Under Patriarchy Women Can’t Eat

anorexia_gene-4-26-11By Victoria King

Under patriarchy women may not be allowed to vote or hold public office, own property, or make choices that stray from their husbands’ inclinations. In the modern Western world we don’t have those problems anymore. But in modern patriarchy we can’t eat. Well, we can eat a little. But not too much. The current ideal that is slapped all over billboards and fashion mags is thinner than is healthy. 

Feminism took off in the 1960s and so did Twiggy as a role model. And not so long ago a headline ran in The Huffington Post: “Victoria’s Secret: She Simply Doesn’t Eat.” And we’re supposed to look like Victoria Secret models, right? Looking at women who most closely fit the ideal, anorexics consume only 600–800 calories per day, and some eat even less. Anorexia usually stems from a desire to control, often a reaction to the disempowerment of sexual or physical abuse. But what they choose to control is their bodies – shaping them as closely as they can to the skinny beauty ideal – however ugly it actually is. Meanwhile, when women become obsessed with food (trying not to eat) they don’t have the time or energy to be powerful in the world in any way.

No surprise then that the rail-thin imperative arose under patriarchy, and at a time when women’s power was rising. And it’s part of a pattern. Women under patriarchy are physically weakened in a number of ways. American women once wore corsets that restricted their movements. When sweating was thought unfeminine women could not exercise and build strength. Chinese women’s feet were once bound and crippled. Even today’s high heels can be painful and difficult to walk – or run – in, damaging feet and knees. Breast implants can rupture, perhaps turning a fall that would ordinarily only bruise into a major medical crisis. When implants are placed beneath the muscle, just using your shoulder can become risky. The extra care needed to protect and maintain implants makes women a little bit crippled. And because so many of us accept it all since we all know that “beauty hurts,” we are all left without our full capacity to live and act in the world.

Hmmm, on the other hand, maybe we should think about going to the refrigerator for a healthy snack.

This was written by one of my students and posted with permission.

Related Posts on BroadBlogs

How to Look Like a Victoria’s Secret Angel
500 Calories + Pregnancy Hormones = Perfect Body
Beautiful Women’s Hips Are Thinner Than Their Heads?

About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on May 21, 2014, in body image, feminism, psychology, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 34 Comments.

  1. All these restrictions and attempts at “enhancing beauty” are true…There’s no doubt about that. In fact, one of the reasons women came to be known as emotionally delicate was due to corsets. Fainting spells weren’t brought on by women being unable to handle daily life; it was due to not being able to take a full breath for hours at a time.

    My question about this particular post is why America has an obesity problem, if patriarchal influence is still such an issue?

    • Dieting often causes obesity along with a food obsession.

      It’s the obsession with food that’s the main problem, get skinny role models, get obsessed with food, then that obsession keeps women from thinking about other things, like inequality and politics.

      Of course, other factors are likely at work too affecting obesity, like corn syrup and processed carbs.

  2. Come on, it has nothing whatsoever to do with patriarchy, it is to do with making yourself attractive to the opposite sex. It just so happens that men are very visual and relatively obsessed with physical form, and women are relatively less interested in physical form.

    • Men aren’t visual in all cultures. It’s learned. In some places obesity is preferred. Or bound feet are preferred. It all limits women.

      • If per-se there is some place where obesity is preferred, does that prove anything? No it doesn’t. It could be preferred because of a false primitive understanding of what is healthy or what is better for child bearing, or it could be preferred because people with some particular genetic traits have different preferences to the vast majority of humanity. For example, in Mauritania women were fattened because it was supposed to be a sign of wealth. In this enlightened age, is that sound reasoning, or is that a distortion? Obviously, it’s a distortion. They eat fatty camel milk and avoid exercise to get to that point. Is that natural? Of course not. Is it healthy? Nope. Nobody teaches men in this modern age what to find attractive. With the prevalent obesity we’d expect to find men liking it since it is seen everywhere, just like it was seen everywhere in Mauritania. But we don’t, because liking it isn’t by nature the common case.

        And sorry, but men being visual is NOT learned. I’ve talked to enough men and women to know what is going on their heads on this issue. And it crosses cultural divides. Where-ever women are on the internet, making profiles on dating sites, whether Europe, Asia, Africa or whatever, they are much more likely to seek out professional photos, and men are much more likely to ask for photos. Women will ask for one or two photos, then they have seen enough. Men want dozens of photos. Women and men know this. Women care about new dresses, jewellery, getting their hair done. Men mostly don’t care as much about their personal appearance. This is all so innate to the human psyche, its really beyond refutation. You can see it in the mall with shop after shop of women’s clothing, women’s jewellery, women’s cosmetics, that we know it is innate. Men aren’t even encouraging it that much. Men want their women to look good, but not necessarily to buy a ton of jewellery or spend inordinate amounts of time fussing with make-up. In other words, its women who take this natural instinct about the visual nature of men, and _they_ push it to the limit, because they know it in their gut it is important to men.

