The Southern Literary Journal 35.2 (2003) 79-88
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"When de Notion Strikes Me":
Body Image, Food, and Desire in Their Eyes Were Watching God
In most media, America's obsession with image is always painfully evident; bony actresses star in movies and television, and waif-thin models in women's magazines have nearly always been the ideal. With recent increased awareness of eating disorders that have been borne of a society heavily concerned with image, researchers have focused on different factors pertaining to those who suffer from anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. Often, image corresponds to race, as was shown in one particular study that found "an overwhelming majority of white females believe that thinness is a prerequisite to attractiveness," whereas "more than half of the black females in the sample believed that a female did not have to be thin to be attractive" (Jackson 184). This real-life attitude toward body size has counterparts in the literary world that are not readily apparent in other media; the phenomena of relaxed attitudes toward large body size is clearly evident in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. Healthy (and even abundant) body size is valued among the African American male and female characters, and consequently food plays an important role in their lives.
Oddly, modern criticism essentially ignores this issue. Academics have ultimately tended to analyze this text in terms of other theoretical claims, disregarding the linguistic evidence for the importance of body image that Hurston has provided directly in her writing. I will argue that Janie in [End Page 79] particular demonstrates her complete self-actualization as a woman through her body, and we can see this in part through her relationship with food. At the same time, her first two husbands' characteristics are represented through their bodies, which ultimately signal their forthcoming failures. Further, the use of food imagery in the novel is not simply an attempt to evoke picturesque scenes; instead, food imagery and attitudes toward food are indicative of greater issues of sexuality and desire for Hurston's characters.
Modern research on body image, unfortunately, leans almost entirely toward white subjects, though there is a small amount of qualitative research about African American women and body image. Linda Jackson, author of Physical Appearance and Gender: Sociobiological and Sociocultural Perspectives, points out that "black females may not agree with, or may actively reject the white thin ideal" (184). However, it is not just in the comparison of ethnic backgrounds that these attitudes are evident; African American individuals tend to be more accepting of larger body size independent of external opinions regarding the subject.
A study released by the American Dietetic Association in 1993 shows that not only were African American woman generally pleased with their body sizes, but that their male partners were accepting of their sizes as well. Authors Shiriku Kumanyika, Judy Wilson, and Marsha Guilford-Davenport concluded that "the social environment of black women is less negative about obesity than might be commonly assumed based on data for white women and that being overweight is not necessarily synonymous with being attractive" (7).
Furthermore, this idea of a desired body shape has changed over time, which may help account for the difference in opinions regarding body size. Susan Bordo asserts in her book Unbearable Weight, "As slenderness has consistently been visually glamorized, and as the ideal has grown thinner and thinner, bodies that a decade ago were considered slender have now come to seem fleshy" (57). Therefore, it is necessary to recognize that not only does racial background contribute to ideals of body size, but that the time period also plays a role in what is socially acceptable as far as body weight is concerned. Written in 1937, and presumably set in approximately the same time, Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God does deal with body size with respect to a different set of cultural expectations than those that men and women hold today.
Much evidence throughout Hurston's...