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The Culture of Slenderness

Lauren Perkins

"Thinness equals success" is the notion that many college-aged, upper-middle class, white women looking to become part of professional society hold today. The "Culture of Slenderness" has many ways of exerting its influence and fulfilling its aims effectively (Toro, Cervera, Perez, 1988, pg.136). This message has been exploited by the media and by society's professional work force. Since the woman's arrival into professional society, a new norm has been set by white professional men that has begun to affect a new generation of white women leaders. Not only do they feel that it is necessary to maintain an intellectual edge, but also a slim figure to succeed.

The Figures

This target group of women are striving to reach often unattainable body images to meet the standards set by the media and the dominant white men in the professional world. Individuals with eating disorders including anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are 95% women and 5% men (Toro, Cervera, and Perez, 1988, pg. 132). Of this 95% of women, the target group comprises 90% of these individuals (Hamilton and Waller, 1993, pg. 838). Research has proven that it is not only these women who have turned the idea of "thinness equals success" into a norm, but that society has played a major role.

Research Group

The sample group of women that this research has been based on are college-aged, high-achieving, white women. Eating disorders are especially prominent in this group because these women are becoming a more prevalent force in professional society. Another reason for this prominence is the fact that within the white man's culture, it is important for women to possess a body that is desirable for white men. The body type of choice for this group of men is a thin, sculpted body (Silverstein, Perdue, Peterson, Vogel and Fantini, 1986, pg.914). This group of women have become obsessed with their own body images and often try to diet and exercise to mimic models and actresses portrayed in the media. Being a desirable norm of this society, these women entering the professional world are trying to fit this and other norms and end up living dysfunctional lives through no fault of their own.

The Process

White women are socialized from a very young age to believe that it is important to be slim and maintain a certain body image (Sally Jessy Raphael Show, Aug. 17, 1990). Young girls often begin the treacherous cycle of diet and exercise by trying to win the affection and respect of their fathers. This is particularly true of the daughters of professional white men. These men know what it takes to achieve success in professional society and often instill the same values in their daughters. Research indicates that fathers who do not believe their daughters "to be very intelligent tend to want them to be slim," so that they present the image of an intellect (Silverstein, Perdue, Peterson, Vogel and Fantini, 1986, pg. 907). Not only do young girls begin internalizing these norms in their homes, but also in school. Many young white girls consistently compete for the attention of young men. These girls feel that they must look like models in magazines and be thin to attract boyfriends. "I just want to have a boyfriend," says one anorexic teen (People, 1996). Searching for social acceptance, young girls often take their longing for attention too far and end up struggling for their ideal body weights and their lives.

Power Struggle

Many college-aged, high-achieving women look for acceptance in professional society. To gain this acceptance, women must comply with this dysfunctional norm of thinness in professional society that is set by white professional men. Because it is the white males that hold the power in society, they are able to set the norms for the culture. Since professional society in the United States has long been dominated by white males, it is these individuals that are able to define the norm of thinness for women of mainstream society. Through years of struggling for equal rights, women are now a rising force in the white-male professional world. This change in the white woman's social identity has created a scare within professional men. A challenge has arisen that these men are at times not prepared to face. Therefore, these men have set norms by which these women must adhere to in order to achieve success in their world. Among the criteria, women must be attractive by this group of men's standards. In most of their definitions of attractiveness, the idea that a woman should be thin is included. These professionals hypothesize that if a woman keeps herself slim, she must hold respect for herself and will therefore have respect for her work. If on the other hand, a woman's figure is not within the standards set by these men, then she obviously shows no self-respect and will not perform to satisfactory levels on the job (Silverstein, Perdue, Peterson, Vogel, and Fantini, 1986, pg. 910). Professional men are the individuals who control this society and set the norms that they feel should be followed. The white, college women who are looking for social acceptance will work to achieve the goals set by these men in order to gain their own entrance into this society, no matter what the risks. Many different aspects of society bear the importance of the motto that "thinness equals success" and in this respect, society as a whole feeds this norm to the young, white women.

Contributing Factors

One of the largest contributors to society's norm of thinness for white professional women is the role that the media plays (Hamilton and Waller, 1993, pg. 837). Through advertisements and programming, the media has a constant 'in your face' affect on women. Models that range in sizes from 0 to 4 are used in the media and commercials to portray the average American woman. While the average woman of 5'4" and 142 pounds is a size 12, this representation socializes women to believe that they should look like these models in order to attain their goals. Many advertisements have been analyzed in order to verify the impact that these commercials have had on women. Directly or indirectly, 22.5% of all advertisements on television and in print encourage weight loss (Toro, Cervera, and Perez, 1988, pg.132). Even in specific weight loss and exercise equipment commercials, the emphasis is not on health promotion, but on the aesthetic gains that could possibly be achieved. Not only do these commercials affect professional women, but they are socializing the younger adolescents to adhere to this norm of society. The Sally Jessy Raphael Show featured two young teenagers and an eleven year old girl on the topic of body images. These young women have already begun to worry about how they look and how society accepts them. The idea that these children should be dieting to look like models is preposterous, but all too real according to an image consultant on the show. This consultant brought the reality of this social problem to light by saying that these young women should be concerned with their image because it is one of the keys to success for women in the professional world (Sally Jessy Raphael Show, Aug. 17, 1990). This target group of women that are seeking employment in professional society often believe that they must look like the models in the advertisement to achieve their goal occupation and are often correct in their assumption.

