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Spreading the Religion of Thinness from California to Calcutta: A Critical Feminist Postcolonial Analysis Author(s): Michelle Lelwica, Emma Hoglund, Jenna McNallie Source: Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol. 25, No. 1, Special Issue: In Honor of Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza (Spring 2009), pp. 19-41 Published by: Indiana University Press on behalf of FSR, Inc. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/FSR.2009.25.1.19 . Accessed: 19/06/2011 02:44
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JFSR 25.1 (2009) 1941

SPREADING THE RELIGION OF THINNESS FROM CALIFORNIA TO CALCUTTA A Critical Feminist Postcolonial Analysis
Michelle Lelwica, with Emma Hoglund and Jenna McNallie

This paper engages a critical feminist postcolonial analysis to explore the neocolonial dynamics and effects of the spread of white-Western female body norms to women in the two-thirds world. Using the work of Elisabeth Schssler Fiorenza and postcolonial feminist theologians, and drawing on research about the growing influence of the Euro-American idealization of thinness on women in the global South, the author analyzes the missionary-colonizing dynamics of the globalization of American cultures devotion to feminine thinness, highlighting its commercial underpinnings, implicitly racist subtext, and deleterious effects on the mental, physical, and spiritual well-being of women in postcolonial contexts. Ultimately, Lelwica argues that the globalization of the Hollywood ideal of female slenderness to women in the Southern Hemisphere illustrates the extent to which womens bodies continue to function as primary sites of contact, conflict, and colonization in the process of Western expansion. On any given day, untold numbers of girls and women participate in an Internet subculture known as pro-Ana, whose fairy-like goddess Ana (short for anorexia) has been depicted as an ethereal young woman, with silky blond curls, glimmering white skin, butterfly wings, and a slender body. Anas disciples believe that anorexia and bulimia are lifestyle choices, rather than illnesses, and that those who go to extremes for the sake of thinness need not be bothered by
I am grateful to Emma Hoglund and Jenna McNallie, two of my former students at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, for their collaboration in researching and writing parts of this paper.

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the mediocre standards of ordinary people, who simply cannot understand. ProAna websites offer a variety of tools to support the anorexics quest, including Ana-Psalms, Ana Commandments, an Ana Creed, and thinspirational images of emaciated movie stars and models.1 However bizarre and troubling it seems, the philosophy and rituals of the pro-Ana movement are, in many ways, a more extreme version of the beliefs and behaviors of many ordinary girls and women in the United States. Studies show that as many as 80 percent of ten-year-old girls have dieted, and the same percentage of women in their mid-fifties express a desire to be thinner. More than three-quarters of healthy-weight adult women in this country believe they are too fat, and nearly two-thirds of high school girls are on diets (compared to 16 percent of boys). As Susan Bordo points out, full-blown eating disorders have never been the norm. The real epidemic is among those with seemingly normal eating habits, who regularly police their appetites with the aim of getting or staying noticeably slim.2 Some scholars who study this epidemic suggest the idealization of female thinness in the contemporary United States illustrates the modernization of patriarchal power, to use Sandra Bartkys phrase. Drawing on the work of Michel Foucault, feminists like Bartky and Bordo criticize the way womens disciplinary practices regarding weight and eating promise to empower them by requiring their obedience to patriarchal cultural norms. In essence, such feminists argue, the cultural mandate for women to be thin is a form of social
1 My discussion of pro-Ana draws on George Lynell, Nurturing an Anorexia Obsession: ProAna Web Sites Tout the Eating Disorder as a Choice, Not an Illness, to the Horror of Experts, Los Angeles Times, February 12, 2002; Jill Barcum, The Struggle with Ana, Minneapolis Star Tribune, May 1, 2005; and Martha Irvine, Worshipping Ana: Eating Disorders Take on a Life of Their Own for Sufferers, Brainerd (Minnesota) Daily Dispatch, May 1, 2005. For some examples of thinspirational images, see Maddie Ruud, Pro-Anorexia: The New Online Predator, HubPages, http://hubpages.com/hub/Pro-Anorexia. A quick Google search for Pro-Ana yields numerous other images and Web pages devoted to both promoting and exposing the subculture. 2 The percentage for fourth-grade girls is based on a study conducted in the Chicago and San Francisco areas cited in Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa (New York: Random House, 1988), 2. The percentage for women in their fifties appears in Lindsay McLaren and Diana Kuh, Body Dissatisfaction in Midlife Women, Journal of Women and Aging 16 (2004): 555. See also David Garner, The Body Image Survey Results, Psychology Today 0 (1997): 0. Figures for healthy-weight adult women and high school girls are from Jean Kilbourne, Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising (New York: The Free Press, 1999), 125, 14; and Susan Bordo, The Empire of Images in Our World of Bodies, Chronicle of Higher Education 50 (December 19, 200): B6B10.  Sandra Bartky, Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power, in Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression (New York: Routledge, 1990), 682. See also see Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (Berkeley: University of California Press, 199); Frigga Haug, Female Sexualization: A Collective Work of Memory (London: Verso, 1987), and Frigga Haug, Beyond Female Masochism: MemoryWork and Politics (London: Verso, 1992).

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control, and womens dissatisfaction with their bodies is rooted not primarily in biological or psychological imbalances, but in the oppressive gender norms many women internalize. Despite the important insights such analyses have yielded, they unwittingly perpetuate a kind of sanctioned ignorance (to borrow Gayatri Spivaks term) insofar as they fail to highlight the extent to which race, religion, class, and culture have been crucial aspects of the idealization of female thinness in the West.4 A closer look at the construction of this slender ideal in the United States and its spread to non-Western contexts illuminates the neocolonial dynamics of the pursuit of thinness: its implicitly racist and classist subtexts, its missionizing movement, its commercial underpinnings, and its potentially homogenizing and harmful effects on the mental, physical, and spiritual well-being of women around the world. While this analysis draws heavily on the work of postcolonial feminist scholars of religion, it is particularly indebted to the insights of Elisabeth Schssler Fiorenza. Throughout my graduate studies at Harvard Divinity School in the 1990s, Schssler Fiorenza encouraged me to move beyond a binary gender analysis (which employs gender as the primary interpretive category) toward a critical feminist analysis (which highlights the inextricable connections between racism, classism, sexism, imperialism, and other forms of domination).5 This framework shaped my dissertation analysis of the spiritual dimensions of eating and body image problems among women in the United States, and it continues to inform my work in this area.6 In this essay, I apply the same critical feminist framework to these problems as they spread to women around the globe in order to illuminate the interlocking structures of dominationracism, classism, sexism, and imperialismem4 My understanding of the term sanctioned ignorance is shaped by Laura Donaldsons discussion of the concept in The Breasts of Columbus: A Political Anatomy of Postcolonialism in Feminist Religious Discourse, in Postcolonialism, Feminism, and Religious Discourse, ed. Laura Donaldson and Kwok Pui-lan (New York: Routledge, 2002), esp. 4548. For a womanist challenge to the predominant tendency to overlook the significance of race, class, and culture in the construction of female beauty norms in the United States, see Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, The Loves and Troubles of African-American Womens Bodies: The Womanist Challenge to Cultural Humiliation and Community Ambivalence, in A Troubling in My Soul: Womanist Perspectives on Evil and Suffering, ed. Emilie Townes (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 199), 2249. 5 Elisabeth Schssler Fiorenza articulates this shift in But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation (Boston: Beacon, 1992), esp. 150. She further develops this conceptual framework in other books, including The Power of the Word: Scripture and the Rhetoric of Empire (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2007). Here she says that although she has learned from postcolonial discourses, the critical feminist epistemological paradigm she has developed throughout the years is not postcolonial in the strict sense of the term but can be said to be decolonizing (126). 6 Starving for Salvation: The Spiritual Dimensions of Eating Problems among American Girls and Women (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) is my revised dissertation. My forthcoming book The Religion of Thinness (Carlsbad, CA: Grze Books, 2009) builds on the insights of the first book and is written for a popular audience.

