most women in the United States have at some point worried about their weight and the size of their bodies. Nearly two thirds of college-age women surveyed report that one of their greatest fears is becoming fat (Wooley, 1984 : 198 ; Brownell, 1991 : 6), with one study reporting up to 40% of college women engaging in “anorexic-like” behavior (Thompson and Schwartz, 1982) and another finding binge eating patterns in 67 percent of “normal” (i.e., non-clinical) female college population (Halmi, et al., 1981). A more recent study found 80 percent of women in their mid-fifties expressing dissatisfaction with their bodies (McLaren and Kuh, 2004). In some urban areas, up to 80 percent of fourth-grade girls have been on diets (Brumberg, 1988 : 32). While the average American woman is about 5’4” and weighs 144 pounds, the average female model in this society is 5’10” and weighs 111 pounds (Gilday, 1992). Not surprisingly, diet books outsell any other books on the market -- except the Bible (Seid, 1989 : 4, 21). Meanwhile, Americans fork out some $50 billion a year trying to shed their “excess” flesh (Fraser, 1997 :8) -- without much success, it would seem, as all evidence suggests that Americans are growing ever-fatter (Lambert, 2004 ; Tyre, 2003). Still, it’s not uncommon to see TV ads like the one for “Nutri Systems” in which a slender, young, white woman announces that “Changing your body is as easy as changing your mind.”

2What are so many women trying to change through their pursuit of a thinner body ? What cultural values and social conditions make this transformation seem possible, if not necessary ? The eating and body image problems of millions of American women have been the subject of countless studies in the fields of psychology, medicine, and (to a lesser extent) sociology and women’s studies. Few scholars, however, have explored the quasi-religious dimensions of contemporary women’s obsession with food and thinness.1 This is somewhat surprising, given the religious resonances of such obsessions : the imaginary, sacrificial, ritualizing, ascetic, penitential, dogmatic, and devotional aspects of anorexia and bulimia, for example, all resemble certain features of traditional religion. In this essay, I draw on sociological, anthropological, and feminist approaches to the study of religion to consider how the pursuit of thinness functions much like a religion for many women today. I will argue that one of the primary appeals of this “Religion of Thinness” is that it enables its participants to negotiate conventional gender norms, particularly those that imprison them in their bodies. In the end, dieting and the pursuit of thinness is much more than an attempt to sculpt a “perfect body.” In their quest to lose weight, women seek the kind of power and visibility that have historically been the prerogative of men. Ultimately, however, women’s participation in the Religion of Thinness ties them ever more tightly to the restrictive norms they aim to transcend.

3My discussion is divided into three parts. First I deconstruct the dualism between “sacred” and “secular” meanings that prevents us from seeing the religious aspects and functions of the pursuit of thinness. This deconstruction allows me to discuss some basic features of the Religion of Thinness, highlighting its parallels and affinities with traditional religion. Finally, I examine how some women turn to this secular “religion” in an attempt to negotiate gender norms that render them powerless, norms that tie women to their bodies by defining their value through their physical appearance.

Blurring the Boundaries : “Sacred” and “Secular” Meanings

4In order to see the quasi-religious dimensions of women’s struggles with food and their bodies, we must question the clear-cut division between “sacred” and “secular” that scholars often assume. In his classic essay “Religion as a Cultural System,” Clifford Geertz cites the difference between dieting and ascetic fasting to illustrate the distinction between “secular” and “religious” behavior. This distinction, Geertz argues, is based in these practices’ diverging ends and the varying frames of meaning and dispositions they foster. Whereas weight reduction aims to achieve a finite or “conditional” goal, religious fasting seeks to attain an “unconditioned end.” Whereas dieting is tied to worldly values (presumably health and beauty), ascetic fasting takes its meaning and motivation in reference to a cosmic scheme, a picture of “a general order of existence,” of “the way things in sheer actuality are” (Geertz , 1973 : 98, 89).

