Body dissatisfaction at the movies

Henning Eichberg
University of Southern Denmark 

Emily Fox-Kales
Body Shots: Hollywood and the Culture of Eating Disorders
195 sidor, inb., ill.
Albany, NY: Excelsior Editions (Suny Press) 2011
ISBN 978-1-4384-3529-9

Are bodily disorders individual, as the medical system treats them? Or are they – and if so, to which degree – cultural? This is the question that this study raises by observing a concrete material, the female body and the movie. The study shows and discusses how movie culture via the stars’ bodies and by virtual bodily celebrity influences real women to like – or rather dislike – their own body shapes.

The author combines different identities and research interests, being clinical psychologist specialized in the treatment of eating disorders, at the same time university professor of cultural studies and psychology, and furthermore passionate moviegoer. What comes out of this combination is a critical cultural study. It is foremost critical against Hollywood’s movie production. However, it is also critical against certain feminist traditions which claim that the problem is the male gaze. And, last but not least, it can be read as a critical comment of the neo-naivety of recent fitness-feminism.


Culture of lookism – the empirical approach

Fox-Kales’ study starts by a quantitative survey of the problem. Indeed, the most devastating eating disorders are relatively small and stable in US population: anorexia 0.5-1 percent, bulimia 1.5 percent, and binge eating disorders 3.5 percent. The subclinical eating disorders have, however, grown dramatically across all age groups, ethnicities, and genders. More than 50 percent of adolescent girls in the US practice unhealthy weight control behavior including purging and laxative abuse and diet pill dependence. 81 percent of 10-years old girls are seasonal dieters. And one million males suffer from some form of eating disorder, particularly muscle dysmorphia in connection with bodybuilding in the gym.

From this panorama, the study turns to the movie star’s body in celebrity culture (ch. 2). The visual power of standardized slimness has increased during the last decades due to the opening of Hollywood’s studio system to a broader market of television and print-media. The censorship control was weakened, the media having got access to the nearly-nakedness of the celebrities, to their diet and fitness routines, to their pregnant and the post-pregnant bodies as well as to the dramas of self-destructive body-practices. All this is reinforced by new media of picture production, now spanning from the TV reality show to the private reality show of user-based social media, from Facebook and Twitter to Internet pornography and mobile phone home movies.

And the teen movies display eroticized and glamorized images of the body for a quickly growing market of girls between eight and twelve.

The following chapters focus more in detail on four genres of movies in relation to the female body. The super woman genre demonstrates body mastery by fitness, from Jane Fonda and her spin-off production of aerobics to Charlie’s Angels (2000), Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2002 and 2004), and Clint Eastwood’s boxing drama Million Dollar Baby(2004). Gymnorexia (exercise dependence) and exercise bulimia follow their way (ch. 3). Here, one finds a connection between the movie production of body images and the broad practice of fitness.[1]The make-over genre celebrates the transformation of the body as in Pretty Woman with Julia Roberts (1990), Miss Congeniality with Sandra Bullock (2000), Maid in Manhattan with Jennifer Lopez (2002), and The Devil Wears Prada with Anne Hathaway (2004). These movies reinvent the mythical way from the Ugly Duckling to the Swan – or the way of Cinderella or Pygmalion – by re-engineering the body (ch. 4).

The Big Mama genre ridicules the fat body of the woman, as in Shallow Hal (2001) and Shrek (2001). TV series likeThe Biggest Loser (2008) display weightism as a sort of competitive game. Weightism is part of the well-known paradox that the more people spend on fighting obesity, the fatter the population grows (ch. 5).

And the teen movies display eroticized and glamorized images of the body for a quickly growing market of girls between eight and twelve. Among high school students, 36 percent regard body shape as key to their self-esteem, and 42 percent suffer from disturbances of their body image. Mean Girls (2004) and American Pie (1999) offer pictures for this body relation as well as – sometimes in ironical form – for diet and weight control (ch. 6).

Often, the movies send out double messages. On the surface they express a critique of the Hollywood cliché, whilst they by their displayed body images join it, as in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009). Fox-Kales analyses these movies, and her analyses are accompanied by what statements from her own students or clients about their own personal identification with the stars and about the connection of these movies to their personal disorders.