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bedded in womens struggles with food and their flesh in the United States and beyond. Within this framework, Schssler Fiorenzas analytic concept of kyriarchy (from the Greek kyrios: domination by the emperor, lord, slave-master, father, husband, elite propertied colonizing male) not only exposes the complex pyramidal political structure of dominance and subordination that allows the exploitation of women to flourish but also suggests how privileged women participate in the subjugation of other womenoften unwittingly.7 This is of particular concern to me as a white, Western, middle-class, educated woman striving to disengage from what Kwok Pui-lan refers to as the whole colonial syndrome by becoming more conscious of the ways privileged women like myself collude with the imperial paradigm.8 My study leads me to believe that white womens dedication to thinness is an example of such collusion, insofar as this bodily ideal is constructed through and associated with racial-class-cultural privilege. The epistemic limits of my own subject position make me reluctant to draw conclusions about the meaning(s) of the slender ideal for women in different social locations, both in the United States and in the two-thirds world. In my critique of white-Western norms for female body size, I have tried to eschew a colonial feminist agenda of saving brown women from such norms.9 At the same time, I want to call attention to the potential dangers I perceive in the globalization of the ideal of thinness by highlighting its cultural specificity and the way its universalization threatens the appreciation of diversely sized female bodies in various contexts and cultures. Two caveats before I proceed with my analysis: First, some readers may wonder why my critique focuses on the globalization of the thin imperative, rather than its ostensible opposite: the obesity epidemic thats now affecting people around the globeat least in part thanks to the transnationalization of U.S. companies like McDonalds, Pizza Hut, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. In short, I see these two trends as connected: both the glamorization of thinness and the enticement to eat a Big Mac are rooted in the dynamics of a commercially driven, globalized economy that benefits the owners and shareholders of food, beauty, diet, and fitness corporations when peoples eating habits and relationships to their bodies are out of balance.10 Second, some may worry that my critique of the white-Western obsession with thinness and its expansion around the globe does not take seriously enough
See Schssler Fiorenza, But She Said, 8, 11424, and The Power of the Word, 1. Kwok Pui-lan, Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 2; and Donaldson and Kwok, Introduction, Postcolonialism, Feminism, and Religious Discourse, 4. 9 Kwok Pui-lan, Unbinding Our Feet: Saving Brown Women and Feminist Religious Discourse, in Postcolonialism, Feminism, and Religious Discourse, 6. 10 For a more in-depth discussion of the relationship between the imperative to be thin and the encouragement to indulge (and the commercial interests supporting and linking both trends), see Religion of Thinness, chap. 1.
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the health risks of being overweight. While I acknowledge the risks associated with extreme cases of obesity, I suggest the dominant cultural fear of fat is more deeply rooted in commercial imperatives and cultural stereotypes than in the dangers it presents to health. In fact, there is evidence that, like happiness and beauty, health is possible in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.11 The Religion of Thinness in the United States Because the colonial process is doubly inscribed, affecting both the colonized and the colonizers, my analysis begins by examining devotion to thinness among women in the United States.12 My use of the word devotion is deliberate, as it points to the quasi-religious quality and function of the pursuit of thinness among many women in this country. This quest functions as a kind of cultural religionwhat I call the religion of thinnesswith its own set of convictions, myths, rituals, images, and moral codes that encourage women to find meaning and purpose in their lives through the pursuit of a perfect body.1 At the heart of this secular faith is the belief that in order to be happy, healthy, and beautiful one must be remarkably thin. Like some of its traditional counterparts, the religion of thinness offers its followers an ultimate concern in the form of a slender body. In the eyes of faithful devotees, idealized images of this body present a vision of perfection, while daily rituals like counting fat grams and burning calories create a sense of order. Though physical, the perfection of the model womans body has spiritual overtones as well: this is what a good body (supposedly) looks like. Correspondingly, the religion of thinness has its own ethical guidelines: there are good foods and bad foods, as well as guilt and the possibility of penance (dieting, starving, purging, and so on) for those who transgress. Before-and-after images invite women to be born again by downsizing their bodies, while advertisements entice them to avoid temptation by eating products that are low calorie or fat free. Ultimately, the religion of thinness lures adherents by promising a kind of personal salvation: the happiness, health, status, and beauty that the thin feminine figure seems to embody. By highlighting the quasi-religious dimensions of U.S. womens quest for
11 The Health at Every Size Journal (now out of print, but formerly published by Grze Books) was a helpful resource for this perspective. See also Paul Campos, Abigail Saguy, Paul Oliver, and Glen Gaesser, The Epidemiology of Overweight and Obesity: Public Health Crisis or Moral Panic? International Journal of Epidemiology 5 (2006): 5560; Abigail Saguy and Kevin Riley, Weighing Both Sides: Morality, Mortality, and Framing Contests over Obesity Journal of Health, Politics, Policy, and Law 0 (2005): 869921; and Nancy Hellmich, Chewing Over the Past Year, USA Today, December 27, 2005. 12 On the concept of double inscription, see Kwok, Postcolonial Imagination, 127. 1 My analysis of the religion of thinness draws on the ideas in Starving for Salvation and is more fully developed in The Religion of Thinness.

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thinness, the concept of the religion of thinness deconstructs the binary between religious and secular that Schssler Fiorenza questions in her critique of both fundamentalist and scientific-positivist paradigms and that postcolonial thinkers have identified as a central feature of the colonialist imagination.14 In so doing, it allows us to see some of the long-standing oppressive attitudes and ideas on which this quest is based. Embedded in various forms of the religion of thinness (its creeds, icons, rituals, ethical codes, and so on) is the same kyriarchal and dualistic thinking that characterizes patriarchal aspects of traditional religions. Women are not only associated with and defined by the inferior realm of the flesh (while men represent mind or spirit) but they also are told they must rise above their carnal appetitesincluding the desire to eatif they want to be happy, healthy, beautiful, and good. Like patriarchal religion, the religion of thinness encourages womens suffering, sacrifice, and self-denial as a means for exercising power and gaining public approval. It pits good women against those who lack redemption (who have let themselves go), idealizing a slender few and placing them on a pedestal (or a magazine cover), while leaving the rest to compete with each other as they compare themselves to the ideal forever falling short. The aesthetic hierarchy of female bodies that the religion of thinness reflects and perpetuates operates out of a superiority complex that encourages women to improve themselves by renovating their bodies. Classic Christian moral concepts like sin and salvation support this pyramidical ordering of female bodies. As Sharon Betcher points out, the Augustinian binary of brokenness/wholeness is embedded in the dominant cultural/ colonial optic that constructs disabled or defective bodies over and against those that are normal or whole.15 In the context of the religion of thinness, the pursuit of the perfect female form is based on representational politics and kyriarchal capitalism that render the less-than-ideal (read: fallen) female body in need of constant improvement/redemption. Women are encouraged to engage in a never-ending process of monitoring, reforming, restricting, judging, and punishing their bodies, and a wide assortment of multinational corporationsfrom the beauty and fashion industries to diet and fitness companiesare more than happy to assist them. Indeed, these same corporations cultivate and seek to exploit the very shame they promise to cure. Within the dominant cultural gaze embedded in the religion of thinness, female bodies that fail to conform to the sleek and slender ideal appear morally wayward. This is perhaps most obvious in the rhetoric of the Christian diet movement that R. Marie Griffith discusses in Born Again Bodies. Evangelical weight-loss gurus and their disciples see fat as an emblem of divine disapproval,
14 Elisabeth Schssler Fiorenza, Wisdom Ways: Introducing Feminist Biblical Interpretation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001), 4041, 45; and Kwok, Postcolonial Imagination, 189, 202, 206. 15 Sharon V. Betcher, Spirit and the Politics of Disablement (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2007), , 5, 8, 11, 65, 109.

