Eating Disorders Essay

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A survey of history reveals that people were fashionably fat throughout many periods.  Obesity was attractive because it was considered to be a sign of wealth.  Those who could obtain enough food to keep themselves and their family well fed were people with money.  In the past century, however, food has been abundant in most of the developed nations, and thinness has become fashionable.

However, today beauty and thinness are attained at the expense of health, because eating disorders are usually the most feasible way to stay within a fashion trend. Logically, there has been a significant increase in the occurrence of eating disorders over the past thirty years. The new fashion trend of thinness has created eating disorders which affect millions of people each year in the United States.

            In research literature, Hilde Bruch (1978, 2001) was one of the first to implicate cultural factors in the increasing incidence of eating disorders, citing both the fashionable emphasis on slenderness as well as the conflicting demands on contemporary young women that created severe identity confusion. The rise of eating disorders in the United States and Western Europe has been described as a modern epidemic and has coincided with a number of sweeping changes in Western societies in the second half of the 20th century.

One of these changes is the rise of a consumer economy, which places an enormous emphasis on the achievement of personal satisfaction at the expense of more collective goals. Another notable change is an increasingly fragmented family that seems beset on all sides by forces such as increasing conflicts in intergenerational relationships and upheavals in sex roles that have introduced great strain and confusion into the developmental experiences of adolescents.

Some of these cultural trends seem to play a direct role in the rise of eating disorders. More specifically, because eating disorders affect mainly females and revolve around issues of identity and body image, it is not surprising that observers have linked the rise of eating disorders in the West with the crisis of female identity and the forces impinging on women that followed the cultural upheavals of the 1960s (Gordon, 2000).

            Due to the fact that eating disorders revolve centrally around the issues of body image and weight control, it is important to focus specifically on these factors. Scientific research by Garner and his colleagues (1980) confirmed that idealized representations of the female form in the wider culture have become increasingly thin and relatively less curvaceous in shape from 1960 until the late 1980s. By all accounts, it appears that these trends have continued relentlessly throughout the 1990s.

Whether such media images play a causal role in eating disorders or whether they merely reflect the standards of the wider culture is a matter of some controversy. However, there seems little doubt that there has been an increasingly stringent expectation for thinness in women.

Given the centrality of drive for thinness and body image preoccupation in the psychopathology of eating disorders, it seems implausible that the relationship between the increasing demand for thinness in the wider culture and the rise of eating disorders would be accidental. It is likely, however, that only those individuals who are vulnerable to these pressures, such as those with preexisting depression or anxiety, low self-esteem in childhood, a history of weight preoccupation, and perhaps genetic predispositions will respond to these cultural demands with the symptoms of an eating disorder.

            The fact that eating disorders occur overwhelmingly in women, however, cannot be fully comprehended without addressing the critical transitions in female identity that have characterized the late twentieth century in industrialized or rapidly industrializing societies. According to Wolf (1991, p.27), as women have moved in increasing numbers into the spheres of education and work around the globe, expectations for achievement and performance have sometimes conflicted sharply with insistent demands for traditional postures of dependency and submissiveness as well as a renewed cult of physical appearance that has been fed by corporate forces.

The result of these contradictory pressures has been for many an enhanced sense of personal uncertainty and self-doubt, along with an increased sense of powerlessness (Gordon, 2000). The paradoxical character of this increased identity confusion in the face of enhanced opportunity is captured in the title of a book by Silverstein and Perlick (1995), The Cost of Competence. These authors have suggested that the thin ideal so touted in traditional sociocultural accounts of eating disorders can be understood as a body ideal that de-emphasizes traditional feminine curvaceousness, in a society still riddled with sexist stereotypes that associate curvaceousness with low female intelligence.

            According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), as many as 10 million females and 1 million males in the United States struggle with these disorders.  Two recognized disorders are Anorexia Nervosa (AN) and Bulimia Nervosa (BN).  There is still much research that needs to be done involving these disorders.  At this time, we do know that these disorders are very dangerous and many of our youth are facing them today.  There are several physical problems that can develop with these disorders, including death.  AN occurs in 1 out of every 100 teenage girl and occasionally in boys.  People with AN believe they are fat even when they are underweight.  They can be very obsessive with food.