5At first glance, Geertz’s distinction makes a lot of sense. One need only watch TV for an evening, page through a popular women’s magazine, join a diet club, or listen to a schoolgirl insisting she is “too fat” or to a doctor telling you to “watch what you eat” to witness the this-worldly quality of America’s reverence for thinness. Yet a closer reading of popular, professional, and experiential discourses on weight control suggests that something more is being summoned, weighed, and reckoned here, something of vast importance, especially among women. The more one observes the intensity with which many women pursue the ideal of thinness, the more the lines between “religious” and “secular” behavior become blurred because for many women, creating a body that is tight and trim becomes a matter of all-pervading significance, an end whose achievement feels tantamount to salvation.

6In her book, Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas recognized the fluidity of the distinction between sacred and secular practices. Douglas argued that “rituals of purity and impurity” such as dietary restrictions and avoidances are central to religious behavior. At the same time, she noted, “very little of our ritual behaviour is enacted in the context of religion.” Instead, ordinary practices of purification (such as abstaining from eating certain foods) are the activities through which we regularly create a wider sense of meaning. Secular explanations of these practices (such as medical hygiene and aesthetics) reduce their symbolic meanings and functions, ignoring their multiple layers of significance : their capacity to suggest a picture of the ideal social and cosmic order and to unify experience within that grand scheme (Douglas, 1966 : 2-3, 68-72).

7If Douglas’s insights blur the boundaries between sacred and secular behavior, Catherine Bell’s work shows how power operates in the creation of this distinction. In Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, Bell uses the concept of “ritualization” to highlight how meanings are produced in ritual activity. The significance of ritual practices rests not in their inherent difference from other ways of acting but in their capacity to constitute themselves as distinct from -- and holier than -- more mundane ways of acting. Such practices are rooted in the “ritualized body” : a body that has been socialized to look, feel, and act in culturally dictated ways. Ritual meaning is thus strategically created in relation to prevailing social norms and in reference to “realities thought to transcend the power of human actors” (Bell, 1992 : 8, 67, 74).2

8Bell’s work offers a way of thinking about female dieting as a popular cultural ritual that is part of the broader system of symbols and beliefs that constitute the Religion of Thinness. Through her dieting rituals -- counting calories, going to the gym, confessing “slips,” stepping on the scale -- a woman’s body is distinguished and sacralized, her fears and dreams are stimulated and managed, and prevailing social norms and structures are negotiated and reproduced. The multiple levels on which weight-loss rituals generate meaning are seen in author Sallie Tisdale’s reflections on the years she spent dieting compulsively :

After a time, the number on the scale became my totem, more important than my experience -- it was layered, metaphorical, metaphysical, and it had bewitching power. I thought if I could change that number I could change my life. . . I would weigh myself with foreboding, and my weight would determine how went the rest of my day, my week, my life. (Tisdale, 1994 : 17).

9As part of a larger network of cultural norms, beliefs, and images, weight-loss rituals do not simply create an ideal female body ; they generate a worldview, an embodied sense of self-definition, and a precarious method for navigating the limits and possibilities of being female in America at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

The “Religion of Thinness” and the Search for Meaning : Basic Beliefs and Images

10Deconstructing the dualism between “religious” and “secular” meanings enables us to see how the pursuit of thinness among American women serves what has historically been a religious function, namely, that of providing women a means for seeking meaning and fulfillment. Religions function to teach people who they are and what their place is in the universe. They do this through a variety of forms. Religious beliefs generate ideas about the purpose of human life. Sacred images provide visions of wholeness and perfection. Religious rituals foster transformation, even as they create a sense of continuity and order. The moral teachings of religions provide guidance for making a host of decisions. Religious communities create systems of support that offer stability amid life’s constant changes. And religions’ salvation stories proffer glimpses of human flourishing and fulfillment. These forms and functions of traditional religion are mirrored in the Religion of Thinness. Through a network of images, rituals, and beliefs, this secular faith offers its adherents a worldview in which thinness has salvific value.3

11Some of the basic features of this “religion” are so omnipresent that it is almost difficult to notice them. In America today, for example, the belief that thin people are happier, more successful, more virtuous, more beautiful, and more healthy -- is so wide-spread that it is easy to take this “truth” for granted. Indeed, this “truth” has become axiomatic, which is largely why it has so much power. Few people question that thinner is better. The hegemony of this belief hides its constructed and thus arbitrary character, leaving its veracity virtually unchallenged.4

