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Eating Disorders Essay, Research Paper

It is not surprising that eating disorders are on the increase due to the value

society places on being thin. In modern Western culture, women are given the

message at a very young age that in order to be happy and successful, they must

be thin. Every time you walk into a store you are surrounded by the images of

emaciated models that appear on the front cover of fashion magazines. Women are

constantly bombarded with advertisements catering to what is considered

desirable. Thousands of women and girls are starving themselves this very minute

trying to attain what the fashion industry considers to be the ideal waif-like

figure. During this paper I will mainly be discussing the effects on females,

though males are afflicted with eating disorders, the causes are different than

those in the opposite sex. The average model weighs 23% less than the average

woman. Maintaining a weight that is 15% below your expected body weight fits the

criteria for anorexia, so most models, according to medical standards, fit into

the category of being anorexic (Brumberg 205). Women must realize that society’s

ideal body image may in fact be achievable, but at a detrimental price to

one?s body. The photos we see in magazines are not a clear image of reality.

Adolescents and women striving to attain society’s unattainable ideal more often

than not, increase their feelings of inadequacy. In contemporary society young

women easily cling to dieting precisely because it is widely practiced and an

admired form of cultural expression. In the twentieth century, the body?not

the face?became the focus of female beauty. As a consequence of this media

portrayal of beauty, dieting has moved from the periphery to the center of

women?s lives and culture. Dieting has manifested in two noticeable and

important ways that have consequences for eating disorders. First, upon

comparing physical appearances throughout the twentieth century, the female body

size has become significantly slimmer. According to Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author

of ?Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa,? (1988) society

experienced a ?brief flirtation with full-breasted, curvaceous female figures

during 1950s, our collective taste returned to an ideal of extreme thinness and

an androgynous, if not childlike, figure.? Our cultural tolerance for body fat

has diminished over the years, causing an infiltration of these feelings to

adolescents and young women, the group most afflicted with eating disorders.

Second, society projects an image that being thin is tied to attractiveness,

popularity with the opposite sex, and self esteem?all primary ingredients in

adolescent culture. Nearly 50% of all women are on a diet at any given time (Bordo

140). The fact that women have such strong concerns about attractiveness is

compelling evidence for the power of dieting message. Given western culture?s

longstanding admiration of thinness, it is no wonder that so many young women

resort to dieting and that eating disorders have become part of the

psychopathology of females. Diet commercials are constantly appearing on our

television screens telling us that once we lose the weight, we will be happy,

content, and successful. You stand in the check out line at the grocery store

surrounded by magazines claiming to have the newest and best diet. Each month

another new diet appears claiming to be the diet to end all diets. Whatever

happened to last month’s diets that claimed the same thing? Dieting has become

an obsession in modern western culture. Many of the diets on the market right

now are unhealthy. They deprive you of the proper nutrition your body needs to

survive and can lead to health problems. The diet and fashion industries are not

totally to blame for society’s obsession with thinness. We are the ones keeping

them in business. We buy into the "ideal" body image. We allow

ourselves to believe the lies being thrown at us constantly. We buy their

magazines, diet books and products, hoping that this time they will work. We are

throwing away our hard earned money trying to live up to the standards that

society has set for us. Be prepared to spend lots of money on your quest for the

perfect diet and be prepared to never find it, because there isn’t one. Eating

disorders were first diagnosed in the 1950s or early 1960s and have spread

rapidly over the following decades (Brumberg 3). Anorexia nervosa and Bulimia

nervosa, the two officially recognized eating disorders, have become major

focuses of attention among the public due to rapid increases in occurrences.

Both of these diseases are associated with one overriding desire: all

encompassing drive to be thin. (Chernin 28). The causes of these disorders are

numerous. Some are biological, but the strongest causes are due to sociocultural

factors. There are several sociocultural causes of eating disorders. For

instance, an improvement of the economic conditions of woman, family

characteristics, and visual exposure to ideal image of the female body in the

media would influence eating disorders (Bordo 52). First, eating disorders are

culturally specific. More than 90% of the cases of severe eating disorders are

found in young, white female of middle to upper socioeconomic status who are

living in a competitive environment. (Bordo 53). Anorexia is also more likely to

occur in professions where there is a culture of slenderness like dancing,

athletics, modeling, etc. In the 20th century, there has been a huge change in

the concept of attractiveness. As women had more chances to get higher education

and enter into better professions, there was prejudice against women in the

workplace. In the sense that heavier women began to be perceived as lacking

competence. Slender women became the standard of attractiveness for women who

were graduating from college and entering their professions. This change of

ideals would help women to fit in with the male-dominated workplace. The

following was collected from Home Journal, Playboy magazine, and Miss America

participants by Garner, Garfinkle, Schwartz, and Thompson. According to this

data, 69% of Playboy centerfolds and 60% of Miss America participants from 1959

to1978 had weights 15% or below the average weights for their age and height (Brumberg

