By Kate Walford, Intern 2015
What is a good body?
How do you know?
The simple answer to “why are some bodies considered perfect and others not?” would be “social construct!” This is what I was told as a teenager and during eating disorder recovery. “Oh, society will tell you to be skinny. But don’t listen to them, it doesn’t matter.”
But that wasn’t — and isn’t — really enough for me. I don’t like having other people’s social constructs in my consciousness without understanding them. Why? How? When? WHO DID THIS TO MY BRAIN?
Seriously, though. It’s not natural for women to hate their bodies. It’s not innate. Where did this come from?
My junior year of college, I started taking philosophy courses. I began to see how the world around me had been constructed by certain values, certain ideas and ideals put forth by the men and women (mostly men) who shaped Western thought. And I found that their values about a lot of things, including bodies, are still held today — whether consciously or not.
Realizing that my ideas about bodies were not real or truths was big for me. It allowed me to understand that the way the world views my body (and by default, the way I view my body) was partially developed by some old white guy in Greece or Rome or whatever about a zillion years ago. These people’s ideas had a profound and lasting impact on how our society thinks and what it values today. They were brilliant, but they also threw some fucked-up ideas out there, and they stuck.
So, no one actually implanted these ideas into my brain. Our ideas about our bodies come from a lot of different places — media, capitalism, the food industry, family, friends. They vary from era to era and from culture to culture. But these ideas all originated somewhere. If we want to fight for body acceptance and intersectional feminism and social justice, it is necessary to know the origins of what we’re fighting against.
Western thought (old, white male philosophers from Europe who wrote about the meaning of things in our world) influences American culture and values, even in the modern day. In terms of bodies, here are four ways how.
1. Mind and body are separate.
In Cartesian thinking (meaning philosophy based on the 17th-century French thinker Rene Descartes), the body and the mind are considered to be separate. The mind thinks rationally, while the body thinks only in terms of desire, which is lesser. We can see this playing out in our society today when we say things like “I can ride these cravings out, if I just use enough mental willpower.”
Many people, myself included, were socialized to believe that our brains could overpower our bodies and control them, especially in terms of self-control and food. This mind-body split keeps us from recognizing how interconnected the mind and body really are, and makes eating normally very difficult.
Has anyone ever told you to just “eat when you’re hungry, and stop when you’re full?” It’s kind of hilarious that people say this as a way to mend a disordered relationship with food, because we’ve been socialized to believe that we can and should repress those desires, not fulfill them.
2. Willpower is more important than physical desire
The ideal person, in Descartes’ mind, would have a mind that could completely control and temper bodily desires, which shows up almost constantly in our society’s relationship with food.
For example, thinspiration makes incredibly Cartesian assumptions about how someone can use willpower to control their desires and, ultimately, their appearance. The idea that self-control is better than desire is again obvious in our culture surrounding food. You are a good eater if you didn’t eat what you wanted, using your mind to control your passions, and you were “so bad” if you ate those cookies you were craving.
3. Women are always lesser than men
According to many early philosophers, including Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes, women were lesser beings. Although each philosopher thought this for different reasons, all considered them so. Aristotle actually thought that women were mutilated males, with something inherently defective or wrong about our bodies.
Women were also thought to have lower intellect and less of an ability to reason, meaning they were controlled by physical desire and therefore less capable of rational thought. This still pervades our culture today, where women are stereotypically seen as less technical and rational, and more emotional and flighty than men — making them ostensibly less suited for careers in STEM fields or politics.
We see this again with the idea that women have a harder time controlling what they eat. Thus, they “naturally” worry about weight and food, while men just don’t have to care because they can control desires more easily. Just look at advertisements for food: They’re built around the assumption that all men want to do is eat nachos and drink beer — and that it’s their right to do it. And women, apparently, always eat small containers of yogurt.
Neither of those thoughts are true. Men do not naturally regulate food intake better than women. That’s a social construct right there.
4. Rationality and temperance are the path to a good life
Many early philosophers believed that happiness could be achieved only through rational thought and temperance. As mentioned in point No. 1, rationality includes discounting the senses and prioritizing mind over desires. Those who do not prioritize rationality and exercise restraint and temperance in all their decisions are judged for being foolish and imprudent — especially when it comes to food.
We may not think of the good life today as one purely based on rationality and temperance, but studies have shown that our ideas about what makes a successful woman are linked to a certain body type and diet. Thin women make an average of $22,000 more than average-weight women. Though films about female heroines are increasingly popular, they are still almost always thin, as are most successful women on TV. Why are they still thin? Why are thin women still making more money? Because in our culture, thinness is not just thinness — it is a sign of the oh-so-revered qualities of rationality, self-control, and temperance.
As any of the 30 million people in the United States with an eating disorder can tell you, using dieting and willpower to control food and body does in no way equal the epitome of a good life. Everyone’s experience with an eating disorder is different, but intense struggles to “perfect” your body and obsessively temper your indulgences do NOT equal happiness, I can tell you that.
Somehow, the idea of how to be a good person ended up being imbued in our bodies — and our bodies became (incredibly inaccurate) reflections of our lives. Dani Cavallaro, author of The Body for Beginners, says of connecting body image to theory: “Once we realize that these images are constructed, it becomes possible to question them, to see them as myths rather than truths.”
Body image is complex and difficult for many of us. For me, knowing where the absurd standards about food, eating, and size started has helped me to heal, because I had something concrete to question, criticize, and stand up against. To have a real body image revolution, we’ve got to dig deeper than just verbally rejecting social constructs pushed upon us — we have to dig deeper into why we really value bodies the way we do. The more we know, the more empowered we are to act.