According to an article appearing in Scholastic Choices, Dr. Steinfeld has researched that the body can become so starved that all of the muscle, including the muscle of the heart, can stop functioning.  Depression also can relate to this disorder and lead to suicide.  People with BN are obsessed with their weight and usually think about food often.  They may not suffer from being underweight or overweight.  However, after they may starve themselves, they binge eat.  They often feel guilty and they reduce the calories theyve consumed by vomiting, taking laxatives, over-exercising, or again starving themselves.

            Many of these disorders are created when people are in their teens.  It is estimated that 1 out of 250 women have dealt with some kind of eating disorder during the ages of 8-18.  These disorders are thought to be caused by young women trying to fulfill and imposed body image which emphasizes thinness.  According to an article in the Health at Every Size, Social messages about ideal body types are dictated by the political, social and economic climate of a given time cross-culturally, and within the same culture over-time.  The manifestation of these forces is often played out in a personal struggle with the body.  A brief look at the fashionable body and its celebrated form over the past century illustrates the changing ideal within the broader context.

  According to Alayne Yates, a psychiatrist at the University of Arizona, the media are often blamed for the increasing incidence of eating disorders, on the grounds that media images of idealized (slim) physiques motivate or even force people to attempt to achieve slimness themselves (Yates, 1991).  The media are accused of distorting reality, in that the models and celebrities portrayed in the media are either naturally thin and thus unrepresentative of normality, or unnaturally thin.  As with the culture of abundance, idealized media images are a best a background cause of disorders.  Young women see thin models and actresses in magazines, advertisements, and television shows.

The media have portrayed the successful and beautiful protagonists as thin.  They have promoted the image of thinness through popular programming.  Thinness has thus become associated with self control and success.  The average American womans body weight has increased over the past thirty years, yet the models that represent American women have become increasing thinner.  The medias portrayal of happy, successful women being extremely thin makes a huge impact on womens perception of beauty.  When girls begin to compare themselves to the famous and thin women they see on television, or in magazines, they equate thinness with beauty, and many strive to become beautiful.

            The number of diet and health articles and advertisements has also risen along with the number of eating disorders.  Articles on weight loss can be found in almost every issue of womens magazines, and new miracle diet books are constantly being published.

Many of these diets are unhealthy, and some are even dangerous.  Weight loss and advertisements are found in almost every type of media, and women are constantly obsessed with the topic of weight.  Many young women can overlook the stream of thinness and diet propaganda that they encounter, but an increasing number of women are not so lucky.  As the media puts more and more emphasis on thinness, more women become dissatisfied with their own bodies.

            Some may argue that the media has nothing to do with a womans perception of herself.  They believe that women want to look at people more beautiful than themselves, and that thin models inspire people to take better care of their own bodies.  But researches suggest that exposure to thin models resulted in lower self-esteem and decreased weight satisfaction.  Studies prove that the media does directly relate to and affect a womans body image and self-esteem, which is directly related to eating disorders (Vaughan, 2003).

Practically, there are ways that men and especially women can overcome pressures with the media.  One way is to recognize stereotyping in the media and to appreciate and respect persons of all sizes.  Acknowledging stereotyping will help to respect people of all sizes, and to accept all sizes as equal.  What is important is that women need to learn to reject negative messages from the media and to accept themselves as they are.

            An eating disorder can exist when ones attitude toward food and weight is a constant worry.  Eating disorders however are not just a problem with food.  An article in Current Health states that these disorders also bear psychological disorders, many of which many not even be apparent to someone.  Eating disorders cans be someones attempt to feel better about themselves, or to help function because they are intimidated with the world around them.

            Food is not only used to abate the discomfort of feeling ineffectual.  For bulimics and anorexics in particular, food is used as a means to feel powerful: the bulimics can defy the effects of overeating; the anorexic can defy the feelings of hunger.  Both bingeing/purging and purposeful starvation can create a false sense of control.  The feelings of power are created to overcome how powerless they feel they really are.

