Any sociological account of the rise of eating disorders is almost certain to acknowledge them to be a reaction to the cultural heritage that their sufferers are burdened by. The rise of eating disorders clearly shows them to be an almost exclusively western phenomenon, and a by-product of the modern culture of consumption and media influence. While there had been documented cases of eating disorders prior to the 1980’s, since that decade anorexia and bulimia have both reached almost epidemic proportions, while the average weight of a white westerner is ballooning, with comfort eating and compulsive overeating becoming more and more prevalent. Therefore, this essay attempts to account for the rise of eating disorders by looking to the culture that has fostered them.
It is perhaps the domineering role taken up by medical discourse in the discussion of eating disorders that has led to the unspoken denial that they have a firm cultural foundation. Sociology has not, I feel, played a full enough role attempting to find a solution for a blatantly social problem, although many pioneering moves have been made. According to Susie Orbach anorexia “represents one extreme on a continuum on which all women today find themselves”, all are vulnerable to “requirement of the cultural construction of femininity”(Bordo 1993:47); while feminists such as Chernin have also looked at anorexia as the extreme product of this society’s obsession with weight (Clarke et al 1988).
While it may be true that “your true self…lies immeasurably above that which you usually take to be yourself”1 this is a credo that many western women do not take to heart. Through the perceived mindset of society, an illogical ideal of what constitutes beauty, (often cemented by media representations of beauty), there appears to be a universal fall in self-esteem. There is huge cultural importance placed on thinness, and all society is expected to compete with their own genetic make-up to achieve the perfect form. The western socio-cultural physical ideal is the slim muscular form, and the pressure placed upon us to attain this is the root cause of eating disorders. There are many close similarities between the values of those with eating disorders and the rest of the female population, in fact the only major difference appears to be that sufferers have gone too far.
All those suffering with eating disorders choose varying positions in relation to the social ideal, rushing to embrace it or flee it in their differing ways. Anorexics are willing to starve themselves to attain it, compulsive overeaters not only reject it but strive to oppose it, while bulimics become ensnared in a masochistic cycle of bingeing and purging as they struggle internally with the desire to consume and the desire to conform. Bulimia embodies the unstable double bind of consumer capitalism. Anorexia and obesity are opposing approaches to trying to find a solution to this double bind. Backlash against this ideal has on one hand produced a mentality of “I want to walk in the snow and not leave a footprint”2; and on the other has produced women such as the American Carol Yager, who died in her sleep aged thirty-four years weighing a colossal 114st – cause of death, crushed by her own body-weight. These extremes exhibit how the monster we have created is now turning to destroy us.
Positive role models for the overweight are a very rare occurrence in modern media representations. The modern culture is increasingly hostile towards the obese, a prejudice often cloaked by the perception that fat automatically equals lazy; while the more charitable might possess the ‘fat equals jolly’ judgement, behind which lurks the perception that ‘they laugh to hide the tears’. It appears to be better in the modern mind to starve oneself than to be content to remain overweight, if one is to judge by the dearth of overweight women whom the media presents to us. Bordo suggests that the reason society reacts with such hostility to the obese, (with additional vehemence reserved for those who say they are content as they are), is that they are seen as ‘cheating’. By refusing to enter the social rat-race of chasing an allusive ideal, the players in this game place them far lower in their esteem than they do anorexics and bulimics, who at least have the grace to “play homage to the dominant cultural values”(Bordo 1993:203) albeit in extreme forms.
To step back briefly onto a broader stage of time, we can see how western culture’s notion of the ideal bodily form has shifted radically over the past few centuries. A woman who would once have been admired and adored as ‘Rubenesque’ is in today’s culture a ‘fat chick’. Eighteenth century novels tended towards ‘buxom’, ‘stout’ heroines while the modern world has seen the rise of the ‘superwaif’. However, religious fervour of the nineteenth century meant all girls knew of Christian martyrs nearly deified for having starved themselves to death; while the advent of the corset meant that action had been taken on actually physically restricting bodies.
People’s views of their bodies have long been shaped by the Platonic notion of a dualism between that which is material/bodily and that of the mind/spirit. This dualism has led to the body being seen as a constraint, setting limitations out for the soul; the soul continuously strives to escape ‘this brief Tragedy of Flesh’3 and attain the astral plain which the body is denying it. (Bordo, 1993). This is very prevalent (often at the subconscious level) in this society, where we constantly try to escape our bodies, shown not only in eating disorders, but also in such things as cosmetic surgery and the thriving gym-culture. Certainly it is very linked with eating disorders as anorexics convince themselves they are achieving something when they are starving themselves to death.
