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The Body Monopoly

By Kelly A.E. Mason

FOR about a year, I did not eat meat or fish. My vegetarianism made eating on the University meal plan difficult, and I rarely ate the entrees offered in the cafeteria. I made my meals at the salad bar or cooked a cheese sandwich in the toaster oven. Meals were almost universally unsatisfying, and I was hungry a good deal of the time.

One evening, after making myself yet another salad with cottage cheese, I brought my food tray over to the soda machine. While I was getting a soda, a residential tutor sidled up to me.

"Is that all you're eating?" she asked. When I said yes, she squeezed my arm and smiled. "No wonder you're so little," she said in a congratulatory tone.

At that point, I weighed 95 pounds. I had been losing weight steadily since the beginning of the semester, and often did not feel well. Her approval did not temper my dissatisfaction with my diet.

About a week later, I had a French oral exam with a young woman professor. After I had translated some English sentences into the preterite, she told me I had done well, and then that I looked too thin.

"You've lost a lot of weight lately," she said in her thick accent. "You are getting too thin. I know girls like to diet, but you should not. You look unhealthy. There is no fat on your face," she said, stroking her own.

"You need to eat more," she said emphatically. I don't remember if I ate more that day, but I remember feeling skeletal. I wondered if people I passed on the campus walk were staring at me, thinking how emaciated I looked.

IATTEND a supposedly progressive university. On campus, there is supposed to be some awareness of women's issues and health concerns. But the students and faculty still seem ignorant of the melding of these two into female body image. Here there is no liberalism in the treatment of this subject. A lot of people think they can lay some claim on a woman's body because of her sex; a lot of people are wrong.

When a person tells a woman how she should look or how she should live, that person is exerting a form of ownership over the woman. Ownership necessarily involves objectification, and the last thing a modern American woman needs is to be objectified in her personal life. The media objectifies her enough all by itself.

If a woman is told, "You are too thin" or "You are too fat," she has been subjected her to an overwhelmingly external evaluation. Given the importance of a woman's body image in our society, the evaluation is more than presumptious and unnecessary. It is a value judgement.

I was lunching with some women friends shortly after I had given this subject some thought. We somehow got on the topic of a male friend's girlfriend. One of my friends said she did not understand the attraction the woman held.

"She's a bitch," she said.

"And she's no string bean, either," another friend of mine said meaningfully. Then they both laughed at that, and one of us cried, "Harsh." Unduly so, because, in a way, that was the cruelest kind of dismissal.

The cruelty to that woman was distinctly misogynist. People could dismiss her as a thing rather than treating her as a person because they had the societally approved venue of evaluating her worth by her body.

It is surprising that young women, who share many of the concerns and insecurities as the anorexic or bulimic, can be so catty on an issue as important as body image. But when animals are caged, they become vicious. And as women, we are caged in bodies not ours, monopolozied by the media, by our superiors, by our friends and families.

The message is "You have responsiblities, as a woman, to the community around you. You should weigh as much or as little as its standards of beauty allow you to. You need to be just decorative enough."

YOUNG women in America are beset by what might be considered a plague. According to medical estimates, as many as 20 percent of female adolescents suffer from the eating disorders of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. But "eating disorders" is a misnomer; these conditions are actually psychological disorders finding physical manifestations.

It is not inexplicable that 10 times as many women as men suffer from these illnesses. If a woman cannot find an internal coping method for her own pain, she will take socially dictated measures. If television and magazines do not lie, a woman in control of her life is attractive and a little slim, and a beautiful woman is a happy woman.

The problem is that they do lie. Bulimic and anorexic women grab hold of these myths because physical control is more readily attained than emotional control. Psychiatrists will tell you not to discuss food or appearance with these women, because doing so only encourages the illusion that appearances are all, and that the female psyche is negligible in that context.

But not only bulimics and anoerexics are hurt by the stress on appearances. For all the women who are in serious physical danger from eating disorders, countless more are in psychological danger, countless women who have eating concerns that control and paralyze their lives.

How often have we heard women refuse to go out, saying "All I'll do is eat," or, "I'm never going there again. I made a complete pig of myself''?

I am sure there are women in my dining hall who have serious eating concerns. I worry that someday, when one of them is eating a salad or some yogurt, a paradoxically ignorant tutor will approach and compliment them on their apparently pleasing slimness. And one of them might think this woman knows something. But both of them can easily find this kind of wisdom and judgment from their peers. The apple does not fall far from the tree, but the problem is now even Eve would not eat it.

"Girls" do not like to diet; girls like approval. Approval makes them feel good about themselves. But it is time we placed stock in our bodies as our selves, or an immediate extension of them, time we accepted them, time we stopped accepting weight recommendations and body advice. Only then will we get back our mental health, to which a healthy appearance is only subsidiary.

I understand that now, and I do not easily forgive myself when I identify women as "the one with the powerful thighs" or "kind of stout." It makes me nauseated to hear men in the Yard say things like "She can't be fat, because she's supposed to have all these guys after her."

I do not understand how we can continue to be hateful in a world where enough women hate themselves enough already--hate themselves enough to binge and purge, enough to starve themselves. We have presumed to tell American women that others can dictate the very amount of sustenence they can consume to look just how we like her to. It's time we all kept our mouths shut.

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