Finally, alternative visions of the female body are presented by some independent movies resisting the Hollywood mainstream pattern, as Nicole Holofcener’s Lovely and Amazing (1999) and Patricia Cardoso’s ethnic Latino movieReal Women have Curves (2002). Here, we are in a world of opposition. This gives the author hope, and her study ends with the perspective “to wait for Hollywood to embrace a true body diversity… Hopefully, the wait will not be too long” (ch. 7).

This is as naive as it sounds, and the naivety of the outlook shows that the analysis itself has some methodological limitation.


“Factors”, opinions – or theory? Some theoretical limitations

All in all, the study delivers rich material for a critical history of normalization. It exposes a dominating body uniformity and corporeal political correctness, revealing a culture of lookism and weightism. This “culture based on externalism and body dissatisfaction” (141) is the background and basis of current fitness culture, as well.

However, what about the methodological and theoretical fundament of the study? When Fox-Kales’ students and clients report their fascination of the Hollywood movies and the contribution of the celebrity bodies to their own disorders – is this sufficiently convincing? It appears as a rather reduced version of the in-depth anthropology of movie spectatorship which would be needed for this analytical purpose. The clients’ stories are not so very different from the attitude of the “passionate moviegoer”, as the author characterizes herself. This feels like a certain naivety.

Fox-Kales is aware of some traps when she asks whether movies really “teach” people how to behave. In the case of movie and violence, this has long been subject to controversial debates. The author has, however, a strong argument when referring to research in the Fiji Islands where girls traditionally had believed that “going thin” was a bad sign and that gaining weight was healthy. Three years after the advent of American television in 1995, as many as 74 percent of the girls reported feeling “too big”, 62 percent were dieting, and 15 percent were even purging (9).

But how and in which theoretical framework can one describe this cultural connection and change? Fox-Kales characterizes the movie as a “risk factor” – among other risk factors? (4, 5-6, 42) However, the word “factor” is not harmless. Derived from the terminology of natural sciences, the “factor” associates the logic of causality, of explanatory correlation: If A then B. This is far from the procedure of cultural understanding, which follows multiple connections of a given phenomenon into different directions. Factors or connections – explanation or understanding – causation or relation – these are fundamentally different procedures.[2]

And yet, “self” is a relation of “I” to “Me”, i.e. individual, whilst the term “identity”, which Erik H. Erikson introduced to social psychology, describes a relation of “I” to “We”, i.e. a collective phenomenon.

Another problem arises when the study confuses the concepts of “body”, “image”, and “ideology” (32, 37). Whilst body practice can be seen in a materialistic perspective, the ideology is linked to idealistic thinking. In this relation, the study is contradictory.A further contradiction arises from the confusion between “identity” and “self”, which the study has in common with some of its references in American literature (2, 20). The study certainly documents “identification” of women with movie stars. And yet, “self” is a relation of “I” to “Me”, i.e. individual, whilst the term “identity”, which Erik H. Erikson introduced to social psychology, describes a relation of “I” to “We”, i.e. a collective phenomenon. Thus, self and identity may be put in relation to each other, but there is no reason to get them mixed up in a naive way.

The lack of precision in this question opens up for some problematical methodological individualism. When discussing the “oppositional gaze” at the movie, the author postulates that moviegoers of non-standard body size “just as women of color or gay, lesbian, and transgendered spectators are free to adopt their own subjective points of view” (27). This combination of “freedom” and “subjectivity” is in line with a certain Western epistemological individualism, but it sounds strange in a cultural study.[3]

The undertone of naive individualism may be related to the way in which the study uses the terms “progressive” and “regressive” or “repressive” (70, 88, 127, 152-53). This gives associations to the one-line developmentalism in history, which has deep roots in American culture and American ideology. It found its iconological expression through John Gast’s famous painting “American progress” from 1872, showing the scale of civilization from the primitive poor Indians of the West over the pioneers of the frontier to the rich white urban industrial East of the continent, the crown of civilization. But the categories of progression and regression do not fit for cultural analyses.

