Canadian filmmaker Katherine Gilday's 90-minute film "The Famine Within" (9 p.m. tonight, KCET Channel 28) is all about the reality under surfaces. So it's interesting to see how the surface theme of this documentary--the dominant, and dominating, female body image in North America--covers a larger dilemma that even such a thoughtful film barely skirts.
Psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair, one of several potent experts interviewed by Gilday, notes that a new "political oppression" has arisen. Steiner-Adair's studies reveal that girls desire a "superwoman" image of sexual and economic independence--oh, and thinness too. Other experts note that the traditional female role as nurturer, mother, care-giver has been supplanted by the go-getter in total control of her body. Which means that if she's overweight, she's not in total control.
Gilday stresses that this is a conflict between what genetics dictate and how women are influenced by media images. But the conflict may run even deeper: The superwoman image, a creature of feminism's liberation ethic, is crashing headlong into feminism's other ideal of woman-as-nature. The result is some young bulimic women who talk of how they yearn for a life of motherhood far from the stresses of the business world.
The female body, as Gilday notes in her distinctly analytical and rarely pedantic narration, is the place where this battle is taking place. She can't pinpoint the cause for the fashion world's aggressive promotion of the impossible-to-get Size 4 body image, but she presents an imposing amount of evidence that shows how that image is ruling women just at the historical moment when they're supposedly "free." As important as the overt, and hidden, messages in "The Famine Within" are to women, it's men who would do well to watch and listen. Especially for men who claim not to understand women, Gilday's film may be like a careful surgical plunge into deep female secrets, a bracing shock to the system.