254). Second, an ideal body image differs among different ethnic groups. The

research of Madeline Altabe, a psychologist at the University of South Florida,

indicates that Caucasian and Hispanic-Americans showed more weight-related body

image disturbance than African-Americans and Asian-Americans. African-Americans

had the most positive general body image. Ethnic groups were similar in their

ideal body image traits (Bordo 53). Third, there are common family

characteristics among eating disorder patients. Many of the patients are from

middle and upper class backgrounds whose parents are high achievers. The typical

anorexic family seems to be hard-driven and concerned about external appearances

including physical ones. To accomplish these goals, family members often deny

negative feelings and tend to attribute their problems to other people. In

"Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body"

statistically proven data suggests that among eating disorder patients there are

significant differences of cohesion and expressiveness. Cohesion and

expressiveness are the degree of unity among family members. Comparing with

normally functioning families, those with eating disorder patients scored lower

on cohesiveness and expressiveness. (54) Fourth, and most importantly, visual

media appears to have an effect on the frequency of eating disorders. After the

1920s, the number of diet articles in fashion magazines has increased. Many

young women have role models in media images of very thin women. Extremely thin

runway models influence young women to develop eating disorders. A study was

conducted to show whether visual exposure influences the formation of an ideal

body image or not. This study found that congenitally blind women had the lowest

levels of body image satisfaction and disordered eating attitudes compared to

those women blinded later in life. Sighted subjects showed significantly higher

levels of both body image dissatisfaction and eating attitudes. (Bordo 35) On

the other hand, there are other points of view with a biological dimension.

Genetic factors are correlated with eating disorders by showing the high

inheritability of anorexia. Neurobiological abnormalities also appear like

increased seratonin function in the brain. However, there are some fallacies in

accepting these as factors because the inheritability estimates were based on

identical twins and tend to exaggerate the effect of genetics in the population.

Also the study about neurotransmitters does not show any specific

neurotransmitters. There is a question as to whether the neurobiological

abnormalities exist as the cause or effect of eating disorders. In some ways,

they can be a result of semi-starvation or the binge-eating cycle; thus they are

not causes. Few cases of anorexia nervosa were found outside the western world.

For instance, six cases were identified in the Caribbean Island of Curacao. If

these cases were caused by inheritability, this can be an example of how

sociocultural influence can be factored into eating disorders by the small

number of incidents. Compared with people in the western culture, people in

Curacao were not exposed to many sociocultural factors; therefore, despite their

biological vulnerability, few people were afflicted with disorders. Throughout

the research about the causes of eating disorders, there are many factors. As we

have seen, sociocultural factors contribute a lot to form an ideal body image,

which never seems to be achieved. However, to know more about eating disorders,

an integrative approach is more useful rather than the one-sided approach

because of the complexity of these disorders. "It is clear that a very

large percentage of American women are unhappy with their bodies," says

Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author of "The Body Project: An Intimate History of

American Girls," (1998). "That kind of unhappiness begins very, very

early in life," she says. The rise of plastic surgery, the prevalence of

dieting and the high number of women in therapy are examples prove that women

still suffer from self-esteem problems. Women still feel unhappy about the way

the advertising industry portrays females. "Fashion magazines deliberately

promote fantasy," says Mary Peacock of Women.com, a Web site for women. A

typical fashion magazine reader can?t afford the clothes or achieve the body

depicted in these publications, she says. Peacock says women’s magazines have

regressed in their portrayal of realistic body images since the heyday of Ms.

magazine, which she helped, found with fellow feminists in the 1970s. They

formed Ms. in reaction to the male-edited women?s magazines that dominated the

market at the time. Today’s magazines "pay lip service to issues like

anorexia, but it’s embedded in the advertising," she says. But Peacock

cautions against blaming the media outright for women?s self-esteem issues.

Magazines may portray women in a manner that upsets the feminist consumer,

though the problem can also be traced to the readers. Readers do not seem to

understand that the images conveyed throughout the pages are not the norm.

"The problem is not the magazine, necessarily," says Peacock.

"The problem is also the readers. People don’t understand what physical

freaks models are.? The 90?s saw a new trend emerge dubbed ?heroin chic?

because of the ultra-thin, strung-out appearance of models like Kate Moss and

Shalom Harlow, the look dominated fashion capitals such as New York, London and

Paris until trends began changing in early 1998. But with the popularity of

heroin chic, came controversy over the dangers of becoming too thin. Though many

have criticized the trend, young girls starved themselves trying to attain the

waif-like figure. Even though heroin chic no longer dominates the market, women

remain uncomfortable with the media?s depiction of their bodies. Though women

speak up about this dissatisfaction, they still seem to be getting less and less

happy about their appearance. Society is brainwashing young people into

believing that being thin is important and necessary. It’s unfortunate, but in

today’s society, people have forgotten that it’s what’s inside a person that

counts, not what’s on the outside. We need to start loving and accepting each

other for who we are not what we look like. Next time you decide that you are

going to start another diet because you feel you are too fat, stop; sign up for

a self-esteem class instead. That would be money well spent. If we learn to love

and accept ourselves, we will also begin to love our bodies, no matter what size

we are. We also need to teach our children to be proud of whom they are. We need

to remind them that people come in all shapes and sizes, and we need to teach

them to accept everyone for who they are. Parents need to also teach their

children the value of healthy eating and not send the message that being thin is

important. Many children, under the age of 10, are becoming obsessed with

dieting and their bodies. They are afraid of becoming fat. They don’t just learn

this from the media; they also learn this from their parents. If their mothers

are constantly dieting and expressing their desire to be thin, these young

children will start to believe they also need to be thin. We need to encourage

and support our children, especially teenagers. They need to feel good about

themselves and their accomplishments, they need your approval and they need to

know that you are proud of them. If a child is raised to love and accept who

they are and what they look like, they will be less likely to strive to fit into

society’s unattainable standards.

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