It’s important when looking at as a contentious a piece of writing as Wolf’s that we use the academic principle of interpretive charity. Her views do present as extreme, and I must admit, that even I do not go with her fully to some, if not many, of her conclusions. When reading this book I was struck by the literary nature of it, that is: it is not hard science, it is not analytic philosophy, it is interpretational, emotional, metaphorical, experiential, and thus the claims may not be presenting as all-encompassing fact, in the mathematical sense. I’ve considered the possibility that Wolf is making emotional appeals, and using hyperbole to demonstrate the force of her critique, and thus we need to more fully engage with her work and it’s meanings to tease out just what she is trying to say (something not uncommon when we work on literature). Perhaps this is me being too generous in my view of her work, but we shall see.
To Wolf, age and weight, are two of the most “developed cults” in the religion of the “Beauty Myth”(p. 121), but more than this these are cults that women do not enter voluntarily, free to leave whenever they choose, no, these cults addict the participants, distorting their sense of reality. They are such that even if women chose to enter them freely, they could not leave once inside. Wolf’s stated reasons this is so, she states, have sound physical and psychological grounding, which she bases off three building blocks:
- Cults follow an authoritarian structure. This is based on dieters following “regimes” which allow of no deviation. Wolf claims the tone of diet books to be “dogmatic” and “unequivocal” with “experts” who “know best” controlling the entire process. (p. 122)
- Cults preach “renunciation of the world.” Dieters give up their social lives, their pleasure, they remove themselves from situations which might tempt them, with anorexics going further, that is: giving up most “earthly” pleasure such as “movies, trinkets, jokes – as an extension of food renunciation.” (p. 122)
- Cult members believe that they alone “are gifted with the truth.” For Wolf this relates to such things as compliments received by dieters, which are ignored. The dieter believes they know how they really look, how repulsive their “hidden from view” body is. This self-denial is most prevalent in anorexics who are convinced the quest they’ve embarked on is so, and that no-one else can see it. Moreover, this aspect of cult-like behavior states Wolf puts women into a condescension and smugness to other “less devout women”. (p. 122)
From here Wolf states:
According to Appel, cult members develop, from these three convictions, “an attitude of moral superiority, a contempt for secular laws, rigidity of thought and the diminution of regard for the individual. A high premium is placed on conformity to the cults group: deviation is penalized… The aim of beauty thinking, about weight or age, is rigid female thought. (Wolf, 1991, p,123)
The hunger cult for Wolf actually changes women’s physiological state, in that much like chanters in cults enter “hynogogic states” in which they can fall prey to aggressive or self-destructive impulses, so too does the woman who constantly has neurotic thoughts of food on her mind, and is indeed instructed to think of food constantly. Women begin to have irrational feelings about such that terrify them, and from this feel a self-destruction and aggression that they are unaware comes from external to them, thus they internalize their struggle thinking it isn’t real. Wolf rejects this and urges women to recognize that: “this is a genuine, formal, externally imposed implant of madness.” (p. 123)
More than this Wolf notes that many of the practices of the “hunger cult” mirror those of other cults, in that many women have constant mantras of caloric calculation, of calories taken in and out, to the extent notes the author that “the Hare Krishna practice of chanting for several hours a day would be child’s play to them.” (p. 124) The cult also teaches meditation, for example in the “one bowel” diet, in which a bowel is placed in the hands of the participants and instructed to sit holding it, concentrating on what one wants to eat and why. Others teach women to handle, fondle and experience a single piece of fruit for twenty minutes, in which they are called to “center the mind on the stomach, to make certain the “appetite” is really “hunger””. There are also group rituals within the hunger cult states Wolf, such as those of aerobics classes, which contain “robotic parodies of exuberant movement” which is the same bouncing dance practiced by the Hare Krishnas. Another ritual prescribed by Kim Chernin, in which groups binge and purge, common Wolf states on university campuses, and “the ritual of self-abasement when women leaf through magazines together, chanting the well-known formula: “I hate her. She’s so thin.” “You’re so thin.” “Oh, come on. Me? What are you talking about?”” (p. 124) There is also a kind of sensory deprivation going on prevalent in many cults indoctrination practices states Wolf, and that “beauty pornography” coupled with “recent social upheavals” work to “constitute an entirely new, chaotic, and disorienting environment; the food self-denial most women undergo is a form of sensory deprivation.” (p. 125)
To Wolf the hunger cult takes away women’s privacy and also promotes rigid planning, in the case of the former, a woman’s body is something to be gazed upon, not solely by men (men’s body’s Wolf states, are not subjected to these pressures), but by everyone, scrutinized, assessed. Any changes in weight are publicly judged, observed and discussed. In the case of the latter, the rigidity of the food-planners routine, her exercise routine, does away with “choice”, any free time she has she is too exhausted (or hungry) to think of anything, or indeed to challenge anyone, as Wolf states: “Nutrition patterns are altered, lowering intellectual and emotional resistance.” (p. 127) There is also something of an emotional high that comes with achieving a set goal within the cult, as in the elation when one puts on a pair of size eight pants, which are seen as the rewards for all the hard work and sacrifice. More than this, Wolf notes what is called within cults the phenomenon of “love bombing” in which a member of the hunger cult receives a “barrage” of outside approval for “getting with the program”, but this has an insidious dark side to it states Wolf, the implicit assumption that this approval will be held back if one does not achieve their goals: “Cults reward submissiveness with love; winning love grows harder and harder, behavior required to do so even more submissive.” (p. 127) The natural progression from these types of “reward and punishment” behaviors states Wolf is to lead to anorexia, compulsive eating or bulimia, with women seeing temptations everywhere they go, they now have natural desires (that is to satisfy hunger) which they have to constantly suppress, which again leads to exhaustion and destructive behaviors.
How can women remove themselves from the cult of hunger?
For deprogramming to be successful, the case must be made to the cult escapee that what she has undergone “is real and powerful,” while assuring her that the craziness came from without… Women trapped cannot be deprogrammed until the case is made to them that the madness is imposed from outside the self, and that it affects their minds through time-worn, third-rate psychological sleights of hand. If those women who long to escape can believe that they have been subjected to a religious indoctrination that uses proven techniques of brainwashing, we can feel compassion for ourselves rather than self-loathing; we can begin to see where and how our minds were changed. (Wolf, 1991, p,128)
This might be enough for today’s post, I haven’t really engaged critically with Wolf’s views as of yet, as it might be nice to see her views presented and discussed before being tainted by my critique (indeed, if I even have one to offer, her views might be interesting in and of themselves).
Wolf, N. (1991). The Beauty Myth. Vintage Books.
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