      • Men and women are both visual and that body symmetry is preferred by both.

        If you think that men are naturally visual but women aren’t then how do you explain that tribal men don’t find breasts arousing but western women often do? How do you explain Chinese men in the past finding bound feet attractive? That’s not learned? How do you explain man finding anorexic Victoria’s Secret angels attractive? They are totally unhealthy. And so are the obese women of West Africa. Men are said to be visual because it indicates the health of the women. And yet plenty of things that men find attractive aren’t healthy for women.

        Men tend to care about looks when women have nothing else to offer — which is common in patriarchies. Charles Darwin critiqued evolutionary psychology on this point noting that in the upper classes, where women’s property was important to making a marriage, then cared more about money than looks.

        Also, look around and you will see the plenty of women aren’t wearing jewelry. I rarely wear it other than some religious symbols that have personal meaning for me. And yet my husband is obsessed with watches — I think it’s because it’s the only type of jewelry that men are allowed to wear. He suspects so too. I suspect that plenty of men would wear jewelry if it weren’t thought of as feminine. And in some cultures men wear a lot of jewelry and body decoration. Or, men don’t wear color, Lace, Ruffles these days. But they did in the past. When it is okay for men to wear jewelry, lace, ruffles, color, they do.

  3. A powerful observation. A lot of time and energy goes into trying to meet the “ideals” of beauty. It can be exhausting… and it does give us an unhealthy relationship to food, which should really be about nourishment and instead it ends up being something skewed and potentially self-destructive.

  4. ” Even today’s high heels can be painful and difficult to walk – or run – in, damaging feet and knees. Breast implants can rupture, perhaps turning a fall that would ordinarily only bruise into a major medical crisis”

    Women love shoes and choose to wear these shoes that hurt their feet. Man might have designed and develop them but men don’t really care if she’s wearing high heels or not. Women want implants, not men pushing them to have them. Women’s insecurity does this, and it’s from billionaire tycoons pushing the media images because they knwo it makes women insecure. That’s their effort is to get women insecure and obviously they are winninng and girls let them win. Coroporations can be the evil so many times people are just numbers and commodity to huge companies that just want our money even if it makes us feel bad or treat us like sub humans.

    • Marketing definitely has an effect. A common way to get people to buy something is to make them feel bad about themselves and offer something they can purchase to help. Create an impossible Standard of beauty, and you can get unlimited sales.

      But there might be more to it as Naomi Wolf argues in her classic book, The Beauty Myth, which is what this piece is based on. After all, you find styles that limit women but which don’t seem to be done from a marketing standpoint: bound feet, corsets, obesity. All of these are used to reflect men’s wealth. Patriarchy comes in in a couple of ways. First, men are never the ones who have to do these things. It’s women who have to torture themselves. But all of these things also limit women, and not men.

      On your point about women having a choice, here is an essay question my class is expected to answer:
      1. Choose a problem, ranging from poor body image to lower self-esteem to sexual dysfunction to unequal pay, or something else. How does the process of socialization and internalization affect how women experience these things? (For instance, a guy once suggested that women experience these problems because they choose to. Do they choose to?)

      The thing is, with the way socialization works women don’t actually have a choice.

      I child is born into the world and doesn’t know anything. But her brain is wired to start noticing patterns in the world. So she notices patterns and concludes, “that’s the way the world is.” Or she doesn’t understand something, asks a question, and get an answer that reflects status quo understandings from an adult. Everyone around her sees reality in the same way. And that makes the way of seeing stronger. As a tiny little girl she’s not sophisticated enough to think to question. So she grows up internalizing the culture — so culture is now in her head. Society is embedded in her head.
      You see this happen constantly in comments I get, so just when men insist that the breasts fetish is natural, And not Learned. Then all seem to experience the breast fetish and it is experienced as real, And so they think it’s simply natural.

      Typically, the only way you can see that something is learned and not natural is by comparing cultures. That’s why we know that the breast fetish isn’t natural.

      So yes, Women get implants and by high heels. But it’s not like they realize they have a choice.

      The point of the classes I teach, and the things I write about on my blog, is often to try to break those taken for granted ways of seeing. People only have a choice when they can get outside of their socialization/Internalization.

      • One more thing, men aren’t the problem. Patriarchy is.

        Patriarchy arose not because men wanted to hurt women — it arose with agriculture and attempts to avoid inbreeding, which I will write about later. But once patriarchy arose both women and men internalize it and re-create it, because it is so taken for granted and seems normal. Much of the reason I teach and write my blog is to help people begin to see something that has been invisible so that they can question it and actually have choices.