            The dilemma of eating disorders continues evolving on entirely new levels.  A person whose sport revolves around body image and weight is at a higher risk to develop an eating disorder.  Sports that demand a body to appear thin and lean or where an athlete has to maintain a certain weight in order to compete have the highest percentage of athletes with eating disorders (Thompson, 1996).

The athletes appearance determines to a very degree his or her confidence, professional or commercial success in any particular sport, such as gymnastics, figure skating, dancing and synchronized swimming.  Scientist indicate that sports that have more of emphasis on muscle weight and power, for instance basketball, skiing and volleyball, have less of a chance of athletes getting an eating disorder.

According to a 1992 American College of Sports Medicine study, eating disorders prevailed among 62 percent of females in sports like figure skating and gymnastics (Zerbe, 1995).  Eating disorders continue to be on the rise among athletes, especially those involved in sports that place great emphasis on the athlete being thin.  This is not to say that athletes in other sports do not have the same risk.  In any sport where there is need for physical activity and performance, in order to maintain their appearance, performance and required weight, athletes can develop Anorexia or Bulimia Nervosa.

            Among various reasons for why athletes develop eating disorders is already mentioned idealization of thinness in society.  As Thompson points out, judges in gymnastics and figure skating have progressively rewarded thinner athletes (Thompson, 1996).  Furthermore, some athletes believe that having lower body fat will enhance performance.

Exercise itself decreases appetite and promotes weight loss (Thompson, 1996).  Some athletes are dissatisfied with their bodies and they may feel anxious and critical of their own athletic performance and express their concerns with their bodies.  Like anyone with an eating disorder, and athletes personality, their self-esteem, and the way they cope with stress and situations will reflect on their likelihood to develop an eating disorder (Thompson, 1996). Although not all athletes endure an eating disorder, some are more prone to these disorders than others.

According to Thompson, some athletes inflict themselves with eating disorders in order to please their coaches and judges (Thompson, 1996).  They fall victim to eating disorders in a desperate attempt to be thin.  In her book Body Pertrayed Katheryn Zerbe indicates that some coaches are guilty of pressuring these athletes to be thin by criticizing them or making reference to their weight (Zerbe, 1995).  Practically, these comments can make serious emotional damage to the athlete, stimulating the development of disorder.  Athletes are usually judged by technical and artistic merit and are under enormous pressure to be thin.

  As Thompson reports, in 1988, at a meet in Budapest, a U.S. judge told Christy Henrich, one of the worlds top gymnasts, that she was too fat and needed to lose weight if she hoped to make the Olympic team (Thompson, 1996).  Christy resorted to anorexia and bulimia as a way to control her weight, and her eating disorders eventually took her life.  At one point her weight had plummeted as low as 47 lbs. and at the age of 22, Christy Henrich died of multiple organ failure.  According to Thompson, the story of Christy Henrich is not a notable exception.  Famous gymnasts Kathy Johnson, Nadia Comaneci and Cathy Rigby have come forward and admitted to fighting eating disorders (Thompson, 1996).  For instance, Cathy Rigby, a 1972 Olympian, battled anorexia and bulimia for 12 years.

From the practical standpoint, American society is a society where being healthy with exercise is highly promoted.  Yes, exercise is highly recommended to promote our health and well being.  However, many people are unaware of the addiction that is among this with these disorders.  In the book Compulsive Exercise and the Eating Disorders, Alayne Yates (1991) refers to studies of William Morgan and Connie Chan, psychologists of the University of Massauchesetts at Boston.  According to studies conducted in 1979 by William Morgan (Yates, 1991) addicted athletes, in his case long-distance runners, continued to exercise even when the process threatens their jobs, their family relationships and their health.  Many physicians and sports-medicine specialist observe that many athletes or regular people in the process of training push themselves to the point of injuries such as shin splints and stress fractures, refusing to rest and recuperate, causing greater and permanent trauma consequences.

