Q: You wrote Fat is a Feminist Issue in 1978. Now, in Bodies, you discuss how the thin, Westernized body is such a global brand, women in South Korea routinely undergo surgery to make their eyes appear more Caucasian. What surprised you most?
A: I find it quite interesting what goes on under the hijab. Throughout Saudi Arabia and the Middle East there’s an external view that is one thing and then an internal view around lingerie and fashion, which is a representation of the Western body, worn under the hijab.
Q: What do you see fuelling our body and size obsession?
A: A lot of things. There’s the commercialization of the body by the industries that make incredible profits on the back of body unease—the diet and the beauty and the cosmetic surgery industries, and sections of the food industry. Then there’s the intensification of visual culture in a way that has an impact on everybody’s relationship to themselves and the way in which self has come to be represented through the body.
Q: You refer to the diet and beauty industries as “merchants of body hatred.”
A: Yes. My ire and concern increases with every year as I see the evidence of more and more girls—and increasingly boys—captured by the notion that there is something wrong with their bodies. There was a new program last week in England showing 10-year-old girls, nine-year-old girls, not one of them felt that they were an okay size. They have already absorbed this idea that they have to transform their bodies, that they should mimic their moms or what’s generally in the cultural conversation and be dieting.
Q: You write about the importance of early development in establishing healthy body image. Yet you also write about 11-year-old girls in Fiji developing eating disorders after TV was introduced in 1995. How can parents prevail?
A: What I’m trying to put together is how visual culture is impacting everybody so the preoccupation with the body has infiltrated mothers’ experience. So not only are they stressing about their own bodies but they’re also stressing about the bodies of their children—whether they’re aware of it or not. You just have to eavesdrop on a conversation of new moms. This is not to blame moms: they’re a transmitter of what goes on in the culture, and they want the best for their babies. But inadvertently this is what’s happening.
Q: You’re critical of the focus on the so-called obesity epidemic.
A: Absolutely. It conceals what would have been considered troubled eating 30 years ago, but which has now become the norm for many people.
Q: How do you define “troubled”?
A: Eating when you’re not hungry, compulsive eating, girls not eating during the week but only eating on the weekends. It’s a bulimic, bingey and dieting cycle that a lot of people are caught up in—being frightened of food but surrendering to it, so that food takes on enormous significance. Those are far more troublesome problems. Obesity is just one manifestation of that, as anorexia is on the other side. If you were to eavesdrop on young women, so much of the conversation would be, “Ugh, I look so fat,” a fat-in-the-head symptom that affects very ordinary biological cues like hunger and satisfaction.
Q: You treated the world’s most famous bulimic, Diana, Princess of Wales. Do you think her illness and the discussion around it glamorized the disease?
A: The important thing to say is that she came out in around the early ’90s and gave a big talk about eating disorders. I think she helped bring out a problem that had been in the closet. I don’t really think that the issue was glamorization.
Q: Yet it seems so many of the role models for young women, particularly young female actresses, are notably thin.
A: Yes, and they’re also told that they need to be even thinner on the set. It’s the same with dancers: they come in skinny and they’re told they’re still too heavy because that’s the aesthetic, not because it’s got anything to do with how your body moves. So there’s a fetishization of the female form, which then encourages young women who are not that size by nature to transform themselves. So bulimia becomes the response: you eat but then you don’t feel entitled to keep it down.
One of the projects I’m working on is at a drama school [in the U.K.] where they’re having a real problem with young actors who won’t even have character shots, because they need to have glamour shots [for their publicity kits].