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a visible chastisement for those who cant control their appetites and insist on putting food first.16 But the presumed righteousness of thinness is not confined to evangelical diet circles. In doing research for her book, The Forbidden Body: Why Being Fat Is Not a Sin, Shelley Bovey found fat people described as transgressors, sinners, socially deviant, sick, irresponsible, [and] weak-willed. Boveys book chronicles the extent to which many large-bodied women internalize these views, loathing themselves for not fitting in and attempting to diet their way to normalcy and wholeness (and often endangering their wellbeing in the process).17 As Schssler Fiorenza points out, this kind of internalized oppression cannot be reduced to low self-esteem of individuals. Rather, it reflects and contributes to a public mentality that accepts such negative labeling and practices of injusticein this case the prejudice against large-bodied womenas naturally given and common sense. 18 Unmasking the Narrow, White Lady Ideal In the United States, moral/aesthetic condemnations of the well-cushioned female figure may seem natural or common sense because of this cultures dominant iconography of femininity, which idealizes the fat-free female figure. Through their omnipresence, mass media images establish a seemingly universal standard for female body sizedespite the fact that they represent a very particular cultural norm. More precisely, the tightly contoured female body delineates an elite white-Western vision of womanhood, produced and circulated by the popular media and employed for commercial purposes. This ideal of femininity is, to borrow an insight from postcolonial feminist Medya Yegenoglu, a particular masquerading as a universal, enabling one cultures coding of [female] bodies [to become] . . . the template through which all [womens] bodies are conjured.19 Glossy images of the white-Western idealmodels and movie stars who are tall, able-bodied, rich, disproportionately blond and white, and exceptionally thinsell everything from cars to nail polish to fitness videos, from California to Calcutta. The cumulative effect of this narrow but far-reach16 R. Marie Griffith, Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004). 17 Shelley Bovey, The Forbidden Body: Why Being Fat Is Not a Sin (Northampton, England: Pandora/HarperCollins, 1989), . Many of the contributors to Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression, ed. Lisa Schoenfielder and Barb Wieser (San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 198) echo the sentiments found in Boveys book and offer a more feminist response. See also Robyn McGee, Hungry for More: A Keeping-It-Real Guide for Black Women on Weight and Body Image (Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2005), for a discussion of the particular challenges large-bodied black women face in a racist, fat-phobic society. 18 Schssler Fiorenza, The Power of the Word, 8. 19 Meyda Yegenoglu, Sartorial Fabric-ations: Enlightenment and Western Feminism, in Kwok and Donaldson, Postcolonialism, Feminism, and Religious Discourse, 87, 9.

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ing model of femininity is not only to secure womens subordinate place in relation to men by defining their worth through their physical appearance but also to reinforce the hierarchical position of a select few women (those who are tall, white, wealthy, and thin) above a diversity of others. The slender ideal of womanhood described above is a contemporary incarnation of the White Lady Schssler Fiorenza identifies and critiques in her various works. The White Lady reflects the hegemonic discourse of femininity, projected and defined by privileged white men (both educated gentlemen and clergymen) in order to reserve a special sphere for elite white women. Historically, this idealized image of womanhood has been associated with such spiritual qualities as self-abnegation, obedience, sacrifice, dependence, powerlessness, and beauty and body disciplinesall of which have been called natural female proclivities.20 That women today are still rewarded for developing these supposedly inherent feminine virtues is evident in the praise they receive for denying their appetites to make themselves attractive (read: thin), that is, to construct a ladylike appearance. Thinness is a distinguishing feature of todays White Ladythe whiteWestern feminine idealin part because of its historic associations with racial, class, religious, and cultural privilege. According to historian Hillel Schwartz, the slender body became a sign of white, middle-class, Protestant, Anglo-Saxon privilege in the early twentieth century, as the plump body was increasingly associated with poor, working-class, and/or ethnic immigrants (especially women) from eastern and southern European countries.21 In the United States today, there is a negative correlation between body weight and income (higher income correlates to lower body weight), in contrast to developing nations where the correlation between body weight and income is generally positive. The link between thinness and economic and racial privilege in the United States reflects a social reality in which access to healthy food and time for exercise have become luxuries of the middle and upper classes, while unjust social conditions make

Schssler Fiorenza, Wisdom Ways, 26, 108; see also her The Power of the Word, 224. The racial, cultural, and economic subtexts of the disdain of fat and its coding as a sign of social deviancy represent a historical shift in the United States in the twentieth century. Whereas in the nineteenth century, the thin body was a sickly body, signifying poverty and social vulnerability, by the end of World War I, the more rotund body came to signify racial, and/or economic differenceas defined in reference to a norm of white, middle-class, northern European privilege. See Hillel Schwartz, Never Satisfied: A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies, and Fat (New York: Free Press, 1986), 1424. On the Americanization of ethnic minority and working-class cultures through monitoring body size and eating habits, see Schwartz, Never Satisfied, 24849; Roberta Pollack Seid, Never Too Thin: Why Women Are at War with Their Bodies (New York: Prentice Hall, 1989), 91, 226; and Harvey Levenstein, Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 104.
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obesity disproportionately common among women of color and women who are poor.22 At the same time that slenderness was becoming a distinguishing feature of feminine beauty, dominant beauty standards were defined in ways that reflected and reinforced white womens privilege. Prior to the early 1960s, for example, African American women were excluded from participating in the Miss America pageant. Coincidentally or not, the average size of Miss America has steadily decreased since then. These days, magazine, Internet, television, and Hollywood images reinforce the connection between female beauty, thinness, and racial and economic privilege by featuring mostly white, wealthy-looking models and actresses whose bodies are uniformly slender. In these images, dominant cultural norms for female body size cross-reference markers of race, class, and cultural privilege, making slenderness the physical sign of social distinction and the health, beauty, and happiness presumed to accompany this rank.2 In spite of its cultural specificity, particularly its association with EuroAmerican culture, there is ample evidence that women of all shapes and colors are impacted by the white-Western preference for skinny women. The relative acceptance of and in some cases appreciation for large-bodied women in diverse cultures have not protected women of color from the pressure to be thin. A number of studies suggest minority women in this country are just as likely as their white peersand in some cases more likelyto be dissatisfied with their bodies. Quantitative studies indicate that a growing number of U.S. women of
22 Jeanine Cogan Satish Bhalla, Araba Sefa-Dedah, and Esther Rothblum, A Comparison of United States and African Students on Perceptions of Obesity and Thinness, Journal of CrossCultural Psychology 27 (1996): 9811; and Beth MacInnis, Fat Oppression, in Consuming Passions: Feminist Approaches to Weight Preoccupation and Eating Disorders, ed. Catrina Brown and Karin Jaspers (Toronto: Second Story Press, 199), 77. According to The Black Womens Health Book: Speaking for Ourselves, ed. Evelyn C. White (Seattle: Seal Press, 1990), nearly 5 percent of black women between the ages of twenty and forty-four weigh 20 percent more than the ideal weight for their height and age (28). Such numbers concur with Albert Stunkards classic midtown Manhattan Study, which found womens weights to be lower if their husbands incomes were higher (cited in Seid, Never Too Thin, 16). See Angela Davis, Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired: The Politics of Black Womens Health, in The Black Womens Health Book, for an analysis of the sociopolitical anatomy of obesity (esp. 1920). For a critical analysis of eating problems among American Indian women, see H. Mitzi Doane, Historical Approach to Diet and Community Support Systems for Chronic Disease, in Mashkiki: Old Medicine Nourishing the New, ed. Edwin Haller and Larry Aitkin (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1992), 1089. 2 On the exclusion of black women from the Miss America pageant, see Gilkes, Loves and Troubles, 24045; and on the decreasing size of the pageants winner, see Seid, Never Too Thin, 16, 149, 249. In the words of author and former anorexic-bulimic Marya Hornbacher, thinness has become a key ingredient in the yuppification of the body and soul (Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia [New York: HarperFlamingo, 1998], 46). For analysis of the relationships between social distinction, class taste, and body codes, see Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984).