Society also portrays professional women through the movies and television shows as beautiful, slim, and successful. In many films, white women use their bodies instead of their heads to surge ahead in the white-male dominated world. These films send a message to the target group of women that they must be attractive to white professional men to succeed. In the movie, Indecent Proposal, Demi Moore is chosen to be a leader of her company. Her intelligence is not shown half as much as her legs are in the movie. On television, the cast of "Melrose Place" does not have an inch of fat on their bodies and dress in fashions to emphasize this fact. By such bodily displays, young white women see the professional world in a different light and their obsessive thoughts about their own bodies are realized. These types of movies and television shows lead these women to start a compulsive cycle of dieting and exercise, which can lead to a deviant lifestyle.

The Risks

Young, high-achieving, upper-middle class, white women have a new lifestyle that the male-dominated society has determined they live. In order to achieve a certain status in professional society, white women must adhere to the norms that these men have set. The problem with this norm is that by trying to fulfill it, women can suffer serious health problems or lose their lives. The statistics on the percentage of hospitalizations due to eating disorders are hard to determine because many women will not admit that there is a physical or psychological problem with them (Habermas, 1992, pg. 63). Therefore, women may develop eating disorders or compulsive exercise habits to successfully achieve a satisfactory body image and not seek medical attention until it is too late (People, 1996). By continually allowing women to become sick trying to fit the norm, society will be losing a new generation of potential women leaders.

It is very interesting that society would continue to possess a norm that is a threat to the lives of many young American women. This norm of thinness creates a deviant lifestyle for many of these women. This type of deviant lifestyle includes barely eating or starvation and over exercising until these women are weak and tired, which defies our society's norm of being healthy and strong. This lifestyle is a sign of primary deviance in that these women are violating other norms in society that do not affect their social roles. Once this pattern of deviance continues, these women are labeled as anorexic or bulimic. These labels are denied at first because individuals feel that they are in "total control" or "ultra-healthy" (McLorg and Taub, pg. 203). When the label is realized, the individual comes to terms with her eating disorder and learns how to return to a normal diet. It seems that the norm of thinness set by professional white men is in conflict with other norms in society. The women affected by eating disorders lose their self-esteem and self-confidence trying to slim themselves down to a size two. By constantly focusing on their bodies and weight, women live dysfunctional lives which were created by a norm of society. While bearing their occupational goal in mind, it is often difficult for these women to confront their eating problems. More than 50% of women with this disorder have had to be hospitalized to survive this addiction that they have of living within a norm of professional society (Habermas, 1992, pg. 59). How can this norm of professional society have become a norm of our mainstream society when it is dysfunctional?

In Conclusion

In the last decade, white women have become more competitive with men for their positions in society. As a result of this, white males feel that it is necessary for them to retain their domination over society and therefore have set norms that women must adhere to in order to move up the social ladder. These men are the sole instigators of this norm of thinness for the sake of power. This norm is by far the most publicized and sought after by these women. Women buy into this norm because they are the minority in professional society and feel that it is in their best interest to obey the norms set by powerful men. Women have been socialized to believe that to achieve their occupational goals, they must comply with the norms predetermined by the dominant group. With women losing their self-esteem, men take the advantage and move ahead of them in professional society. This norm creates dysfunctional lives for the target group of women and weakens their competitiveness in professional society. It is a way for white men to keep their power in professional society and continue their domination over the other groups in society. By controlling the culture and the norms that are part of it, the dominant group humbles their competition and retains their powerful place in society at the cost of women's lives.


1. The Sally Jessy Raphael Show-Body Images, Aug. 17, 1990.

2. People-Too Fat? Too Thin?, June 3, 1996.

3. Habermas, T.(1992). Possible effects of the popular and medical recognition of

bulimia nervosa, British Journal of Medical Psychology, vol. 65, 59-66.

4. Hamilton, K. and Waller, G.(1993). Media influences on body size estimation in

anorexia and bulimia, British Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 162, 837-840.

5. Silverstein, B., Perdue, L., Peterson, B., Vogel, L., and Fantini, D.A.(1986). Possible

Causes of the thin standard of bodily attractiveness for women, International

Journal of Eating Disorders, vol. 5, 907-916.

6. Toro, J., Cervera, M. and Perez, P.(1988). Body shape, publicity, and anorexia

nervosa, Social Psychiatry Psychiatric Epidemiology, vol. 23, 132-136.

7. Taub, D.E., and McLorg, P.A. Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia: The Development

of Deviant Identities, 196-208. Note: This is the article that you gave me and

I did not find the source, volume, or year of the publication.



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