12The popularity of the thin ideal stems largely from the support it receives from some of America’s most prominent discourses and institutions. In her book, Never Too Thin, historian Roberta Seid shows how scientific, economic, fashion, political, and moral authorities reinforced each other as they designated the thin body as the twentieth-century ideal. In the early 1900s, the medical establishment replaced its nineteenth-century association of thinness with sickness with a view of obesity as a catalyst for life-threatening diseases. By the 1950s, insurance companies, using data drawn from the lives of those wealthy enough to buy life insurance policies, had set standards for “ideal weights.” Meanwhile, the fashion industry was shifting its focus from clothing and cosmetics to the shape of the female body itself ; when Twiggy appeared on magazine covers in 1967, she weighted ninety-one pounds at 5’7”. Ten years later, the federal government issued a report entitled “Dietary Goals,” which warned that Americans’ overeating patterns “represent as critical a public-health concern as any before us.” This concern was not lost on entrepreneurs, who made billions of dollars selling ways to eradicate “excess” flesh. Neither last nor least in glorifying the thin ideal were religious authorities, especially evangelicals, many of whom demonized obesity and reinstated “gluttony” as one of the deadliest sins (Seid, 1989 : 85, 15, 82, 148).

13It is not just the pervasiveness of the belief that thinner is better that makes this faith so persuasive. The Religion of Thinness also attracts devotees by proffering them a clear sense of purpose. In the words of one young woman : “There isn’t a day I don’t wish I were thinner.” (qtd. Wooley, 1984 : 199). Everyday anxieties about food and body-size are common among American women, some of whom become consumed by their quest to reduce their consumption of food. “Five years ago, I went on a ‘diet’ that lasted a year and a half,” a woman explains.

During that time (and, to a lesser extent, for three or four years after), I was so obsessed with controlling and limiting what I ate that my life revolved around counting and restricting calories. . . Losing sixty-five pounds was not my original goal, but as I lost more and more weight, I began not to have any goal at all : I just continued dieting and losing -- until I weighed about eighty-five pounds (qtd. Levkin and Lortin, 1993 : 217).

14Variations of the phrases “My life revolved around what I ate” (Woodland, 1994 : 14) and “My whole life is centered around wanting to be thin” (qtd. Villarosa, 1994 : 20) permeate the stories of women with eating disorders. For women who lack alternative avenues for creating a sense of meaning and for exercising a sense of agency, food and body may be the most readily accessible means for negotiating their place and purpose in life.

15Just as religious fanaticism is generally confined to fringe movements within traditional religions, so full-blown eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia have never been the norm in the Religion of Thinness.5 Indeed, many women who want to be thin are not fanatics, and it is doubtful that any would consciously acknowledge belonging to a “Religion of Thinness.” To be sure, some women pursue a thinner body using diet books and programs that are explicitly tied to traditional religion, such as Charles Shedds’ Pray Your Weight Away, or Joan Cavanaugh’s More of Jesus, Less of Me, or Gwen Shamblin’s Weigh-Down Workshop (Griffith, 2004). But the pursuit of thinness need not be directly linked to traditional religion for it to have religious resonance. Religious or not, the beliefs that many women share about food and their bodies make them tacit and perhaps unwitting participants in this broader faith. The Religion of Thinness includes millions of women whose bodies and eating habits are considered to be perfectly healthy : “normal” women whose eating patterns typically involve self-monitoring and restriction and whose attitudes towards their bodies include some measure of discontent.

16For most women in the U.S. today, such discontent evolves in relation to popular culture’s iconography of womanhood. One need not be an avid reader of women’s magazines to be exposed to the vision of feminine perfection that these popular texts construct. Such visions are everywhere : at newsstands, on billboards, in the doctor’s office, at the checkout line in the grocery store. For devotees of the Religion of Thinness, images of model women are not simply “models of” womanhood ; they are also “models for” womanhood, creating a paradigm or example for every woman to follow.6 In a culture where few other female role models enjoy such visibility and influence, these icons are the visions in reference to which many women learn to relate to their own bodies, to others, and to their deepest anxieties and dreams. A young woman explains :

My mother always wanted me to be happy. Unfortunately, her definition of happiness was skinny, pretty, married, and rich. . . My conceptual system became based on comparison and contrast with other women. In a way, I had perfectly clear vision : The ideal of beauty represented by a fashion model was not the figure I was in the mirror (Lorton and Levkin, 1993 : 218-219).