  5. So. It’s a quadruple cheeseburger with fries, followed by a chocolate dream dessert. Coming up !! ❤

  6. The need to be thin messes with your head. I have always been on the lower side of the healthy weight range growing up, recently I noticed my clothes getting a bit tight, I stepped on the scales and saw I was 58kg, about 6kg more than I was last year and still well, well within the healthy weight range. My first thought was ‘oh god I need to get back to 52kg’ , looking at the scales made me feel unhappy even though I am a healthy weight for my height.
    We should be encouraging women to be healthy and strong and have good relationships with food and exercise rather than glorifying extreme thinness and poor health.

  7. Nice post. Everyone must live life on our own terms free from unnecessary restrictions.

  8. I get the problems in society and the other main points from other blogs and I know there’s this marketing that effects women. But I guess I don’t care for the title of this blog “Under patriarchy, women can’t eat”. Yes, unfortunately women can feel bad from the pressure they might feel, not actually from men but companies who don’t give a damn about people but simply profit. I think it’s the evil or huge corporations who don’t give a damn about people, look at Walmart, Billion dollar business but people can barely make enough to live on even people who are promoted.

    Corporations target weaknesses from people and exploit it. They target men too just in a different way. Women feel it on their appearance, even though more ads are about men needing to shave their bodies now too. But ads target men and masculinity and how such products are great manly products and men are to adhere by. Virility is targeted and if a man is to focus on ads targeted to them, then a man would be worthless if he isn’t having a bunch of friends having a good time with women (beer commercials), not having girls all around him (old spice, axe body spray commercials, etc), not playing sports or doing some handyman work, outdoor stuff.

    • Well, you find the pattern even when companies aren’t involved — meaning body ideals that limit women. And the problem isn’t men, the problem is patriarchy, which both women and men internalize and re-create.

  9. I understand as a feminist you want things fixed and to help women. But using the “victim” card undermine women? It’s one thing to point out flaws, but another to say women, like women aren’t strong, and that society oir the media is making women do this. Like women don’t have strength, backbone or accountability themselves? I thought women are strong and not weak, so why is the victim card needed? Fix things and focus on what needs to be fixed on soceity instead of “we do this to ourselves and are victims to this’ because the media says this. Just like I’m fat because of Mcdonald’s instead of “you know what” Mcdonald’s is bad and bad influence on people’s diet and I COULD blame mcdonald’s, but I’m above that. That industry is bad and things need to be fixed, but I’m not playing victim or ruining my life because of mcdonald’s nor playing the blame game and will be above that as I’m strong and not a helpless person.

    • A lot of people have a hard time understanding internalization and how it takes choice away. When I was in grad school a lot of macro sociologists just couldn’t get it and felt we were blaming the victim. So you are in good company with a bunch of sociology PhD’s.

      If I knew you better I would probably be able to point out some ways in which you have done this, yourself. It’s not a matter of being strong. It’s a matter of being aware. You must be aware to make the strong choice to behave differently.

      So I’ll try briefly to explain it again: A baby is born into the world, doesn’t understand it, Needs to in order to cope. The brain unconsciously notices patterns and teaches the baby that this is how the world is. The baby growing into a young child is too unsophisticated to question. After a while, the child is so used to this way of seeing that it seems natural and normal. It’s taken for granted, Unconscious. You can’t take a choice to do something different from what you are doing until the choice becomes visible.

      Even then, you may feel a tremendous amount of social pressure. You may feel that you will be put down, devalued, if you don’t follow what society says is needed for you to be valued.

      I teach about things like this to try to help people move out of their taken for granted notions and to help them move against society.

  10. Living in New Orleans, I can honestly say that women here don’t have a problem with being under weight. Maybe the patriarchy just isn’t as entrenched here…

  11. I think this kind of problem which you have to sacrifice something to reach the “beauty” is also being experienced by male. The only difference is that the expectation of beauty that society see for female is differ with male.

    Female are considered as beautiful if they are skinny, tall, and elegant. And the society is feed by this stereotype; take a look of the Miss Universe competition, all the participants are super skinny. Male, on the other hands, are expected to have a huge ripped buff body; all male characters in the movie are pictured with ripped body shape. And to achieve it, male should eat a lot to make their body bigger. However, some male also have a crazy strict eating habit to maintain their lean body. So, I do not think that women are not expected to eat much because of patriarchy, it just how the society define beauty for female.

    • Actually, men are expected to be huge because of patriarchy, and some men take unhealthy steroids to do it.

      Sure, some guys are eating less these days to keep their weight down, but men aren’t trying to starve themselves en masse, like women so often are. It’s a very different situation for men. In one study researchers found that Women of normal weight felt they were fat, while men who are overweight tended to think they were just right. The parallel you suggest doesn’t exist.