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African, Hispanic, Native, and Asian descent struggle with food and body issues, and qualitative research supports these findings.24 In interviews with ethnically, religiously, economically, and sexually diverse women, sociologist Becky Thompson found that the stresses of acculturationpressures to conform to dominant white, Protestant, middle-class, heterosexual standardswere a major factor in the development of eating problems. Describing these pressures, a black respondent to a survey about body image that Essence magazine conducted stated: When I first started practicing bulimic behavior, I was very much influenced by White beauty standards. . . . People treat you better when you lose weight and look beautiful.25 As this womans remark suggests, the white-Western feminine norm of thinness that circulates through Hollywood and advertising culture has the power to colonize the imaginations of a diversity of women within the United States. This is evident in a number of studies that show decreased levels of self-acceptance among women after viewing media images. Even those who recognize how unrealistic and oppressive such images are may have difficulty warding off their influence because of their sheer ubiquity.26 Precisely because they are
24 Some quantitative studies on the prevalence of eating problems among women of color include: Fary Cacheline, Catherine Veisel, Emilia Barzegarnazari, and Ruth Striegel-Moore, Disordered Eating, Acculturation, and Treatment-Seeking in a Community Sample of Hispanic, Asian, Black, and White Women, Psychology of Women Quarterly 24 (2000): 2445; Ruth StriegelMoore, George Schreiber, Kathleen Pike, Denise Wilfley, and Judith Rodin, Drive for Thinness in Black and White Preadolescent Girls, International Journal of Eating Disorders 18 (1994): 5969; Denise Wilfley, George Schreiber, Kathleen Pike, and Judith Rodin, Eating Disturbances and Body Image: A Comparison of a Community Sample of Adult Black and White Women, International Journal of Eating Disorders 20 (1995): 6777; Merry Miller and Andrys Pumariega, Culture and Eating Disorders: A Historical and Cross-Cultural Review, Psychiatry 64 (2001): 9110; Lionel Rosen, Christine Shafer, Gail Dummer, Linda Cross, Gary Deuman, and Steven Malmberg, Prevalence of Pathogenic Weight-Control Behaviors among Native American Women and Girls, International Journal of Eating Disorders 7 (1988): 80711; Lillian Emmons, Dieting and Purging Behavior in Black and White High School Students, Journal of the American Diet Association 92 (1992): 0612; George Hsu, Are Eating Disorders Becoming More Common in Blacks? International Journal of Eating Disorders 6 (1987): 1124; Tomas Silber Anorexia Nervosa in Blacks and Hispanics, International Journal of Eating Disorders 5 (1986): 12128; Maria Root, Disordered Eating in Women of Color, Sex Roles 22 (1990): 5256; Jane Smith and Jonathan Krejci, Minorities Join the Majority: Eating Disturbances among Hispanic and Native American Youth, International Journal of Eating Disorders 10 (1991): 17986; and Lise Leigh Osvold and Gargi Roysircar Sodowsky, Eating Disorders of White American, Racial and Ethnic Minority American, and International Women, Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development 21 (199): 1454. 25 Becky Thompson, A Hunger So Wide and So Deep: American Women Speak Out on Eating Problems (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994); and anonymous survey respondent is quoted in Linda Villarosa, Dangerous Eating, Essence (January 1994): 1821, 87, quotation on 21. 26 Alison Field, Lilian Cheung, Anne Wolf, David Herzog, Steven Gortmaker, and Graham Colditz, Exposure to the Mass Media and Weight Concerns among Girls, Pediatrics 10 (March 1999): 670. See also Kilbourne, Deadly Persuasion, 1; Thomas Cash et al., Mirror, Mirror on

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omnipresent, many women do not pay attention to the messages such representations carry; this very lack of attention makes women all the more susceptible to the images silent instruction.27 Not unlike traditional religion, the religion of thinness gains its authority through repetitious citation.28 Repeated exposure to images of a homogenously thin, light-skinned feminine ideal makes the slender white bodies of actresses and models seem a lot more normal than they really are. The cumulative effect of such images is to erode womens capacity to choose alternative visions of happiness, health, and beauty. Even when the dominant (White Lady) version of femininity is joined by models or actresses of color, many of the ostensibly diverse icons of womanhood have features associated with whiteness in this culture: thin lips, narrow nose, and, of course, a slender body. That thinness is a nonnegotiable feature of femininity by magazine and Hollywood standards underscores the limits of the diversity of models and actresses of color. Moreover, as bell hooks points out, seemingly diverse models of femininity often rely on white cultures stereotypes, like the fantasy of the black female as wild sexual savage evoked by dark-skinned models posed in natural settings (for example, a jungle) or in ways that suggest their sexual availability (or both). The lingering prevalence of such racist stereotypes in popular culture suggests the purpose of such diverse images is not to raise consciousness about issues of race, class, and gender, but rather to raise profits by appealing to a broader audience. hooks refers to this strategy as the commodification of otherness, one of patriarchal capitalisms techniques for spicing up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture in order to preserve its hegemony.29 Globalization of the Religion of Thinness The same commercial interests that produce and promote a narrow diversity of female models in the United States also underwrite the globalization of the religion of thinnessincluding its expansion to the two-thirds world. As
the Wall? Contrast Effects and Self-Evaluation of Physical Attractiveness, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 9 (198): 5158; Saundra Turner, The Influence of Fashion Magazines on the Body Image Satisfaction of College Women: An Exploratory Analysis, Adolescence 2 (1997): 60 14; and Nancy Wartick, Can Media Images Trigger Eating Disorders? American Health 14 (1995): 2627. For a discussion of the influence of young womens magazines on adolescent consumers, see Dawn Currie, Girls Talk: Adolescent Magazines and Their Readers (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999). For examples of Cosmopolitan covers from the United States, see Tyler Lee, Cosmopolitan, March 2007, http://www.tylerlee.net/magcovers/magcos.htm. 27 Margaret Miles makes this point in Image as Insight: Visual Understanding in Western Christianity and Secular Culture (Boston: Beacon, 1985), 79, 128. 28 Kwok makes this point regarding religious authority and repetitious citation in Postcolonial Imagination, 146, 149. 29 bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End, 1992), 667, 7172, 21.

