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Too Close to the Bone

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In her essay, “Too Close to the Bone: The Historical Context for Women’s Obsession with Slenderness”, Roberta Seid explores the ever-changing standards Americans hold for women’s bodies. She compares our obsession with thinness to a religion. If we follow the rules of the religion, even if those rules resemble a sickness, we will live long, happy, healthy lives. If we do not, we are certainly destined to failure.

Seid asserts that American society today places too high an irrational standard for women to maintain thin bodies. She says that their waif-like bodies defy biology and resemble sickness and death. Seid also claims that American culture is engulfed in a twisted belief about beauty, health, and appetite.

The author claims that during the Romantic period, thinness was considered ugly and a woman’s bad luck, and 100 years ago, the female ideal was tall, full-busted, full-figured and mature. “Cellulite” was considered desirable, and plumpness was considered a sign of well-being.

She relays that today, female beauty is represented by a gangly, bare-boned youth; with the ideal being 1960s model “Twiggy”, who was 5 feet 7 inches and 98 pounds. At the same time, the definition of “overweight” includes normal-sized Americans and being fat is as disgraceful as being dirty.

Seid compares The United Nations World Health Organization daily intake of calories to modern diets, stating that what the UNWHO claims as semi starvation is often more than modern diets recommend. She further states that Americans believe that permanent dieting and constant hunger are healthy and energy-giving and food does not nourish, but instead kills. When the truth is that the well-fed grow stronger, healthier and more productive than the under-fed.

Seid compares the Victorian attitude toward sex to today’s attitude towards food; stating that in the 19th century, control of one’s sexual instincts is as important as today’s belief of controlling one’s appetite. We seem to feel more civilized when suppressing a basic “animal” instinct.

The author asks the question, ‘Why does this belief system affect women so much more than men?’ She then goes on to answer it by stating that the standards for males are not as extreme as women’s standards. Further, 90-95% of American women feel that they don’t “measure up”, and that the ideal female weight has gradually decreased to that of the thinnest 5-10% of American women.

The author also blames this obsession on fashion. Women try to meet unreasonable weight standards because fashion requires them to. She gives the example of miniskirts and tiny tops, stating that women’s bodies were suddenly revealed without body-shaping undergarments, and that American women had become aware of flaws they never knew existed.

Seid goes on to give possible reasonable excuses for this obsession. For example, with population density it is more practical and economical to have skinny people. Thin people need less room so more of them can be squeezed into the spaces on mass transit and into workplaces. They could also live in smaller houses. She also gives a more democratic approach…no one has the right to take up more space than another.

The author suggests that we “recultivate our tastes and find a saner middle ground where our bodies can round out with more life, flesh, and health…”. She wants us to be free to enjoy our good fortune without guilt and understand that food should be seen as a pleasure as well as a basic need, and not something that we should avoid.

The author also claims that this “new religion” is misguided and destructive. Our main concerns should be ethics, relationships, and community responsibilities, not our bodies and food. She concludes that we must “restore a humanistic vision in which self-improvement means cultivating the mind and enlarging the soul, developing generosity, humor, dignity, and humility; living more graciously with biology, again, and death; living with our limitations.”

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