17Like religious images of holy women, glossy visions of female models represent the feminine ideal. The social make up of this ideal is neither arbitrary nor accidental. In a society where most overt forms of discrimination are rhetorically proscribed, popular models of and for womanhood play a key (if subtle) role in maintaining oppressive attitudes and social arrangements.7 They do so by normalizing a particular body type and appearance : thin, young, white, and rich. Through their homogeny and ubiquity, the ideal that these images represent has become the norm to which many women aspire.

18While images of thin, young, white, affluent models reflect the Euro-American apex of womanhood, the influence of such icons circulates well beyond the United States’ borders. Women in developing countries are prime targets of corporate ad campaigns that feature Anglo-Saxon female models. And studies show increasing signs of troubled eating and poor body image among women in countries exposed to Western media images of women (Bhugra, 2000 ; Furukawa, 1994 ; Dolan, 1991 ; Hooper and Garner, 1986 ; Bulik, 1987 : 133). In America, a growing portion of the $78 million that diet companies spend on advertising is now targeting Black and Latina women, especially those believed to be upwardly mobile (Fraser, 1997 : 143-144) Although Euro-American models represent the norm/ideal for women in the U.S., recognition of this norm/ideal does not necessarily imply acceptance. One Black woman remarked : “If I hear ‘beautiful woman’ the image of a white woman surfaces in me sooner than that of a Black. Strange, because I generally do find Black women a lot more beautiful than white” (qtd. Chapkis, 1986 : 60). This discrepancy illustrates how the uniformity, accessibility, and ubiquity of the standard (white) models of womanhood infiltrate the subjectivities of a diversity of women.

19Increasing representations of “diversity” among female models during the past few decades have done little to challenge the normative (thin-young-white-wealthy) ideal. “Ethnic-looking” models are often very light-skinned, and/or they have features associated with the Caucasian ideal (e.g., thin nose and lips). In addition, models of color are often placed in contexts or positions that suggest their sexual availability and/or closeness to nature, thereby reinforcing rather than challenging popular myths about women of color. In effect, the apparent “diversification” of female models reflects what Bell Hooks calls “the commodification of otherness,” a common tactic in popular culture designed to increase profits, rather than raise awareness about racial injustice (Hooks, 1992 : 63-67, 71-72, 21).

20However “diverse” the supermodels have become during the past few decades, there is one aspect of their physical makeup that remains narrowly uniform : the size of their bodies. The monotonous thinness of diverse female models suggests that slenderness is a defining feature of the dominant culture’s feminine ideal. But thinness is not just a matter of beauty among those devoted to achieving this ideal. For many women, the “beauty” of the thin female body is connected to its “goodness.” The “good body” is a body that has transcended the grosser, “sinful” urges of the flesh. More specifically, the “good body” is a thin body because slenderness is seen to be the physical manifestation of a self that has exercised the virtue of self-control.

21Decisions about whether or what to eat have moral significance for participants of the Religion of Thinness. In their interviews with adolescent girls, for example, Deborah Tolman and Elizabeth Debold asked a seventh grader to describe a moral conflict she had recently experienced. The slender blond girl responded by recounting the “conflict of whether I wanted the calories of two [pastries], or should I only have one.” Basically, the choice boiled down to “whether or not I wanted the calories or to be good.” When her interviewers asked what she meant by “good,” the girl explained : “’Good’ means not to have too many calories, or you’ll be fat like I am” (qtd. Tolman and Debold, 1994 :307)

Negotiating the Narrow Norms of Womanhood

22Women who devote themselves to thinness do not constitute a “religious group” per se, but these women share a repertoire of beliefs, images, rituals, and moral codes that promise “salvation” in the form of a fat-free body. On one level, women’s participation in the Religion of Thinness reflects their collusion with conventional gender expectations, particularly those that define women’s value primarily through their bodies (and especially through their physical appearance). Many women admit that they enjoy the social approval that follows their successful efforts to restrain their eating. One woman reports : “The more clothes hung, the more the compliments grew. ‘What kind of diet are you on ? you haven’t looked this good in ages ; why, you look like you’ve lost ten years !” (Gross, 1993 :65). Another woman explains : “I’ve gotten a lot more attention from men as I’ve grown close to the conventional ideal of beauty. The Skinny me, apparently, has a ‘great personality’ that the fat me somehow lacked” (Washburn, 1993 :56).

