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Anorexia and the devil

Greg Yatorola | Tuesday, October 2, 2007

My last summer at Notre Dame, a philosophy professor sponsored a contest, soliciting papers about the “culture of death.” To most people, that expression means things like, well, pseudo-doctors pulling babies three-fourths out the birth canal, puncturing their skulls and suctioning out the contents. But I thought partial-birth abortion was too easy a target. You could even say it’s a no-brainer.

I never submitted a paper – I’m too lazy and had no chance anyway. But I did come up with a topic which I thought was original, more pleasant than infanticide, and one which I think a lot about anyway: Women’s physiques. (woo-hoo!)

You don’t have to be the most observant cultural critic to notice that popular standards of women’s beauty have changed drastically over the past 50 years or so, especially over the last 20. Numerous commentators have remarked that if Marilyn Monroe wanted to be a beauty icon or sex symbol today, she’d have to lose at least 30 pounds. I could waste this whole article citing examples of how extreme these modern standards for women are, but sadly, I don’t need to. They’re all around us – in the movies and on television, on posters and billboards, in Victoria’s Secret catalogs and on too many magazine covers.

I could spend not just this article, but my whole column this semester discussing the damage these distorted appearance ideals cause for so many healthy, normal women. That wouldn’t be necessary either. I’ve known women just about everywhere I’ve gone, including Notre Dame, who’ve suffered terribly as a result of trying to look the way they think society tells them they should look. Who doesn’t know such women?

What’s ironic to me is that these beauty standards, however unrealistic and hurtful, aren’t even beautiful. Of course, I can only speak fully for myself, and partly for guys I know well, but without having done any serious scientific survey on the matter I’d say men generally aren’t attracted to muscular abs, prominent collarbones, or hard faces. Sure, some guys find lean women attractive, but they’ve been conditioned to. That, and they tend not to be the manliest sort, from what I can tell. A glorious war was fought by heroes like Ajax and Achilles over Helen of Troy, and I guarantee she never stepped onto a treadmill. Real men like real women.

There’s a silver lining in this particular cloud. Mainly at the gym, but also at the store – hell, sometimes at Mass – many girls dress like Amazons, showing about as much of themselves as the law permits. This angers me because women usually flaunt their attractiveness, such as it is, not to bring joy to anyone’s heart – which it would in the context of a loving, committed relationship – but rather to dominate men who see and desire them. Wise the poet who observed: Man’s desire is for woman, but woman’s desire is for man’s desire. Fortunately, though, because of our upside-down notions of what’s attractive, it’s almost always the girls with the least to show off who show off the most. And often they have tattoos, too, which make them even less tempting. Meanwhile, those who’d really put souls in danger are all bundled up, ashamed that their ribs aren’t sticking out.

So contemporary beauty standards cause health problems, physical and psychological, for vast numbers of women, and it’s arguable that they don’t even make women better-looking anyway. You probably didn’t need me to tell you this. Then where’s the culture-of-death angle? That’s much harder for me to articulate, and I’d appreciate it if more clever folks could follow up and explain it better, if they can even tell what I’m trying to say.

Physical attraction is ordered to the end of procreation. You could conclude this whether you consider man theologically, as a being specially designed by God, or biologically, as a result of random mutations and natural selection. This connection is borne out in the fact that what men naturally find most attractive in women correlates positively with fertility.

It’s well-known that when women get too thin, they can’t conceive a child at all. It’s also true that as they drop toward that level, their fertility drops correspondingly – mathematically, it’s not a step function. But I think we can intuit this without science. Just look at one of those scrawny women on some magazine cover sometime – whether one of those stupid guys’ magazines, like Maxim or Stuff, or Cosmo – and ask yourself whether you can see life coming from her. Looking at her, isn’t the very thought of motherhood an absurdity?

I’m not saying women are just breeding machines, or that individual women are wicked if they look like Olympic track athletes and have built-in partial birth-control. What I’m saying is that it’s disordered for society to promote that as the ideal. It’s a subtle rejection of, and attack on, women’s life-giving ability. There’s a sick brave-new-world-ish element to it that I can’t quite explain, but which I clearly sense nonetheless. Would I say it’s part of a plot by Satan to destroy humanity? That might be putting it a bit strong. It’s not isolated, alas – it’s part of a creeping androgyny that threatens men too. But that’s a different gripe!

Greg Yatarola’s not a mean, grumpy old grad, he just writes like it. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.