Rants & Raves
BODY WARS: MAKING PEACE WITH WOMEN'S BODIES, AN ACTIVIST'S GUIDE, BY MARGO MAINE
A Review by Lynne Murray
Clinical psychologist Margo Maine begins Body Wars by saying, "In affluent, peaceful, western culture, hidden wars are being waged. I see the victims in my clinical treatment program every day. They are locked in the prison camps known in the health care systems cells 307.10, 307.51, and 307.50, the psychiatric diagnoses for Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa and Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified... Between five and 20 percent of them will die. But these women are not the only victims. In fact, most women in westernized cultures are waging war against their natural bodies."
Body Wars is a book that is equally valuable for people new to size acceptance and for those who are looking for a way to make a difference. A trustee and past president of Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention, Dr. Maine provides a wealth of useful tools in a very accessible format.
If every woman in America spent a few minutes a day on her "25 Ways to Love Your Body" (p. 14 and 15, Body Wars), we could free up enough energy, not to mention funds—currently locked up and totally wasted in futile self-hating behaviors—to accomplish unimaginable good for the world.
Dr. Maine wrote this book as an activist's guide for helping women overcome the self-hatred and body dissatisfaction that lead to eating disorders.
Chapter titles include:
Weightism: The "Politically Correct" Form of Prejudice;
Obesity: Fact or Fiction;
Dieting: Deceit, Danger and Death;
Advertising: Guerrilla Warfare;
Violence Against Women: The Deadliest Body War;
Schools: A Problem or Solution?;
Sports: Just Another War Zone?;
and even Ballet: The Olympics of Body Wars! And more! Each chapter has a list of resources, helpful organizations and books for further reading.
One reaction I found online to Maine's book brought back a vivid memory for me.
On amazon.com, cristinb, a PhD student in the biological sciences, noted (May 23, 2001) that she felt both angry and empowered, after checking the accuracy of the research was in Body Wars. "Being obese and having been told my whole life that I am unhealthy for carrying a few extra pounds, I checked out many of these articles and found that the author's statements about how harmful dieting is, and how a little extra weight isn't necessarily unhealthy, were completely accurate. One reviewer complained that this book was too factual, but for me it was the fact that it was so accurate that made it very therapeutic and encouraging. It gave me the power to be mad at those who are actually causing our society to be so harmful to women, rather than being mad at myself."
I liked this woman's reaction. But for some reason, it brought up an odd memory. I've read many books that compare our current culture's desire for unnatural thinness to historical ways that women's bodies were systematically damaged in order to turn them into acceptable objects.
But reading Body Wars and contemplating cristinb's reaction reminded of the first atrocity picture I ever saw.
At the age of nine, I stumbled across a history book with a photograph of a Chinese woman's bound foot, naked, without the three-inch "lotus shoes" that were so prized. There were no gory details about how her foot got that way. Just that the custom took place in China from about 900 B.C. until it was outlawed in the 20th century. I've since read about how the actual foot binding process worked—an institutionalized system of child torture in the name of beauty. But even with a one-sentence caption, the photograph hinted at the violence that must have taken place to purposefully damage and cripple a young girl in the name of what was then thought beautiful. Our own current anorexic insanity is now damaging younger and younger girls. Using the word "healthy" to describe a culture of willful starvation is just as sick as using the word "beauty" to describe a woman's systematically broken foot.
The underlying motives for pushing starvation on women, echo the motives for foot binding—to achieve upper class status, to please people in power, to become an sought-after commodity.
As poet and novelist Wang Ping says in her book, Aching Beauty (beautifully written but not for the faint of heart), "Foot binding started as a safeguard, a border between genders to separate men and women. It was the borderland for gender, class, and sex." Mothers who bound their daughters' feet passed on messages about what it is to be a woman, and how much suffering was necessary to gain power in the only way possible—by becoming an object of desire.
Our culture undermines the confidence of women. It does first a psychological and then insidious physical damage.
The message is simple—first graders get it. Fat is bad, and you could become fat. If you do get fat, no one will like you. When grammar school children are obsessed with dieting, eating disorders are a foregone conclusion. Small seeds of self-doubt grow into large trees of self-hatred that are very hard to root out in later life.
As our cultural values stand now, nothing a woman can do is ever going to win her as much praise as being thin. Conversely, any accomplishment a woman might achieve can be devalued if she is not thin. Her feet may not be crippled in the name of beauty, but her brain can be, and her body will be stunted in ways our society is too brainwashed to even begin to study.
Body Wars reminded me of how much rage can surface when we realize that we are also being conned into damaging ourselves to attain an impossible idea. Worse yet, people are making money from this prejudice. This book provides very clear and direct ideas for action, as well as tremendous resources, both in quotes scattered through the text and also in a formal bibliography at the end.
Dr. Maine emphasizes repeatedly, for those who are hearing such ideas for the first time, that women truly do have more to offer than their appearance. She includes a special section for teachers and how they can help their students develop a healthy attitude toward their bodies. The final chapter is for men and the unrealistic standards for appearance that they are facing on an increasing basis.
"We've been talking about the problem long enough: we must move into action," Maine writes. Body Wars provides readers with all the information and tools they need to take action. It's an essential reference for all women: for themselves, and for their daughters.
Body Wars is published by Gurze Books, a publisher with a tremendous assortment of size positive books on their website at gurze.com.
© Lynne Murray