23Social approval is one of the rewards that make the sacrifices that dieting entails compelling. While such approval is generated in reference to dominant cultural icons of womanhood, its appeal may be particularly strong among women who are not part of the dominant culture. A number of quantitative studies suggest a correlation between eating problems among minority women and assimilation to white, bourgeois values and norms (Smith and Krejci, 1991 ; Rosen, et al, 1988 ; Root, 1990). Several of the Latina and Black women that Becky Thompson interviewed for her multicultural study connected the pressures they felt to be thin with their parents’ hopes of becoming middle class (Thompson, 1994). For women of color, losing weight can serve as a means for negotiating dominant cultural (i.e., Euro-American) norms for femininity. “When I first started practicing bulimic behavior,” a Black woman admits, “I was very much influenced by White beauty standards. . . People treat you better when you lose weight and look beautiful.” Another Black woman explains : “Pressure to fit in with my White counterparts throws me again into a tailspin. The world we live in will be controlled by beautiful people and the thinnest people” (qtd. Villarosa, 1994 : 20).

24This last woman’s remarks capture the ambiguity at the heart of the Religion of Thinness by suggesting the connection between thinness and control. For while women’s attempts to control their appetites and tighten their bodies seem to reflect an acquiescence to the ruling codes of femininity, including those which define a woman’s value based on the “beauty” of her body, these efforts also represent a quest to redefine womanhood by negotiating some of the norms through which it is constructed. In other words, part of what makes the Religion of Thinness so compelling is that it seems to give women what traditional religion has so often denied them, namely, control and the power of self-definition.

25The connection between thinness and control is illustrated by a cover story for Oprah magazine : “Hungry ? Who’s in Charge -- You or Your Appetite ? Get Control Now !” (2004). That control has conventionally been seen as a masculine characteristic is evident in an article in Ladies Home Journal that encourages readers to “Diet Like A Man.” The article suggests that the “will-power” that losing weight requires is a quality more commonly found in men (Gerosa, 1998 : 106). The image accompanying this article depicts a woman dressed in a man’s business suit, attempting to tighten the belt around her over-sized trousers. The underlying message seems to be that a female body need not get in the way of a woman’s pursuit of success and freedom, and that losing weight is a smart strategy for removing any lingering obstacles to female power and fulfillment.

26By deciding whether, what, or how much to eat, a woman exercises a kind of self-determination that has historically been the prerogative of men. In her daily rituals of self-surveillance, a woman gains a feeling of power that she does not experience in other areas of her life. One woman who ate and dieted compulsively explains : “Food was power and control. Food was making my own decisions about what I would eat, when I would eat, how much I would eat. Food was taking control over what I looked like” (Katz, 1994 : 189). Another woman juxtaposes the sense of control she derived from her teenage dieting practices with the lack of freedom she felt in relation to her changing adolescent body, the new attention she received from men, her father’s “iron-fisted strictness,” and her parents’ insistence that she grow up : “Maybe I was looking for ways to regain dominion over an increasingly out of control situation. I could direct my food intake and physicality like I couldn’t direct those around me” (Kahler, 1994 : 228)

27Ironically, policing one’s food intake may also implicitly function to free a woman from the messy, mundane realm of food and body to which females have historically been assigned in Western thought and culture. In her essay “Food/Body/Person,” Deane Curtin observes that traditional Western philosophies have relegated food and persons associated with growing, preparing, and serving food (usually women and people of color) to an inferior realm of being, a profane and temporal realm of life dictated by bodily urges and needs. True knowledge and freedom, this vision implies, can be sought and found in the superior realm of abstract ideas, a sphere untainted by contingency, particularity, and change (Curtin, 1992 : 3-22).

