‘First impressions last’ – this stereotype that looks are vitally important was constantly repeated in responses by those questioned. Yana Krupets and Nadezhda Nartova conducted 40 qualitative interviews with residents of St. Petersburg aged 15 to 30. Despite differences in life experiences and varied stages of maturation, it turned out that all informants, without any exceptions, had one common ‘hang-up’ – their weight. This is a subject of constant anxiety and reflection. A small excess in weight causes complexes and forces young people research everything connected with diets, calories counting, exercise and fitness.
‘Weight-reflexive culture’ – this is how Krupets and Nartova have called this habit of idealizing ‘model’ slenderness, ideas which are broadcast by mass media such as glossy magazines and websites, advertising, talk shows, and movies, and reproduced by the youth subculture. And these relatively new values are very predictable, the researchers emphasize. The consumerist society has such imperatives as outward perfection, constant care about one’s ‘own precious self’, eternal youth, and a flawless slim body.
The experts characterize their respondents as educated urban youth, conditionally from the middle class. The results of the study were unveiled in the article ‘Weight-Reflexive Culture and Normalized Corporeal Anxiety of Urban Youth’, which was published in the recent issue of HSE’s The Journal of Social Policy Studies (No. 4, 2014).
Essentially we can speak about a ‘neurosis’ of model slenderness among the youth, the authors believe. Both high school students and graduates are almost equally obsessed with the idea of a perfect body. This body image is extremely important for how they perceive themselves and others. In this way, the body becomes a ‘field of social anxiety, cultural and social policy’, an object of constant reflection, which shows itself in regular monitoring and correction of one’s weight, the experts say.
The mass media has obviously participated in such ‘canonization’ of a slim body. People who don’t conform to the ideals shown there are, in one way or another, stigmatized and find themselves beyond the frames of ‘propriety’.
These media stereotypes are supported and sometimes even enforced by youth subculture. Researchers often mentioned that it is a teenager’s body parameters that largely define how he or she is perceived by his or her peers. Divergence from slim body standards, as sad as it sounds, may make a schoolchild an outsider in the class. This means that a young person’s psychological stability and socialization may be related, among other things, to their weight.
At the same time, the slim body cult also has advantages related to a healthy lifestyle, Krupets and Nartova notice. ‘A new biopolitical order is intensively evolving in the Russian society, and the ideology of a ‘correct body’, which means healthy, reproductive, and athletic, is entering our everyday life, and is more and more actively changing our habits of eating, training and personal care’, the researchers emphasize.
Weight-reflective culture is gender-neutral, the article authors found. According to the informants’ responses, both young females and males are very sensitive about their physical form. In other words, while in the past people used to believe that only female body needs some ‘adjustments’ to reach a certain perfection, today the male body is also believed to need ‘upgrading’.
At the same time, evolving the perception of one’s own body includes assessing the bodies of other people, comparing one’s own body to other people, and being ‘validated’ by others. And this doesn’t only include everyday contacts with friends and colleagues. The reference system also embraces complete strangers and celebrities.
In the context of this growing worry about the norms of slenderness, respondents talked about dissatisfaction with their bodies (or some parts of it), and admitted that they try to measure their weight regularly. The discourse of excessive kilograms (according to the respondents) included such words as ‘discomfort’ and ‘heaviness’. And when speaking about why they should lose weight, young men and women explained that they wanted to look attractive.
It is interesting that even men in their arguments mentioned glamorous looks: ‘Go up to any top model and as her, “Are you satisfied with your body?” What answer will she give? I’ll give the same answer. Of course, not’, said a 25-year old man from St. Petersburg.
A result of such anxiety about being slim is the desire to manage one’s body and formation of appropriate competencies.
The youth take an active interest in what, in their opinion, helps to create a ‘proper body’. This includes diets, calories counting and food elements, the amount of training, exercises for various sets of muscles, etc. Young people persistently look for and even memorize this information. The more so because there are plenty of websites on body management, healthy eating, and fitness (this doesn’t include dangerous groups in social networks that advertise unhealthy excessive weight loss – see Doctors Should Intervene into Internet Diagnosing).
However, acquiring information on a healthy lifestyle doesn’t always mean actually carrying it out. Theory may not be used in regular practice. The main means to achieve the desired body parameters are limitations in eating and unassisted, mostly sporadic, training. And these might be some kind of emergency measure. For example, one common response mentioned drastic weight loss before wearing a tight dress for a social event.
There was another demonstrative example of how the knowledge about how to reach ideal weight is used in practice. A respondent was sorry that, while living next to a park, she couldn’t make herself run in the mornings. This means that popular recipes for a healthy lifestyle have remained only theoretical.
While slenderness and the perception of it turned out to be not only desirable, but almost necessary (it is almost part of their identity), the very thought of the possibility ‘of becoming fat’ is frightening.
Many respondents talked about their fear of gaining weight. And this is not related to the ‘obesity epidemic’, which is spreading in many Western countries due to an increase in fast-food. ‘Fighting obesity is not a pressing concern for the Russian health care system and social policy’, the experts comment.
Interestingly enough, the respondents were not afraid of excessively low weight, which is also a deviation from the norm. ‘For young people, the probable sociomedical pathologization of an excessively skinny body is compensated by its accordance to the shared cultural canon’, the authors say.
This means that among young educated urban residents a corporal norm of ‘slim means normal’ is evolving, Yana Krupets and Nadezhda Nartova say. And this body culture is part of a broader transnational context involving markets, media, and policies.
‘Young people mediate global examples and form their own weight-reflective body culture, which is often more compulsory and and a stronger influence on their individual choices than government biopolicy’, the authors conclude.