Eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating) are becoming more and more prevalent, especially among our youth in the United States. It is no doubt influenced by our environments such as the cultural pressure to be thin.
It is intriguing to understand that eating disorders were not created by our modern society, but they actually existed a long time ago before excessively thin actresses and models started to appear everywhere. In some cultures, eating disorders were not viewed as deviant acts. In the 13th century, there were “holy anorexics” who believed they were in control on their spiritual health and being anorexic proved their devotion to God because food was a sin. In the case of bulimia, it was the time of Ceasar that encouraged bulimia because their culture valued continuous eating and partying. They even had “vomitoriums” where people could go vomit, followed by more drinking and eating. Also, in Egypt, bulimia was even used as a health practice. And here comes an event that we’re familiar with: the relationship between food and wealth in the Middle Ages. Yes, gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins according to the Catholic church, but it’s interesting to note that because of the hardships the people have gone through because of wars, they casted away their religious beliefs and engaged in bulimic activities. Because having the luxury to eat large amounts of food was considered a sign of wealth, perhaps the rich have given themselves a justification to their deviance (defined by their religion) to continue their acts of bulimia. It is similar to how we have websites that encourage eating disorders with support from subcultures (pro-ana and pro-mia) nowadays. Interestingly, as a side note, not all types on self-injury disorders have a subculture for victims to depend on. For example, in our reading Self-injurers: a “Lonely Crowd” by Adler and Adler (as cited in Thio, Calhoun, and Conyers, 2010), they have mentioned that self-cutters prefer being alone to be able to concentrate on their acts of deviance in contrast to the people described above. Additionally, self-cutters have noticed that their behaviors are causing practical problems such as visible scars in the workplace, so they have switched their cutting area to more private areas. These individuals can go by unnoticed, like binge-eaters, but anorexics and bulimic individuals will notice a sudden weight decrease that will alarm others of their disorder.
From the 1960s and onwards, doctors have finally found labels to assign to those who have eating disorders. Anorexia came first in the 60s, bulimia came second in 1977 (and its first appearance in the dictionary), and binge eating only came to light in the 90s. Overall, what is deviant and what is not really depends on which era and culture you live in and is really malleable.
With all the social acceptable reasons to engage in eating disorders back in the days, things have changed. In no way that those who engage in eating disorders are viewed normal, especially now since the disorder is recorded between the pages of the DSM. In other words, those who are anorexic, bulimic, or binge-eaters, are all mental. Not only they are mental, but they have some sort of self-hate against their bodies and low self-esteem regarding themselves. Always restless, they find ways to make themselves feel better by limiting their food intake for example, but unfortunately, there is no end to their problems. The increasing usage of Photoshop in advertisements to alter the images of the human body (especially women) in order to make them look more attractive is almost equivalent to a stab to the heart. As a result, the media is constantly whispering messages such as “you will never be good enough, you will never be perfect”. Also, the fashion industry is another possible contributor to the skinny epidemic. It would be very depressing to know that your body is no where near the size of that glamorous model walking on stage. Additionally, even the National Health Service is recommending people to go on a Ketogenic Enteral Nutrition (KEN) diet. It is a process of having a tube feeding a liquid of protein & nutrients, up from your nose, delivering your food to your stomach. Needless to say, this is a very extreme and shocking diet. According to the doctor, the heavier you are, the more you lose the weight. Four to nine percent of your body total weight can be lost in 10 days.
Isn't it interesting that some people are anorexic because they are poor and deprived of food in certain areas of the world, versus countries abundant in resources who choose not to eat instead? Not only that, our society is constantly trying to put us in a difficult position. We are either subjected to all sorts of weight loss techniques (ranging from simple dieting to surgery) in order to feel more confident about ourselves. Additionally, they tell the very same people that they have a eating disorder (application of labels). Either way, we're stuck. The continuous projection of thin bodies will only contribute to further low self-esteem among the general population.
Very thin models
Source: Business Ethics
No wonder adults, children, and teens are being affected by eating disorders. It is a noticeable phenomenon, especially for females. Among eating disorder patients, approximately 90% are women and 10% are men. Among children, 13% to 41% of girls have admitted dieting or exercising to lose weight, in comparison to only 10% to 29% of boys. This phobia of being fat can start at a very young age with children associating thinness with success and popularity. For example, an 8 year old boy thinks that as long as you can see muscles on your stomach, you are not fat. Otherwise, you are fat, and will be shunned by your circle of friends.
Taunted by weight at young age
Men are also affected
Unfortunately, the increasing view of body dissatisfaction is not only to be present in the media, but is also present in our families. Parents and members of our families can also police your weight and encourage you to eat more or less, as if they are the ultimate judge of your appearance instead of yourselves. For example, from what I’ve seen in my family, we are really cruel against each other. If we haven't seen someone who has gained weight recently, someone will be blunt and point out that they’ve gotten fatter. If you have lost weight, you will be praised and will be used as an example to those who are still “fat” in the family. Our cultural standard to remain thin has created a phobia of being obese. Once you are overweight, you will be demonized by society, and we have read many articles regarding this issue, such as The Stigma of Obesity by Goode (as cited in Thio, Calhoun, and Conyers, 2010), showing a very saddening case of an individual’s shame (eventually causing death) due to being mocked by society because of their weight. Additionally, even having obese friends can even put pressure on you because others tend to think less of you and start doubting your judgment.
With nowhere to turn to, many people end up in pro-ana or pro-mia websites to look for comfort and to seek help to become even more thin to satisfy themselves (in which they will never be). With the glorified images of anorexic models, these websites are actually very unhealthy to the mind as one can actually end up dying from extreme diets. Social Issues Research Centre wrote an article about pro-ana and pro-mia websites and have pointed out that those communities have drawn a clear line between themselves and the rest who are aware that they have a disorder. In other words, they are in denial and proud to be in control of their condition. Pro-ana communities have even managed to separate themselves from the “anorexics” label by calling themselves “rexies” instead.
Though we may not have noticed, we are all somewhat affected by this cultural phenomenon of staying thin at some point in our lives, even myself. Even the sight of grease floating around your French Onion soup might give you shivers. Low self-esteem can be hard to combat, but as long as you can fight the demons of society, and even yourself, you can then start to appreciate with what you have today. With that said, it would also be inappropriate to automatically assume that someone has a eating disorder if they seem very thin. Their physical appearance can be natural and genetic. Bottom line, we need to appreciate every type of bodies.
So, eat to live or live to eat?
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Thio, Alex, Thomas C. Calhoun, and Addrain Conyers. 2010. Readings in Deviant Behavior. 6th ed. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.