28In this light, women’s pursuit of thinness entails much more than a search for social approval. It also represents an attempt to negotiate ideologies of gender that imprison women in their bodies by associating them with the realm of the flesh. In her memoir of her struggle with anorexia and bulimia, Marya Hornbacher elucidates that in their efforts to escape this realm, “we [anorexics and bulimics] claim a loss of appetite, a most sacred aphysicality.” By abstaining from food, Hornbacher continues, starving women become “superwomen” : women “who have conquered the feminine realm of the material and finally gained access to the masculine realm of the mind.” Reflecting back on her eating disorder, Hornbacher says she sees her anorexic-bulimic body as expressing “both an apology for being a woman and a twisted attempt to prove that a woman can be as good as a man” (Hornbacher, 1998 :118, 229). Given women’s historic association with the body, it is not surprising that women turn to their bodies in an attempt to negotiate a larger sense of freedom and purpose.

29The desire to transcend the prescribed limits of life in a female body and to enter the hallowed, male-defined world of ideas is a common theme in the stories of women who diet compulsively. A woman whose dieting turned into anorexia insisted that she did not need “physical, earth-plan nourishment,” that unlike most women, she could live on air and pure ideas. The reductive logic beneath this Cartesian ordering of existence is clear : “I wanted to make it as simple as possible... I finally got my diet down so simple... that I might have felt comfortable in my head--and that matters a lot. Whether something is comfortable in my head” (qtd. Bruch, 1988 :141-142). In the tidy realm of ideas, in the seemingly simple purity of thought, many anorexics and bulimics seek refuge from the changes, vulnerabilities, and needs of embodiment. “I had no patience for my body,” Hornbacher recalls. “I wanted it to go away so that I could be a pure mind, a walking brain” (Hornbacher, 1998 :108). Another woman says that her refusal to eat enabled her to live apart from the hassles of the material world : “the richness of my life consisted at the time of ideas, not of concrete things, certainly not of people. I had made a point of being ‘independent’ of the world, so to speak” (qtd. Bruch, 1988 : 205, 207)]. Ultimately, women who become devoted to thinness through an array of images, beliefs, and rituals are not simply seeking a thinner body. They are also seeking liberation from the gender norms that have imprisoned them in their bodies.

30Just how much liberation does the Religion of Thinness really deliver ? On the one hand, the sense of agency that dieting creates can be seen to reflect and embody the relative freedom that some women (mostly white and middle-class) now enjoy and that many women have come to want. Moreover, conscious eating may not only contribute to a woman’s overall health, it may also provide a venue for social critique of the “super-size me” ethos that permeates some of America’s latest eating habits.8 Surely some women watch what they eat not to get thin, but to stay well. On the other hand, “health” has become virtually synonymous with “thinness” in the U.S. today, largely thanks to the Religion of Thinness and the markets supporting it. That some of the primary rituals American culture offers women for cultivating a sense of health, agency, worth, and well-being require obedience to restrictive gender ideals suggests the limits of the power that losing weight engenders.

31While practices that aim to slenderize the female body create their own rewards (from social approval to self-definition), they do so by rendering women more subservient -- in Susan Bordo’s words, more “pliable” and therefore more “useful” to the dominant social order (Bordo, 1993 :27). Ultimately, women’s attempts to lose weight by restricting their eating can generate a sense of agency, giving them the power of self-definition, but they do so by reproducing an all-too-familiar scenario, in which a woman’s “salvation” depends on her sacrifice and submission. In this sense, the Religion of Thinness resurrects and embodies the ghost of patriarchal religion, wherein a woman’s creativity must be tied to her suffering, her power exercised through obedience, her redemption achieved through self-annihilation.