  12. I don’t care who says it or how many people believe that thinner is better I looovvveee food. Lol. I don’t let nothing stop me from eating what I want when I want. However I do feel bad for those women who suffer with trying to satisfy the norm of thinner is better or healthier. So many woman suffer with eating disorders all because of what society says the norm is. Now that I think of it, I may start eating less if I began to gain more weight because I do believe that nobody likes the fat girl. I would be afraid to be teased. But that goes for guys as well. I don’t think it is just women who should be slim but men as well.

  13. In a lot of cultures, women are considered beautiful if they are slim and beautiful curves, therefore, their food intake were controlled. On the other hand, during the war times when food was scanty and everyone eat the minimal especially women and girls because they were not doing the heavy labor. In some cultures meat is considered the men’s food and women were not given meat because it brings on early puberty and menstruation. But in the modern world today, food intake by women is controlled because their parents and husbands wants them to look pretty and beautiful or some women choose to control their food intake because of their careers. I think women should make their own choice about their body and not be controlled by another person.

  14. In a patriarchy society, we never tell women that they cannot eat, we do not oppress them from eating, we only discourage them for eating because we as a society believe that they could become skinnier and arguably more attractive from eating less. Women have every right to eat whatever they want, but they just let our society influence their decisions.

    Women have expectations when it comes to their looks and figures, but men have the same problem as well just not to the extent of women. Women are told to eat less to have a better figure so they’re more attractive to men, while men are told to bulk up, attracting women with their muscles. Both sexes have the same problem of establishing an image to satisfy their cultures.

    But yes what you mention is true, women were always limited in a patriarchal society. Whenever you look back on human history, it’s quite horrible to what we did to women to limit them of their potential.

    • Patriarchy doesn’t use words to tell women to eat. It puts up impossible images to mimic — images that aren’t healthy or even attractive by all societal standards.

  15. Unfortunately, this tendency is really true in a lot of cultures. Many people think that the more skinny women are, the more beautiful they are. Because of this thought, women have no way to empower themselves in the society. Therefore, they cannot be strong physically, and they cannot be authoritative in the society. In my opinion, this trend and notions to “female ideal” are just stupid. If people want to make equality between men and women important and valuable, men should make the limitation of women’s ideal loosen. In addition, men should not care about the rank even though their ranks or job classes are lower than the ones women have. Moreover, women have to gain the right that respect women’s contribution to the society.

  16. Every boyfriend I have had has been very supportive of the weight I was. I was the most I could be without being considered overweight based on the BMI scale and since I have become super skinny I have found them less supportive of my weight and more so wanting me to gain back what I had. My most recent boyfriend is my biggest supporter of “fattening me up” where I find myself being stuffed to the gills in his presence and all of my previous boyfriends have commented on how they appreciated the fat content of my body, when it was more. I dropped only 8Lbs, as I am a tiny girl, and going from curvaceous to supermodel skinny has been a turn off and I am constantly told I need to eat more. And even since I have start gaining some of my weight back in muscle my boyfriend has been more than supportive about my wish to gain some more fat as well as muscle to my body as the toned cut look to my legs without that layer of fat over the top is not what I find attractive, in the realistic ways I can look, and not just I but my boyfriend and the other males in my life want the fat back!

  17. I actually disagree with this. I know that being thin has been a BIG thing for young girls to accomplish being pressure of models and magazines and commercial of weight loss to look thin. Lately I have been seeing more encouragement for curvy women. Being a curvy women myself its always been kind of difficult to fit in with the standard look of society. But I am proud of my size, and I encourage every women think of size to embrace their beauty.

    • So do you think that the push toward encouraging curvy women, and encouraging women to accept their bodies, comes from patriarchy or from feminism? I don’t get the disagreement.

  18. It scares me that this is true. Girls are surrounded by images of beauty that are impossible to reach, if not because they don’t have the same body types as the models, then because the images they see have been modified greatly. Even knowing this, however, many feel compelled to reach for these standards of beauty. For me, this has always been ridiculous, and I strive to fight against it, though I am not always successful. I still care very much how people might perceive me, but I won’t restrict my eating. It’s just not worth it to refuse to eat. Besides, most of the guys I know are quite impressed with a girl with an appetite. If a girl can be persuaded that she is beautiful without having to eat less than the necessary amount of food intake for survival, well, that’s great.

  19. Ive never really thought of all of the things that women have to do like this. But i do agree. It is holding women back. All of these things are painful and not very good for our bodies so why on earth is it the “right” thing to do? Also why haven’t women fought against it more. Im not going to lie I’ve always wanted a more thin “society approved” body which is awful but after reading this I have a little bit of a different perspective. I don’t care to have it as much.

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