Women and their perception of food and food consumption relative to their self-image and identity (Bloemfontein, South Africa)
Campbell, Chesney Lu-Anne
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Within this thesis, the narratives of women are explored in terms of their perceptions of food and food consumption and its relation to their self-image and identities. Within our current societies dominated by capitalism and the never-ending cycle of consumerism, the health and fitness industry have exploded as the issue of health linked to notions of well-being and perfecting one’s self-image is being framed as the responsibility of the individual. Women tend to have a negotiating relationship with food and their bodies, and are constantly thinking what effect the food they consume will have on their overall image. As women, they often also have to balance all the different roles they fill in life, combined with the need to keep in shape and to constantly enhance their physical appearance. There is a wide variety of external forms of pressure (from significant others and from the barrage of images and information disseminated on different forms of media outlets) that all play a role in the relationship the participants have with food and their bodies. This study used a social constructivism approach and specifically focused on theories such as phenomenology, feminism and the sociology of the body and of food. This study used the narrative inquiry to explore the seemingly mundane stories emanating from eight women from a middle-class background and their relationships with food. The participants were recruited using a snowball-sampling technique. The focus was purposefully on women with a) an affinity to healthy living as they all regularly exercise, and b) women with the financial means to be able to largely afford their lifestyle choices. Through their narratives a theme linked to notions of “imprisonment” emerged as food and exercise seem to often have an effect of control, routine and restriction on their day-to-day living. The participants are leading routined lives in which for some, every hour of the day is scheduled for a specific activity. The tasks of buying, preparing and consuming food are all controlled as this ability provides some of the participants with a sense of empowerment in a fast-paced world. The study also revealed how the women live under constant self-surveillance, another notion reminiscent of incarceration that gained popularity through its use by Michel Foucault with his development of the concept of the Panopticon. The participants believe that external sources pressurise them and are “watching” over them to make sure that they live up to the standard set by society in terms of healthy eating and exercising. They constantly state within their narratives that they have to eat well and look good for themselves. They have largely internalised these external pressures they experience and therefore believe that they have to life according to the constantly evolving rules governed by the health and fitness industry in order to not to bear the burden of being “fat shamed”. The study revealed some contradictions within the narratives of some participants. They express a desire to be autonomous individuals who do not conform to the standards set by the consumer society in terms of their lifestyle choices and the ever-evasive “ideal body” yet live a life filled with controlled eating behaviour and experience feelings of guilt whenever their eating “strays” from what is considered as healthy and acceptable. This type of behaviour has often been socialised into the participants’ lives through the influence of their mothers and they in turn inevitably also influence the eating habits of their own children. The research project shows how food and notions of healthy living are everything but mundane and contain a wealth of complexity and sociological meaning.