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Schssler Fiorenza points out, economic globalization has been created with the specific goal of giving primacy to corporate profits and values and installing and codifying such market values globally.0 In some of the countries where the emaciated White Lady ideal circulates, a significant portion of the population has difficulty finding enough to eat. But the industries that promote faith in thinness, including the $197billion-a-year worldwide beauty industry and the $60billion-a-year diet industry in the United States, are not primarily concerned with two-thirds world womens well-being.1 They are far more interested in their money, particularly that of middle- and upper-class women in these societies. Perhaps not surprisingly, cross-cultural studies indicate that non-Western women who have adopted the thin ideal tend to represent higher socioeconomic backgrounds.2 If commercial interests propel the globalization of the religion of thinness, then mass communications play a crucial role in its missionizing tactics. The stories told and illustrated in popular movies, magazines, advertisements, and TV shows export the tall, slender, White Lady ideal to the far corners of the earth, spreading the desire to be skinny to cultures that have historically allowed for a wider variety of body shapes and sizes. The international appeal of TV shows like Baywatch creates a platform for the dominant ideal to take root in diverse womens imaginations. Much like religious institutions that seek to persuade or convert nonbelievers, the media exercises its missionizing influence by circulating norms and providing role models that shape peoples sense of self and reality, teaching them what to value, how to behave, what to think, and, of course, how to look. The medias power to socialize may not be as blatant as the churchs historic power to indoctrinate, but the missionizing paradigm beneath such lessons is strikingly similar. In both cases, the distinction between those who are saved
Schssler Fiorenza, The Power of the Word, 115. Marketdata Enterprises, Inc., U.S. Weight-loss Market to Reach $58 Billion in 2007, April 19, 2007, http://www.prwebdirect.com/releases/2007/4/preweb520127.php; the $197-billion figure is from Marianne Barriaux, Cosmetics Au NaturelBecause Theyre Worth a Lot, The Guardian, April 12, 2007, http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/feat/archives/2007/04/12/2005685. 2 Studies showing a correlation between higher socioeconomic status and the adoption of the thin ideal among women in postcolonial contexts include: Eng Khean Ung Sing Lee, and Ee Heok Kua, Anorexia Nervosa and BulimiaA Singapore Perspective, Singapore Medical Journal 8 (1997): 25; Sing Lee and Antoinette Lee, Disordered Eating in Three Communities of China: A Comparative Study of Female High School Students in Hong Kong, Shenshen, and Rural Hunan, International Journal of Eating Disorders 27 (2000): 1727; and Janet Polivy and C. Peter Herman, Causes of Eating Disorders, Annual Review of Psychology 5 (2002): 18712. It is notable that a significant proportion of studies on eating and body image problems among women outside the Euro-American context focus on women who are attending collegea population that, in most cases, enjoys at least a modicum of socioeconomic privilege.  On the socializing power of the media, see Art Silverblatt, Media as a Social Institution, American Behavioral Scientist 48 (2004): 541.
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and those supposedly in need of conversion is based on an idealized vision of perfectiona hallucination of wholeness to borrow a phrase Sharon Betcher usesthat functions as a universal spiritual/physical norm. And in both cases, homogenizing images of the ideal body/soul feed the hegemony of transnational capitalism, as popular representations of the physically fit, attractive, intact self tacitly shape peoples everyday habits, their ways of taking in or seeing the world, and their assumptions about what is natural, normal, and appropriate.4 In both cases, the missionizing project involves a process of indoctrination through which those in need of salvation (physical and/or spiritual) are given the tools they currently lack (correct beliefs, guiding images, moral codes, initiatory and daily rituals, and so on) to set them on the right path. Finally, both Christians missionizing efforts and the imperializing effects of Western media images are based on a one-size-fits-all mentality that assumes the superiority of the ideal (be it faith or thinness) and its universal applicability for every body. The media-driven, commercialized spread of the religion of thinness is particularly evident in China and Hong Kong, where both fast food and the weight-loss industry have grown dramatically in recent decades. Thirty years ago, the Chinese were regarded as one of the healthiest peoples worldwide. But as franchises like Pizza Hut and Burger King sprout up in urban centers in China, obesity has become a real issue. Beijing, for example, has become one of the fattest cities in the world, with over half of its inhabitants being overweight or obese by Chinese health standards. The trend toward weight gain in China has sparked a rapidly growing weight-loss industry. In a nation where food has often been scarce, overweight Chinese can now choose from a variety of commercial weight-loss enterprises. Some programs, such as the Mermaid Fitness Centers, integrate traditional Chinese health practices (acupuncture and a traditional Chinese diet) to help customers lose the weight they gained eating Western style. Other slimming programs, such as weight-loss camps and school programs that target overweight youth, more closely resemble Western models of commercial slimming.5 In Hong Kong and other high-income, Westernized, postcolonial Asian contexts the pressure to conform to white-Western body-image standards has contributed to the rise of eating disorders, especially among young affluent women.6 One study found that 78 percent of Chinese first-year university fe-

Betcher, Spirit and the Politics of Disablement, ix, , 1011, 65, 109, 115. Candy Zeng, Obese Chinese Feed Weight-loss Industry, in Asia Times Online, China 2006 [September 2007], www.atimes.com/atimes/China_Business/HF29Cb05.html. 6 Sing Lee, Y. Y. Lydia Chan, and L. K. George Hsu, The Intermediate-Term Outcome of Chinese Patients with Anorexia Nervosa in Hong Kong, American Journal of Psychiatry 160 (May 200): 96772.
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males expressed a concern about being fat.7 Several clinical studies support this finding, and the general profile of Chinese women who fear gaining weight is strikingly similar to that of their counterparts in the West. The missionizing affects of Western body ideals are obvious as the typical Western pattern of body dissatisfaction has overshadowed the conventional Chinese notions of female beauty.8 Many Chinese women are abandoning traditional standards of beauty as dictated by their culture to embrace the homogenizing export presented to them by the West. The homogenizing influence of white-Western norms for female body size in postcolonial contexts becomes clear when comparing the South African and U.S. versions of Shape magazine. In the U.S. version, readers commonly encounter articles proclaiming 4 Weeks to a Bikini Body, The 7 Secrets of Slim Women, and Double Your Workout Results.9 Similarly, issues of the South African version of Shape, for example, display thin, light-skinned women posing next to titles such as Build a Better You! From Flab to Fab! and 2 New Ways to Shed Kilos.40 As in the United States, these articles offer quick and seemingly simple solutions to problems that go beyond the weight one seeks to shed. Printed in English, the South African edition of Shape is just one example of colonialisms double inscription centering on womens bodies. South African women who read the publication occupy a simultaneously colonized and privileged subject position as the magazine is printed in the language of the colonizer, which presumes a certain level of educational privilege. One study links increased urbanization and the adoption of Western norms in black South African women with an increased use of weight-control measures. Traditionally, these women have been more satisfied with their bodies and have recognized a wider range of healthy body weight compared to white women in similar studies, but the trend away from this appears to show no signs of stopping.41
7 Zhang Feng Chun, James Mitchell, Kuang Li, Wang Ming Yu, Yang De Lan, Zheng Jun, Zhau Yan Rong, Zhang Zhao Huan, G. A. Filice, Claire Pomeroy, and Richard Pyle, The Prevalence of Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa among Freshmen Medical College Students in China, International Journal of Eating Disorders 2 (1992): 20914. 8 Lee, Chan, and Hsu, Intermediate-Term Outcome, 970. 9 Titles of these articles were taken from the covers of the U.S. Shape magazine found at Amazon.com, Shape [Magazine Subscription], MayJune 2007, http://www.amazon.com/Shape/dp/ B00005N7SN/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=magazines&qid=1200169802&sr=8-1 (accessed July 15, 2007). Many images representing the U.S. version of Shape can be found on this site. 40 Titles of these articles were taken from the covers of the South African Shape magazine found on Amazon.com, Shape MagazineSouth African Edition [Magazine Subscription], May June 2007, http://www.amazon.com/Shape/dp/B00005N7SN/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=maga zines&qid=12178091&sr=8-1 (accessed July 15, 2007). 41 Marjanne Senekal et al., Evaluation of Body Shape, Eating Disorders, and Weight ManagementRelated Parameters in Black Female Students of Rural and Urban Origins, South African Journal of Psychology 1 (2001): 455.