Simultaneously, Connie Chan in her study (Yates, 1991) compared a group of 30 male and female athletes unable to exercise for some reasoning (sickness, injuries, etc) with a similar one who continued to work out.  Interestingly, the athletes who could not run and train displayed more signs of depression, confusion and anxiety, were fare more dissatisfied with themselves and their bodies than athletes who could train.  Therefore, similarly to other addictions exercise demonstrates withdrawal symptoms.

            From the critical point of view, exercise addicts develop a significant sense of control over their bodies and feel immortal when running.  Exercise addicts are intense individuals who do not derive quantifiable results from their jobs or personal life, and in their increasing performance and various personal bests they discover a source of measurable achievement.  Moreover, these results usually function as a self-affirmation that assists in overcoming different troubles in form of inferiority complex and personal inadequacy.

The psychological needs that keep the addicted athlete on the run echo are those that keep the anorexic on the road to starvation, according to psychiatrist Alayne Yates. Yates and her colleagues studied male compulsive runners and found some striking similarities to fe­male anorexics. Both groups are unusually introverted and unable to express anger. They tend to come from fairly afflu­ent, achievement-oriented families and are extremely demand­ing of themselves.

For both, the commitment to diet or exer­cise is an integral part of their identities, and they are unable to see that there is anything wrong or extreme in their activi­ties. Anorexics and exercise addicts are both susceptible to body-image distortions: The emaciated anorexic may see sad­dlebags where there is only skin and bones; a running addict in peak physical condition may feel weighed down by nonexis­tent body fat.  According to Catherine Shisslak (Yates, 1991), one of the studys authors, anorexics can never be thin enough and compulsive runners can never be fast enough.

Connie Chan (Yates, 1991) who worked with anorexics during her in­ternship in graduate school, agrees that there are parallels be­tween the two groups, but she sees important differences in the extent of their disturbances. They may be on the same spectrum, she says, but in very different places (Yates, 1991, p. 119). Take, for example, their body-image distortion. Addicted runners have some grasp of reality when it comes to body image. But anorexics have gone completely over the edge, and there is no reality in how they see themselves. Chan agrees, however, that the issues of achievement, control and fear of powerlessness are central to both anorexia and exer­cise addiction, and she notes that there is much crossover be­tween the two groups: compulsive runners often obsess about their weight, and many anorexics exercise religiously.

Eating disorders represent significant dilemma for contemporary society, affecting primarily its most vulnerable parts teenagers and women, who fall victim of fashion and stereotyping. From practical standpoint, it is impossible to reverse social development, therefore it is necessary to address the dilemma on entirely new levels.

High schools and colleges should establish particular educational and training programs involving professional psychologists and other related specialists in order to inform and prevent those vulnerable from pitiful consequences. The programs can be incorporated in the school academic curriculum as an independent course or as a part of related health or safety classes. It is important to address the problem from various perspectives, so that youth obtain adequate advices, support or information from their family members, friends, and school counselors.


            Garner DM, Olmsted MP, Bohr Y, et al., (1982). The Eating Attitudes Test: psychometric features and clinical correlates. Psychological Medicine, 12, 871-8

            Gordon, RA (2000). Eating Disorders: Anatomy of a Social Epidemic (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell

            Bruch H. (2001) The Golden Cage: The Enigma of Anorexia Nervosa, Harvard University Press, 2001

            Wolf, N. (1991). The Beauty Myth. New York: William Morrow

Silverstein B., Perlick D. (1995), The Cost of Competence, Oxford University Press

Seindenfeld M. (2003).  Eating Disorders, an article appearing in Scholastic Choices, May 2003, Vol. 18

Empty Inside Current Health 2, January 2005, Vol. 31 Issue 5.

Matz, J. & Frankel, E. (2005).  An article appearing in Healthy at Every Size, Vol. 19, Issue 1, pg. 19.

Yates, A. (1991). Compulsive Exercise and the Eating Disorders, Taylor & Francis Group.

Vaughan K.K. (2003), Changes in television and magazine exposure and eating disorder symptomatology, Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, October, available at

Thompson C. (1996) Athletes and Eating Disorders: Report, _Athle.135.0.html

Zerbe K.J. (1995) The Body Betrayed:  A Deeper Understanding of Women, Eating Disorders, and Treatment, M.D.


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