Body and society
Throughout time and across cultures, the body and its primary form of material transaction with the environment, eating, have been the subjects of intense moral symbolism and attempts to regulate, restrict, and control (Douglas, 1966; Nemeroff and Rozin, 1989; Rozin, 1990, 1996). Modifications to the body serve a variety of functions, from simple ornamentation (e.g., earrings in modern western society) to rites of passage (e.g., subincision among Australian Aborigines), marks of group affliation (e.g., circumcision among week-old Jewish males) or station in life (e.g., the dot on the forehead worn by Hindu Indian women or tattooing upon earning a master's rating among traditional Manx sailors). Jewelry, makeup, and fashions in clothing are ancient and more or less universal, as are religious and spiritual practices involving control over food and sex, abstentions and purges, and “mortifications of the flesh.” Clearly, management of the body – its appearance, its boundaries, what goes in and what comes out – is a potent means of managing both the social and the personal image of self (Douglas, 1966; Nemeroff et al., 1996).
Within the current western cultural context, thinness (and to a growing extent, fitness and healthiness) has come to represent virtue, success, and status. This is especially so for women. Many authors have speculated as to the exact nature of the symbolism involved.