Lelwica: Spreading the Religion of Thinness



The availability of the South African Shape website ensures that South Africans who are privileged enough to have access to a computer and who understand English can obtain advice on how to achieve a healthy lifestyle. Website visitors can find inspiration in the success stories of women who have lost weight and reportedly become happier/healthier/better because of it. Such stories encourage women to measure their physical and emotional well-being according to the size of their bodies, and to create lifestyles focused on weight control. On the websites Forum, one reader testifies that Shape helped her lose pounds with a simple but very true comment, namely, If you want to lose weightburn more kJ [kilojoules] than you take in, adding that this is the motto I base my new lifestyle on. Another looks for encouragement and solidarity from others who use the websites Support Club network: Am also struggling to get in shape at the moment. Desperately need to be bikini ready! Lets all do this together, I need the motivation.42 Like its U.S. counterpart, the South African version of Shape encourages readers to engage in a constant battle with their urge to eat and to generate a great deal of meaning and camaraderie from this everyday crusade. Who benefits when a growing number of women worldwide learn to derive their sense of purpose and community from reshaping their bodily contours? Certainly, many corporations doparticularly those that promise to save women from their bodily defects and help them live their lives to the fullest by eradicating their excess flesh. But the entire kyriarchal system of colonial capitalism benefits as well when womens creative energies become absorbed in a battle to reduce the size of their thighs rather than a struggle to address the real sources of their suffering, including racism, economic disparity, (hetero)sexism, environmental destruction, Western imperialism, and war. In this sense, the religion of thinness is a (neo)colonialist, capitalist, kyriarchal corporate product with the cancerous potential to make women feel that things are not as bad as they seem as long as their bodies are tight and trim.4 That womens desires to control their appetites and reduce their bodies are neither innate nor universalbut are the product of capitalist-colonial indoctrination and conditioningis evident in studies showing that exposure to images of the slender, white-Western ideal fosters anxiety about body size among
42 These quotes were found on the South African Shape website under Forum: Support Club, January 2009, http://www.shapemag.co.za/forum/viewtopic.php?t=8 (accessed January 10, 2009). The first quotation was posted by Pokkel on January 9, 2009; the second quotation was posted by Sammac on October 19, 2008. 4 There is an interesting parallel here between politics of distraction at play in the religion of thinness and the political diversion Schssler Fiorenza identifies in the religious Rights efforts to shift attention away from [the] exploitation and militarism that accompany globalization to moral-sexual issues, such as abortion, teenage pregnancy, family values, and to groups, such as illegal immigrants and homosexuals, who are struggling for civil and economic rights (The Power of the Word, 41).

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women in non-Western contexts. A well-known study conducted in Fiji illustrates this trend. Prior to the introduction of TV in 1995, this nation of islands had no reported cases of eating problems and no signs of body-dissatisfaction. Like many less-developed nations, Fijian culture traditionally favored largebodied, voluptuous women. But just three years after United States and British programs began broadcasting there, more than two-thirds of the girls surveyed said they had attempted dieting to lose weight, and three-quarters of them said they felt too fat. A study of Arab adolescent girls and women in London and Cairo revealed a similar pattern: those exposed to Western media images were more likely to develop eating problems and body-image disturbances. A number of other studies suggest Westernization is a significant predictor of dieting behavior, and womens negative feelings about their bodies increase with exposure to white-Western norms for female body size.44 The globalizing reach of Western cultures narrow ideal is apparent in the growing body-discontent among women in India. Shikha Sharma is a medical doctorturneddietitian who runs a commercial weight-loss program in a district of south Delhi. Her clients range from young girls to women in their seventiesall seeking to reduce their size. An increasing number of them are already thin, and occasionally anorexic women come to her for help with losing more.
44 Anne Becker, Rebecca Burwell, David Herzog, Paul Hamburg, and Stephen Gilman Eating Behaviours and Attitudes following Prolonged Exposure to Television among Ethnic Fijian Adolescent Girls, British Journal of Psychiatry 180 (2002): 50914; and Nasser Shuriquie, Eating Disorders: A Transcultural Perspective, Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal 5 (1999): 5460. In Culture and Weight Consciousness (New York: Routledge, 1997), psychiatrist Merbat Nasser says that eating and body-image problems are becoming increasingly common in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and South America, especially among women in these contexts who identify with Western cultural norms circulated through the media. The following studies validate Nassers study: Gloria E. Akan and Carlos M. Grilo, Socio-cultural Influences on Eating Attitudes and Behaviours, Body Image and Psychological Functioning: A Comparison of African-American, Asian-American, and Caucasian College Women, International Journal of Eating Disorders 18 (1995): 18187; Jeanine Cogan, Satish Bhalla, Araba Sefa-Dedeh, and Esther Rothblum, A Comparison of United States and African Students on Perceptions of Obesity and Thinness, Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 27 (1996): 9811; Sing Lee, Antoinette Lee, Tony Leung, Hong Yu, and C. M. Leung, Body Dissatisfaction among Chinese Undergraduates and Its Implications for Eating Disorders in Hong Kong, International Journal of Eating Disorders 20 (1996): 7784; Anoushka Gunewardene, Gail Huon, and Richang Zheng, Exposure to Westernization and Dieting: A Cross-cultural Study, International Journal of Eating Disorders 29 (April 2001): 2899; Abdullah S. Al-Subaie, Some Correlates of Dieting Behavior in Saudi Schoolgirls, International Journal of Eating Disorders 28 (2000): 24246; May-Choo Wang, Ting Fei Ho, Jeremy N. Anderson, and Zak I. Sabry, Preference for Thinness in Singapore, A Newly Industrialized Society, Singapore Medical Journal 40 (1999): 5027; and Eng Khean Ung, Sing Lee, and Ee-Heok Kua, Anorexia Nervosa and BulimiaA Singapore Perspective, Singapore Medical Journal 8 (1997): 25. For a review of the literature on eating problems from cross-cultural perspectives, see Nerissa Soh, Stephen Touyz, and Lois Surgenor, Eating and Body Image Disturbances across Cultures: A Review, European Eating Disorders Review 14 (2006): 5465. This review suggests that there are mixed findings about the similarities and differences of eating problems and their causes among women in diverse cultures.

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Early signs of anorexia and bulimia showed up in a large number of the 450 college students surveyed in Mumbai, while another study of girls at an elite Indian college found 40 percent of respondents to be malnourished by World Health Organization standards. The author of this study, Dr. Shaukat Sadikote, believes this malnourishment to be the result of media-induced excessive dieting.45 Slender images of the White Lady circulate beyond the borders of the so-called civilized world. Girls and women in the Southern Hemisphere are prime targets of corporate ad campaigns featuring Euro-American models. A Latin American study found over 50 percent of the ads in womens magazines in Mexico, Colombia, Chile, and Venezuela featured models described as young, white, and thin.46 The cover models of Indian magazines like Femina, Elle, and Verve further illustrate this trend. Indias version of Elle parades barely clad women in designer clothing alongside titles such as Are You Fat Skinny? Under the Skin of Cellulite, and Lose 5 Pounds in 5 Days.47 In Feminas A Fad Diet Is Not So Bad, the preoccupation with weight continues. The article affirms the benefits of fad diets, claiming they bring about a certain discipline. Although it emphasizes returning to your healthy eating habits [once you lose weight], the wording implies that womens bodies are out of control and require disciplinary action. This call to action is reinforced by the Indian Elles health and fitness tips, such as Ban the Binge, which cautions women against eating out because they are more likely to overeat at restaurants. Perhaps not surprisingly, this advice for disciplinary action is based exclusively on Western research.48 Here again, the exportation of white-Western norms for female body size to women in the two-thirds world resembles the spread of European Christianity during the colonial period. In both instances, a white-Western superiority complex converts a culturally or religiously specific norm into a universal ideal. Moreover, in both cases, colonial oppression is camouflaged and sugarcoated as a form of social and spiritual mission. In this regard, the white-Western ideal of femininity that the slender body helps define is akin to the White Lady of nineteenth-century Christian missions. As Kwok Pui-lan has shown, this colonial image of womanhood served as a symbol of civilization and was used
Anita Anand, The Beauty Game (New York: Penguin, 2002), 75, 188. Jill Gay, Sweet Darlings in the Media: How Foreign Corporations Sell Western Images of Women to the Third World, in Being Beautiful: Deciding for Yourself (Washington, D.C.: Center for the Study of Responsive Law, 1986). 47 All article titles come from the 2008 Indian version of Elle covers (http://www.ellenow .com). 48 A Fad Diet Is Not So Bad, Femina Magazine, May 2007, http://www.femina.in/viewpost .php?id=97. The University of Texas at Austin was the source for the Ban the Binge tip found in Elle [India], April 2007, http://www.ellenow.com/archive/2007/april; and the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition was responsible for the suggestion to eat fish at lunch in order to eat less at supper in Fish Food, Elle [India], December 2006, http://www.ellenow.com/archive/december.
45 46