The contradictions and naiveties around “factors”, “self and identity”, “free and subjective” individuality, and “progressive versus regressive” developments show typical limitations of American research, which circles inside its own narrow intellectual world. Brief references to Jacques Lacan (24) and Michel Foucault (56) remain superficial. The rest is American (or at least Anglo) – we are in the inner circle of the movie studies family.

Or to say it more principally: There is a difference between opinions inside a certain family of thought on one hand and cultural and social theory on the other. For instance, Fox-Kales’ punctual observations about the social class relation of female oversize (98) are important, but cry for a deeper analysis of – what? Maybe, the movie production of body images marks a new level of class struggle, which is now going on at the surface and in the inside of the human body? We may remember the theory of habitus, cultural capital, taste, and distinction launched by Pierre Bourdieu…


A third feminism?

Fox-Kales’ study contributes most directly to critical theory when discussing feminism. Classical feminist critique from the 1970s reacted against the “tyranny of slenderness”, which was seen as a part of the “male gaze”, of patriarchal domination. On the basis of her material, Fox-Kales raises serious doubts about this supposition. Some of the described movies have a one-sided female spectatorship and are specifically designed for girls. This does not mean that there is no patriarchal domination, not at all. But the dominant male gaze hypothesis is not sufficient to understand the cultural dynamics and complexity of Hollywood lookism. What about the female gaze?

Since the classical feminism of the 1970s, however, the picture has changed. Women have not become thinner under the pressure of the male gaze, as one might have supposed. Instead, overweight and obesity became central themes of Western body culture and spread towards other parts of the world. In reaction against this, a new generation of feminists has invaded the fitness clubs and written jubilation literature promoting exercise. The collected volumeMy Life at the Gym, also from the State University of New York, recently expressed this new “positive” feeling.[4]

Female body culture, thus, did not develop as lineally, as one could have imagined after the earlier feminist analyses. And female body culture posed new problems, which had not been on the agenda before. New differences and connections became visible between the production and consumption of ideal images, body dissatisfaction, fitness practices, and eating disorders – and the wave of obesity all around.

Fox-Kales’ study contributes to this analysis with important empirical material, though its analytical instruments are not quite sufficient. The study differs from recent fitness feminism, and in spite of its critique of the male gaze hypothesis, it returns in some respect to the earlier critical position. That is why the study can be read in connection with the – somewhat deeper – critical analysis of fitness that the sociologist Jennifer Smith Maguire has presented.[5] This looks like a third type of feminism.

Anyway, feminism is not one.

To sum up: Fox-Kales’ study shows how American capitalism makes its cultural way into the single body. By powerful cultural images, a neo-colonial world order invades the human – and particularly the female – body. This is a strong political point. And yet, there is also a weakness: The movie has its fascination not least by its humor. Where is the humor in her critique of the movies? 


[1] Henning Eichberg 2010: “Fitness on the market: Forget ‘the single individual’!” In: Bodily Democracy. Towards a Philosophy of Sport for All. London & New York: Routledge, 58-79

[2] Henning Eichberg 2011: “Forklaring og forståelse. To forskningsveje, med friluftsliv som case.” In: Jakob Haahr & Søren Andkjær (red.): Muligheder og begrænsninger for friluftsliv. (= Movements. 2011:2) Odense: Syddansk Universitet, IOB, 92-99.

[3] For a critique of this epistemological individualism see Eichberg 2010, in footnote 1.

[4] Jo Malin 2010 (ed.): My Life at the Gym. Feminist Perspectives on Community through the Body. Albany/New York: State University of New York (SUNY) Press. Reviewed in:, Malmö, no. 126, 1.9.2010.

[5] Jennifer Smith Maguire 2008: Fit for Consumption. Sociology and the Business of Fitness. London & New York: Routledge. Reviewed in:, Malmö, no. 98. 17.9.2008. See also Alan Petersen 2007: The Body in Question. A Socio-Cultural Approach. London & New York: Routledge. Reviewed in:, Malmö, no. 90, 19.3. 2008.






© Henning Eichberg 2011.

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