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1 There are several important studies that explore women’s religious fasting in various historical contexts. These include Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast : The Religious Significance of Food for Medieval Women (Berkeley : University of California Press, 1987) ; Rudolph Bell, Holy Anorexia (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1985) ; and Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s Fasting Girls : The History of Anorexia Nervosa (New York : Penguin, 1988). While all of these studies explore the religious meaning of food refusal among historical women, none of them focuses attention on the quasi-religious dimensions -- the religious forms and functions -- of such behavior among contemporary women.
2 Bell’s theory underscores how rituals make meanings, rather than have or reflect meanings. Ritual practices do not dramatize the symbols they reference ; rather, they generate their meanings for practical (not logical) purposes. Bell is drawing on the insights of Antonio Gramsci, Pierre Bourdieu, and Michel Foucault. From Gramsci she uses the concept of “hegemony” to highlight “the dominance and subordination that exist within people’s practical and un-self-conscious awareness of the world” and their sense of “identity” and “reality” therein (82-83). Bell’s notion of the “ritualized body” is close to Bourdieu’s concept of the “socially informed body,” the body that has incorporated the moral, aesthetic, and scientific codes of its society into its everyday habits of being (80). From Foucault, Bell picks up the idea that the body is basic to all sociopolitical relations of power (202).
3 I am currently working on a book, entitled The Religion of Thinness, in which the function that each of these religious forms serves in the “religion of thinness” is explored in depth. I am working with “GreetingLine” on this project, which will be published by Gurze Books in 2007. This book aims to be a more accessible presentation of the ideas in my first book, which is an academic study of religion, gender, and eating disorders. See Starving for Salvation : The Spiritual Dimensions of Eating Problems among American Girls and Women (Oxford University Press, 1999).
4 I am drawing here on the work of Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, and Pierre Bourdieu to highlight the role of the body in the maintenance of social order and cultural hegemonies. Foucault describes a kind of power that is central to the maintenance of social order in modern capitalist societies like the United States, where oppression by repressive violence has been “infiltrated” by more subtle forms of domination. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault argues that disciplinary power has infiltrated rather than replaced more centralized forms of power, and that the body has become a central means through which such power is negotiated. Discipline and Punish : the Birth of the Prison, trans. A. Sheridan (New York : Vintage Books, 1979) 216. See also The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, trans. R. Hurley (1978 ; reprint, New York : Vintage Books, 1990). The term “hegemony” is associated with Gramsci, an Italian Marxist who was writing during the 1920 and 1930s. See Selections from Prison Notebooks, ed. & trans. Q. Hoare and G. Nowell-Smith (London : Lawrence and Wishart, 1971). Since the 1970s, “hegemony” has been used to describe “relations of dominance that are not visible as such.” See S. During’s “Introduction” to The Cultural Studies Reader (New York : Routledge, 1993), 5. Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of “doxa” parallels this notion of hegemony. As for the role of the slender body in maintaining dominant cultural hegemonies in the U.S., one might paraphrase and build on Bourdieu’s insight to say that an injunction as seemingly insignificant as “watch what you eat” is “capable of instilling a whole cosmology, an ethic, a metaphysic, a political philosophy.” See Outline for a Theory of Practice, trans. R. Nice (1972 ; reprint, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1992),164, 94.
5 Susan Bordo makes a similar point in her essay “The Empire of Images in Our World of Bodies,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Dec 19, 2003) Vol. 50, pB6.
6 I am drawing here on Clifford Geertz’s discussion of the way sacred symbols function as both models of “reality” and models for “reality.” See “Religion as a Cultural System,” in his Interpretation of Cultures (New York : Basic Books, 1973), 93-94.
7 Iris Marion Young makes this point in “The Scaling of Bodies and the Politics of Identity,” in her book Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1990),135-136. See also Sandra Bartkey, Femininity and Domination : Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression (New York : Routledge,1990), especially 65-80 ; and Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight : Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (Berkeley : University of California Press, 1993).
8 Super Size Me is the title of Morgan Spurlock’s prize-winning documentary film, which documents Spurlock’s body’s declining health in response to his 30-day fast-food diet. Craig Lambert discusses this film and the “super size me” approach to eating among Americans in his essay “The Way We Eat Now,” Harvard Magazine Vol. 106 (May-June, 2004) : 50-58+.
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Electronic reference

Michelle Lelwica, « Redefining Womanhood (?): Gender, Power, and the “Religion of Thinness” », Anthropology of food [Online], 5 | May 2006, Online since 01 May 2006, connection on 04 July 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Michelle Lelwica

Concordia College, Moorhead, MN, USA

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Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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