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to save brown women from their supposedly barbaric, heathen, unfeminine ways.49 As Schssler Fiorenza points out, the ideology surrounding the White Lady functioned to legitimate the exclusion of elite women from positions of religious or social authority while it made these same women colonial representatives who mediated Euro-American culture and civilization to the so-called savages.50 Like its nineteenth-century counterpart, the slender ideal of white-Western femininity functions as a vehicle for spreading northern Euro-American civilizing values in the name of helping women around the globe achieve the health, status, beauty, and happiness that thin, white-Western women presumably enjoy. The Middle East represents a ground zero of Westernization with civilizing images of the White Lady embodying the missionary spirit of the religion of thinness. Lebanon may be the epitome of this trend, as the first country in the world to offer loans to citizens to offset the cost of plastic surgery, including liposuction. In nearby Israel, a government official hired Maxim magazine to help Westernize his countrys image. Glossy pictures of thin, scantily clad women directed at young, male Israelis became the centerpiece of this campaign. The globalization of the white-Western preference for female slenderness also extends to Muslim girls in the Middle East, who can now play with the Fulla dollessentially Barbie dressed in the traditional Muslim hijab. Although designed to conform to Muslim values, beneath the hijab, Fulla looks like Barbie: disproportionately tall, slender, and big-breasted.51
Kwok, Unbinding Our Feet, 6; see also Lelwica, Starving for Salvation, 46. Schssler Fiorenza, The Power of the Word, 224. The historic relationship between Western colonialism and Christian missionizing is complex. Although the focus of Christian missionizing was primarily on converting souls while Western colonialism proceeded primarily through economic and political domination, the two efforts were deeply connected. As Schssler Fiorenza points out, Missionaries came to Asia or Africa not only in order to preach the gospel and to make converts but also in order to civilize and educate the heathens (The Power of the Word, 44). As Kwok points out in Postcolonial Imagination, Westernization and Christianization became virtually a synonymous process during the colonial period: As colonial desire and imperialistic violence were masked and reconstituted in a blatant reversal as civilizing mission, the Christian church played important roles through the sending of missionaries, establishing churches and schools, and propagating ideas of cleanliness and hygiene (17). At the same time, women who were subject to such missionizing influences were not simply victims of religious imperialism but also agents of change. Frequently, they used their ingenuity to transform the tools of their oppression (Biblical texts and teachings) into means for resisting further religious-colonial domination. Indeed, Kwok notes that the effects of missionizing on native women were not entirely negative: The introduction of the Bible to other cultures was a mixed blessing for women, who were taught to read the scriptures in the mission schools and who often developed hermeneutical methods that supported their own emancipatory purposes (62, 156). Still, colonized womens Christian education also included instructions in the cult of true womanhood and indoctrination into a sexual ideology that prescribed a dualistic and hierarchical ordering of the sexes (62, 154). 51 See Nip n Tuck Loans Offer in Lebanon, BBC News, April 20, 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/ 2/hi/middle_east/6577497.stm; on the Israeli campaign, see Kevin Peraino, Babes in the Holy
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Like women in other postcolonial contexts, Middle Eastern women are showing signs of eating and body-image problems as a result of their exposure to Westernization. Studies found that 42.6 percent of young women in grades 10 through 12 were trying to lose weight in a secondary school in Beirut.52 Interestingly, the majority of those who sought to be thinner were Christian. Perhaps this finding reflects the extent to which long-standing Christian attitudes toward women and the body are embedded in the religion of thinness. By contrast, traditional Muslim attitudes toward women and the body have not supported the requirement for female thinness; historically, Muslim cultures have tended to allow for a wider variety of shapes and sizes among women. Unfortunately, this allowance does not necessarily protect Muslim women from the homogenizing pressure to conform to the narrow white-Western ideal. This pressure to trim down is akin to the imperializing pressure on some Muslim women to become more modern by shedding their veils.5 Just as unveiling has been presented to Muslim women in certain countries (both in and beyond the Middle East) as a means for liberating themselves from the weight of tradition, so the prospect of becoming thin symbolizes the presumed promises of modernity and progress. In both cases, white-Western notions of femininity provide the standard in-reference to which Muslim women allegedly need to be enlightened. In both cases, the assumed superiority of the White Lady norm is affirmed under the guise of saving brown women from their supposedly oppressive culture. In both cases, the female body is the site of contact, conflict, and colonization. Yet, as Meyda Yegenoglu reminds us, the power exercised upon bodies by veiling is no more cruel or barbaric than the control, supervision, training, and constraining of bodies by other practices, such as bras, stiletto heels, corsets, cosmetics, and, I would add, dieting. In the end, both the pressure to unveil and the call to be thin illustrate how, in Yegenoglus words, the Others particular mode of corporeality is an important site for colonial inscriptions of power.54 The spread of white-Western norms for female body size to postcolonial contexts illuminates the tensions between tradition and progress in these cultures. Such tensions are apparent in a recent study of body image perceptions
Land, Newsweek (April 9, 2007): 52; and on the Fulla doll, see It Must Be True . . . I Read It in the Tabloids, The Week (December 9, 2005): 14. 52 Abla Mehio-Sibai, Nabil Kanaan, Monique Chaaya, Boushra Rahal, Ahmad Abdullah, and Tarek Sibai, Ethnic Differences in Weight Loss Behavior among Secondary School Students in Beirut: The Role of Weight Perception, Social and Preventive Medicine 48 (July 200): 2441. 5 Homa Hoodfar explores the complex, dynamic, and changing practice of veiling and its different and contradictory meanings (440) among diverse Muslim women (both veiled and unveiled) in different contexts in The Veil in Their Minds and on Our Heads: Veiling Practices and Muslim Women, in Women, Gender, Religion: A Reader, ed. Elizabeth Castelli (New York: Palgrave, 2001): 42046. 54 Yegenoglu, Sartorial Fabric-ations, 9, 95.

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among a group of Ojibway-Cree from a remote region in Canada. Despite their relative isolation, the majority of those participating in this study came from households with televisions and had thus been exposed to the Western ideal of thinness. Eighty-four percent of the participants reported dissatisfaction with their current body shape, with younger females desiring a thinner body than older counterparts, and women in general preferring a smaller body type than men. Despite their overall desire to be thinner, however, the Ojibway-Cree women in this study chose an ideal body that was relatively larger than the one their white U.S. counterparts selected.55 The conflict between Western pressure to be thinner and traditional Ojibway-Cree preference for larger female bodies points to the challenges Native peoples face preserving their integrity in a world saturated with racist images and oriented by commercial imperatives. As Winona LaDuke points out, Native peoples have an increasingly difficult time maintaining an authentic Native identity in the era of MTV and the culture-consuming elements of globalization.56 Several thousand miles away, some African communities are experiencing similar difficulties as they negotiate the pull of tradition and the pressures of neocolonialsm. As younger generations of Africans become more educated, their exposure to global standards and values increases, particularly those imported from the West. With this exposure also comes the pressure on females to adhere to slender Western beauty norms. Anthropologist Minette Mans observes that popular television, music, and magazines exploit and pressurize [African] women into the quest for beauty, individualism, and materialism that characterizes many Western cultures. In some African countries, younger generations discredit traditional healing and other cultural practices as primitive and backward. According to Mans, for example, many young women in Namibia are abandoning the dancing styles of their mothers, whose large bodies represent the weight of tradition. Preferring the narrow waists, thin legs and arms, and flat stomachs of the Western feminine ideal, these young women see thinness not just as a symbol of modernity but also as a sign of empowerment.57 Hybridity and Concluding Thoughts Some womens pursuit of thinness as a form of empowerment raises a number of questions with which I have wrestled in the course of writing this paper:
55 Joel Gittelsohn, Stewart Harris, Andrew Thorne-Lyman, Anthony Hanley, Annette Barnie, and Bernard Zinman, Body Image Concepts Differ by Age and Sex in an Ojibway-Cree Community in Canada, American Society for Nutrition 126 (December 2006): 2990000. 56 Winona LaDuke, Recovering the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming (New York: South End Press, 2005), 15. 57 Minette Mans, The Changing Body in Southern AfricaA Perspective from Ethnomusicology, in Knowing Bodies, Moving Minds: Towards Embodied Teaching and Learning, ed. Liora Bresler (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004), 88.

