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Social Forces 82.1 (2003) 429-430
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Women and Dieting Culture: Inside a Commercial Weight Loss Group. By Kandi Stinson. Rutgers University Press, 2001. 236 pp. Cloth, $59.00; paper, $22.00.
If a feminist joins a weight-loss group, is she still a feminist? This question served as the subtext for Kandi Stinson's perceptive and detailed analysis of the dynamics of a commercial weight-loss group. Stinson spent two years as participant and researcher, studying how women spoke about and understood losing weight. She has produced a book that combines reflections on her lived experience as a member with an analysis of the themes that permeate participation in organized weight loss.
Stinson identified five themes in women's talk about weight loss: self-help, work, religion, addiction, and feminism. The bulk of her book explored these themes and their implications for the way women frame weight loss. The "self-help" theme reflected widely held beliefs that diet and lifestyle modification will inevitably lead to weight loss. Weight loss is also "work," a frame within which the body was a resource to be shaped and molded, weight loss was a form of production, and success was measured in pounds lost.
Self-help and work frames dominated the dynamics unfolding in this weight-loss group, but Stinson also identified religious, addiction-based, and feminist themes. Religious talk framed food as a source of temptation, and diet and weight loss as opportunities for contrition and redemption. Discussion of addiction was, Stinson noted, most evident in its absence. However, it could be seen as members considered the body as an object, one that might not share their desire for a culturally approved shape and size. Finally, as Stinson traced strains of liberal feminism in the organization's ideology, she also demonstrated the inherent limits of feminist discourse in a group dependent on women's continuing dissatisfaction with their bodies.
Stinson was at her best when she explored the tensions inherent among these themes. The weight-loss group (which she never identified) markets itself as a mutual support group but, in reality, it is a business accountable to its shareholders. Stinson traced the inherent conflicts that resulted, showing how mutual support, while present, was consistently sacrificed to the needs of profitability. Members were encouraged to speak during meetings, sharing their successes, questions, and experiences. However, this sharing was also carefully managed. Meeting rooms used classroom-style seating; members sat in rows facing the leader, rarely addressing one another directly. This not only reduced opportunities for sharing and support among members, it reinforced the leader's authority, and, as Stinson showed, allowed the leader to reinterpret members' statements so that they aligned with the organization's message. Thus, rather than strengthening bonds with one another, members' sharing became a platform for marketing the organization itself. [End Page 429]
As a feminist scholar, Stinson is interested in the potential for resistance that occurs when women are gathered in one space, talking with one another. On the surface, the pseudo-feminist language she documented would appear to support the potential empowerment of members. However, as Stinson found, this potential was co-opted in much the same way that marketing firms use feminist imagery to sell cosmetics. Meeting leaders urged self-acceptance and self-care, admonishing members to "put yourself first." Yet, delivered in the context of a commercial weight-loss program, self-care meant losing weight; therefore individuals who "cared about themselves" denied themselves food when they were hungry and chose vegetables when they really wanted chocolate cake. Similarly, self-acceptance depended upon meeting a socially defined standard for appropriate weight.
The ultimate effect of all this, Stinson argued, was the separation of women's weight loss from its larger structural and cultural context, limiting any chance these interactions may have had to engender resistance. Thus, weight problems occurred because of "poor planning" (for example) rather than poverty, work stress, or lack of affordable nutritious food; in other words, a purely individual state with a purely individual solution. Yet Stinson did find evidence of resistance...