Cult of Thinness

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

When she overhears conversations between young women, including those on the Boston College campus, Assoc. Prof. Sharlene Hesse-Biber (Sociology) is struck by how much of it centers around food: what they ate, what they shouldn't have eaten, what they will not eat any more.

"If they're not talking about eating, dieting or binging," she said, "they're discussing what time to go to the gym so they can exercise."

For these and many other women, Hesse-Biber said, the preoccupation - or obsession - with eating, dieting and "staying slim" has become so commonplace it is regarded as normal behavior. But the fervor with which women focus on their weight and body image resembles that found among members of a cult, she said.

"The body rituals women practice and the extent to which they sacrifice their bodies and minds to this goal seem to create a sep arate reality for them - which is a key component to cult behavior," Hesse-Biber said.

This metaphor is at the core of Hesse-Biber's forthcoming book Am I Thin Enough Yet? The Cult of Thinness and the Commercialization of Identity , a culmination of her ongoing research on eating patterns and disorders, and their relationship to emotional states and self-esteem. But Hesse-Biber goes beyond traditional psychological explanations of women's problems with food and examines broader social, political and economic forces. If the roots of the "cult of thinness" are extensive, she says, so are its consequences.

"There is, literally, a tremendous investment in thinness, and the profits are also enormous," Hesse-Biber said. "Our culture pressures women to tend to their bodies. But if you don't tend to your mind, how can you ascend into other levels of society?"

Hesse-Biber brings some historical perspective to the issue, noting the advent of corsets and other kinds of constrictive clothing in the 19th century as demonstrating the impact of consumer culture on women's self-image. Whereas that trend represented an external control of women's bodies, she said, the thinness cult of this century is emblematic of internal control, which may be even more insidious.

"It's a result of the marriage between capitalism and patriarchy," Hesse-Biber said. "The tremendous growth and success of the food and dieting industry, the beauty products industry, among others, is in line with the idea that women's bodies had to be strapped in and shaped to a certain ideal. The powerful influence of advertising and media further encourages the idea. This is bad enough in and of itself, but there is a further consequence: The more attunement to the body, the less attention to addressing social concerns."

Hesse-Biber talked to women across a wide age range, including some Boston College students, to examine how their perceptions of body image evolved. She also interviewed former members of religious cults to gain an understanding of how they fell so completely under the influence of their particular group. The similarities, she found, were striking.

"Many of the things these members talked about sounded so much like what the women went through to become a certain kind of body," Hesse-Biber said. "Take a diet club: like a cult, they become a very separate group of people, who regard being overweight as a sinful situation. They give themselves up to what the group deems a higher purpose, that of being slim, and members undergo rituals - like disrobing and mounting a scale every week. There are also the diet 'gurus,' whom you can contact if you should fall from grace."

Not only is the thinness cult spreading to younger females, Hesse-Biber says, it is extending beyond the white, middle and upper-class population where it is strongest and targeting girls and women from other socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds - and even males. Counteracting its power will take time and perseverance, but she feels the task is not impossible.

"I think you have to look at the change in increments," Hesse-Biber explained. "You start with the significant others in your life, the ones in your sphere of influence, such as sisters and daughters, and you do some public education and outreach. It's hard to step out of your culture and see what you're doing. But we have to recognize the factors which sustain this cult of thinness, like advertising, and work together against them."

Return to Oct. 5 menu

Return to Chronicle Home Page