Delusions of becoming more beautiful and free as they slowly become living skeletons is one of the main reasons behind medical discourse trying to explain anorexia as being due to individual pathologies. Bordo is quick to acknowledge that eating disorders are indeed multidimensional but it does not follow that all factors are of equal importance, and she stresses that cultural influence remains paramount (Bordo,1993:52). Medicine tends towards describing anorexia as an illness, by which they suggest that the sufferer’s way of thinking has left behind normal thought processes, and moved into their own delusional mental universe. This comes in very handy while justifying why they have treated patients against their will; but it also allows us to distance ourselves from the fact their way of thinking is just a stronger form of all women’s thinking (Lemma-Wright 1994).
For instance, ‘a distorted body image’ is one of the most stressed symptoms of eating disorders, and yet many studies, for instance one by Thompson, have found that 95% of 100 women “free of eating disorder symptoms” overestimated their body size. As if further proof was necessary of a growing cultural obsession with thinness, a Garner et al study in 1985 showed a 70% increase in the number of diet articles in women’s magazines in the 1970’s. Perhaps this would not give such anxiety if there were not such an increasing disparity between the actual weight of young women (which has been steadily increasing over the past five decades), and the decreasing weight of the western ideal of female beauty. Screen siren Marilyn Monroe was a European size 16 when the average woman was size 12-14; today the average woman is a size 16 and yet the ideal is the ‘superwaif’, the size 6 Kate Moss’s. Is it any wonder that 80-90% of western women take part in ‘restrained eating’ in a culture where the beautiful and gifted Kate Winslet (herself a recovering bulimic) starved herself down to 8st 12lbs to play the lead in ‘Titanic’ only to be slated by critics as being “too fat to be believable”4 as a love interest. Clarke et al suggests that anorexics are natural sociologists, their keen eye for social machinations has shown them that whatever the cost, it is better to be thin than fat. ‘Anorexia’ literally means ‘a loss of appetite for nervous reasons’ and nothing could be more inappropriate as their appetite remains undiminished and they have merely lost the ability to satisfy it. (Bodywhys). Their plan is not to starve to death but rather to cope with living – and yet it is fatal in 5-10% of cases (Lemma-Wright, 1994). This is a distressingly large proportion when one considers that in the USA there are 6million recorded sufferers of eating disorders; in Britain there are 140,000 recorded cases of anorexia and bulimia; while in Ireland it is estimated that 1in 5 women in the 15-30 age bracket will develop an eating disorder at some point (Moore-Groake). Yet society seems quite determined to encourage striving towards an increasingly unattainable ideal of physical beauty – the ever decreasing weights reported for anorexics at their point of entry into treatment suggests that the sufferers’ loved ones do not look on disapprovingly at the start of the weight loosing process (Clarke et al, 1988) indicating an acceptance until the very extreme.
The epidemic of eating disorders since the 1980’s echoes the nineteenth century outbreak of hysteria – they are both disproportionately high among females and were both initially assumed to have medical causes. Researchers now acknowledge the role cultural ideology played in the production of hysteria and yet they resist applying the historical lesson to the understanding of anorexia and bulimia (Bordo, 1993:51). Hysteria and anorexia both peaked during a period of cultural backlash against women’s attempts to reorganise their role in society – society seems reluctant to let women have their cake and eat it too (no pun intended). If they have a career they should have a family, if they are fat they should be thin…perhaps these disorders are an attempt to lash out at the controlling elements of society.
Eating disorders are not an exclusively female phenomenon, in fact it has been claimed that up to 10% of all sufferers are male. However, there is not so much of a cultural hold over men’s bodies and so they suffer less – the huge concentration of eating disorders in the female gender certainly suggests that the reason is cultural, not biological. To quote Bordo “looking to biology to explain the low prevalence of eating disorders amongst men is like looking to genetics to explain why non-smokers do not get lung cancer as often as smokers”(Bordo,1993:53).
Essentially, eating disorders are due to the cultural constraints which are placed on how our bodies should be. Perhaps in the future an awareness of how big a role society plays in creating such problems will allow so to progress to a more accepting society which does not insist on fitting people into ideal types. It is here that sociology not only has a role to play in explaining eating disorders but also in attempting to bring about some positive change.
1 Friedrich Nietzsche – Untimely Meditations
2Manic Street Preachers – “4st 7lb”
3 Emily Dickinson – ‘Of all the souls that stand create”
4 Entertainment Weekly Dec1997
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