One of the most interesting articles I’ve read regarding anorexia and the media is an article called “The Politics of Women’s Body Images and Practices: Foucault, The Panopticon and Shape Magazine, written by Margaret Carlisle Duncan.
The article is based on a study of Shape magazine – a women’s fitness glossy, and her analysis of certain messages within it, and other women’s magazines, which, it is claimed, invite women to continually, and self-consciously, monitor their bodies, and can even encourage them down the road of anorexia or another eating disorder.
She likens the language used in such magazines to a particular prison structure known as ‘panoptic.’
This particular structure has a guard tower at its center, around which the prisoners are positioned. The prisoners cannot see the guard, but he can observe them from the tower.
Of course, the guard doesn’t even need to be in the tower – the very fact that the prisoners know that he might be is enough to render them ‘self-monitoring.’
The fact that they may be seen is enough to prevent them from any form of bad behavior.
According to Duncan, women are exposed to a similar ‘panoptic gaze,’ and that one of the effects of this is that the private and public lives of women are merged; that they are presented with a public ideal – one of the slender, toned, ‘perfect’ body, which they are expected to, in their private lives, achieve.
She claims that women are all subject to a patriarchal ideal of femininity and that we are constantly under scrutiny by an invisible guard, who is always watching to make sure that we don’t transgress against this ideal.She asserts that this is one of the main reasons behind the epidemic of anorexia and other eating disorders now faced by our society.
It makes sense, as we cannot identify the source of the gaze, that many women will assume that they, themselves are the cause of their self-monitoring, and that the standards they apply to their bodies are of their own making.
This can help to explain why so many girls and women who are suffering from anorexia or any eating disorder refuse to seek help – they literally believe that they are doing the right thing by vigorously controlling their bodies…and that even if they are not, it is their own fault.
Duncan does, however, identify some of the ways in which the panoptic gaze manifests itself.
She claims that it is apparent in many forms of media – magazines, films, newspapers, television, books and radio; and that it functions on many levels – textual, institutional, psychic, etc.
She asserts that one of the main mediums through which the gaze becomes apparent is that of the public discourse on health, fitness, exercise, dieting and beauty.
She refers to magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Seventeen and Shape and comments on a number of recurring themes which are common to them all.
The first of these is that the assumption is implicit that all readers want to reshape their bodies.
The second is that the process of reshaping our bodies is one which primarily centers around issues of health, and that beauty is a natural but secondary benefit.
The third (which due to these issues being disguised as health concerns, is very easily achieved) is that, all it takes to achieve these ‘healthy goals’ is dedication and self-discipline.
Duncan uses an example from an issue of Shape to demonstrate this:
On the front cover of the September issue of Shape, superimposed over the images of three reader-models clad in spandex, are large letters proclaiming, “We did it! Reshape your body with our 8 week programme!”
The subtext here is that if we did it so can – and should – you.
The text, as Duncan observes, fails to mention that the body shape being advocated is cut from a single, public mould. It is a slender, toned fashion model, free of flab and cellulite, with only minute variations allowed.
It’s not surprising, then, that so many girls and women are subject to feelings of shame when they are simply unable to follow the regimes which they are constantly told should be a normal part of their daily routine.
And of course, many act on that feeling of shame to the extent that they devote their lives to attempting to achieve this ‘ideal,’ very often developing eating disorders such as anorexia.