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Can we assume the quest for thinness has similar meanings for women in diverse social locations, both in the United States and around the globe? How relevant or appropriate is a white-Western feminist critique of this quest for women in other parts of the world? Although the White Lady ideal of thinness is manufactured and mandated primarily for commercial purposes by creating associations between slenderness and social privilege, might not some women attempt to lose weight for reasons unrelated to these purposes (for example, health)? What about the agency of two-thirds world women who embrace white-Western norms for female body size? While these questions are complex and deserve more attention than I can give them here, the postcolonial concept of hybridity may be a useful tool for exploring them briefly. In postcolonial discourse, hybridity illuminates postcolonial subjects accommodation and resistance to colonizing influences, particularly pressures from the West. In so doing, it highlights how apparently homogenizing tendencies can lead to very specific local forms, in which new meanings are generated through the interaction of cultures.58 These new meanings may challenge the colonialist agenda and undermine its authority, as is the case for many twothirds world women who use the Biblea central instrument in the process of their colonizationas a tool for resisting their oppression. As this example suggests, hybridity is not just a concept but also, potentially, a decolonizing strategy insofar as it upholds the agency of women of color, enabling them to reap from both fields, in the words of Musa Dube, from that of the colonized as well as the colonizer, [to] use whatever they find life-affirming.59 Hybridity is a controversial concept among postcolonial scholars, some of whom point out that it is based on an essentialized notion of culture (the colonizing West and the indigenous other) that overlooks the diversities, conflicts, tensions, and marginalized communities within each cultural complex. Moreover, in some cases, the language used to characterize the interaction between cultures during the colonial era euphemistically obscures the violence embedded in those encounters.60 Such critiques raise questions about the usefulness of hybridity as a decolonizing strategy. Nevertheless, the concept of hybridity
58 This understanding of hybridity comes from Robert J. C. Young, Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 200), 7, 76. 59 Musa W. Dube, Postcoloniality, Feminist Spaces, and Religion, in Donaldson and Kwok, Postcolonialism, Feminism, and Religious Discourse, 117; see also Kwok, Postcolonial Imagination, 17071. 60 As Kwok points out, The process of hybridization takes place not only between two cultures, languages, and symbolic and mythic structures, but also, and increasingly, between divergent claims and identity formations within the same ethnic, religious, and cultural groupings (Postcolonial Imagination, 18). The essentialized view of culture embedded in some understandings of hybridity is ironic given the terms intended purpose, namely, to expose the hybridized, that is to say, always already blended character of cultures and cultural configurations (including cultural identities). See Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994); and Leela Gandhis Affective Communities: Anticolonial Thought and the Politics of Friendship (New Delhi:

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may be helpful insofar as it illuminates the agency of two-thirds world women who are bombarded with white-Western (neo)colonial exports like the religion of thinness. In particular, hybridity can shed light on the possibility that women in postcolonial subject positions may take elements of the religion of thinness and reinterpret and use them for their own benefit. This may be particularly true for women who seek to lose weight for health reasons. In her essay in The Black Womens Health Book, for example, Georgiana Arnold describes her journey from obesity, yo-yo dieting, and disordered eating to health, sanity, and fitness. While Arnolds initial desire to trim down was influenced by the dominant cultural preference for slender female bodies, the agonizing process of losing weight brought her to a deeper understanding of the way societal and internalized racism had contributed to her struggles with food and her body. The healing she experienced through this new understanding of herself and society empowered her toward a more healthy relationship with her body, of which weight loss was a result rather than a goal.61 As Arnolds example suggests, some women may adopt certain aspects of the religion of thinness and reinterpret them in light of alternative conceptions of health, happiness, and beautyconceptions that are not wedded to a commercially manufactured ideal and that resist the missionizing/homogenizing thrust of white-Western norms for female body size. Importantly, this example also suggests that thinness itself is not the problem. The problem is that in the dominant (White Lady) paradigm, female health, happiness, and beauty are defined almost exclusively through a slender, capitalist-kyriarchal vision of womanhood that is exported as a universal norm despite its racial, economic, and cultural specificity. This narrow vision threatens to diminish the appreciation for diversely sized female bodies that still exists in some parts of the world, while it obscures alternative definitions of health, happiness, and beauty. Given its function as a tool of kyriarchal-global capitalism, with its potential to turn a profit out of womens sense of shame, to homogenize their ways of seeing themselves and others in the process, and to channel their attention to the project of achieving a kind of personal salvation by creating a good body, women everywhere must approach the religion of thinness with a heavy hermeneutics of suspicion. As Schssler Fiorenza reminds us, this interpretive strategy places an imaginative label on all texts that reads: Caution: could be dangerous to your health and survival. It requires us to ask whether a particular bodily ideal or practice serves not just our own well-being but that of women on the bottom of the kyriarchal pyramid. Schssler Fiorenza is quick to point
Permanent Black, 2006). I am grateful to my colleague and postcolonial scholar Jan Pranger for pointing out the euphemistic quality of terms like cultural interactions. 61 Georgiana Arnold, Coming Home: One Black Womans Journey to Health and Fitness, in White, The Black Womens Health Book, 26979.

Lelwica: Spreading the Religion of Thinness

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out that this criterion of womens well-being calls for critical and ongoing dialogue about what it means to be well for diverse women. As Sharon Betcher reminds us, the imperatives of health and wellness have all too often been co-opted into the orthodoxy of normalcy that fuels the imperialist interests of global capitalism.62 Ultimately, the same hermeneutics of suspicion that Schssler Fiorenza has championed for interpreters of biblical texts must be applied to the texts of popular culture, whose images supporting the religion of thinness threaten to colonize the minds, bodies, hearts, and spirits of women around the world. While it is impossible to know precisely how these images affect women in diverse social and geographic locations, a critical feminist postcolonial analysis suggests that white women in particular worship them at the risk of recycling a colonial legacy. As Stuart Hall has argued, colonization is a transnational and transcultural global process that blurs the distinction between us and them, here and there, then and now. Because the colonial process is doubly inscribed, those of us in colonizing positions must work to decolonize our consciousness by learning to recognize and resist the monolithic ideals to which we are encouraged to be devoted.6 To the extent that white women in the United States buy into this cultures dominant picture of feminine health, happiness, and beauty epitomized in the slender body of the White Ladywe may unknowingly support and perpetuate new forms of imperialism. To resist this process, white women must become more aware of the way the colonizers and the colonized mutually inscribe each other.64 This means they must see the connections between their devotion to thinness and the imperial ideologies that have used womens bodies as the site of contact, conflict, and colonization in the project of Western expansion.

62 Schssler Fiorenza, The Power of the Word, 6566; and Betcher, Spirit and the Politics of Disablement, 160. 6 Kwok, Postcolonialism Imagination, 127. 64 Stuart Hall, quoted in Kwok, Unbinding Our Feet, 7778.