How might a sociologist account for the high incidence of eating disorders among women? Eating disorders can only be applied to people who have the option to eat, generally they live in a society with an abundance of food, such as the United Kingdom or the United States, but they choose to control their intake of food to a dangerous level. Although eating disorders are considered to be mental illnesses there are several contributing, social and cultural, factors from the external world which drives people to want to achieve a slim body.
In post modern society the common appearance of an attractive woman was one of a larger woman because being slim was a sign of insufficient nutrition and poverty. The idea of a slender figure originated in the late nineteenth century within middle-class women. Anorexia was first reported in 1874 in France but it did not become prominent until the past thirty or forty years. In more recent times it has become increasingly frequent in young women. (Gibbens 2006 p253) The high incidence of eating disorders among women has many influential factors.
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There are pressures from the media and the developing world for women to look specific way. The modern idea of thinness as attractive and healthy which is ‘so pervasive in Western societies that it often goes unchallenged, despite the fact that it has not always been, nor is it everywhere the case. ‘ (Brown & Jasper 1993 p16) The current ‘Widespread preoccupation with weight, dieting and exercise has escalated to such a degree that it is an accepted, encouraged and rewarded aspect of social life.
‘ (Brown & Jasper 1993 p16) Evidence has shown that women in western society are much more at risk of eating disorders that women from other societies, ‘but the degree of westernisation women of all backgrounds are exposed to seems to increase their risk. ‘ (Dolan 1991) The media has had a huge impact on the increase in numbers of eating disorders found in women. The developments in mass communication through television, sophisticated advertising and magazines ensured the promotion and consumption of new ideals for the appearance of women throughout the western world.
‘The result was a greater emphasis than ever before on outer image, both instead of and as a measure of inner worth. ‘ (Brown & Jasper 1993 p27) These developments in communication have an enormous affect on how and what women considered beauty because of images that have been edited using computer software, even after the production team has selected an already attractive women, creating a false, unachievable goal. Women started to compare themselves against women that they saw in the media, advertising and fashion, hence ‘self-esteem becomes deeply connected to body size and shape.
‘ (Brown & Jasper 1993 p19) This obsession with body image is what causes women to feel that the best way to achieve this goal is to strictly control how they eat and live their lives. Although software is also used to refine and improve images of men, the image which is portrayed is usually of a muscular man and the images are presented in fewer numbers and are not usually aim completely at men. The experiences and reinforcements for men as children mean that they do not develop the same intensity of complexes as women.
The reason that media does not affect male perception of what it attractive and necessary, to the point of an eating disorder, may be due to males tending ‘to be drawn to the opposite emphasis, of a more imposing frame. ‘ (Gordon 1990 p33) This lack of emphasis on being slim can explain why males are less likely to develop an eating disorder because of the influence of the media. The amount of pressure put on men is far outweighed by sheer volume of influences in the media that are directed at women.
In modern times there is also a lot less pressure put on men by women to look like the impression that the media gives, whereas men generally seem to support the idea that women should look as close to the created ideal as possible through their endorsement of magazines and other media that glamorise this image. Most of the original, early media influence was not directly meant to alter the perception of women in such a destructive way, but there are several examples of current media being directly harmful.
An article in the Toronto Star, in the late 1980s described the natural indentation between a woman’s hips and thighs as the “violin deformity”, which the article suggested should be corrected with liposuction, this description as a “deformity” openly implies that the natural form is not desirable and needs to be amended. (Brown ; Jasper 1993 p27) This influence of media has been developing for many years. ‘In the 1960s, television eclipsed film as a primary influence on what was considered beauty in North America.
‘ (Banner 1983) This idea continued and was shown in the widespread communication of a very thin beauty ideal, the presentation of this image and ideal corresponded ‘with an increased incidence of anorexia and the advent of bulimia in the 1970s’ (Brown ; Jasper 1993 p27) This may go some way in reinforcing the argument that the media has an effect of the prominence of eating disorders. At the time of these adverts men were being portrayed at healthy but not unnaturally attractive and their main role in many adverts during the 1960s was the loving, working father. Control can play a large role in the development of eating disorders.
Many women feel they do not have enough power over their lives and choose to take controls in other ways, such as controlling when and how much they eat. ‘Powerlessness and dissatisfaction can be replaced by the self-satisfaction, social approval, and sense of accomplishment won through weight and shape control. ‘ (Brown ; Jasper 1993 p17) There has been a reduced emphasis on women’s fertility since the industrialisation of western society, ‘and as women experienced advances in economic, political, and social life, thinness came to symbolise wealth, independence, and freedom.
‘ (Brown & Jasper 1993 p18) This has resulted in a strong inner drive to obtain the perfect body image so secure the life that they aspire to. ‘Women internalise the fashionable body image, recognising that how they appear affects how they are valued and treated’ (Brown & Jasper 1993 p19) Women are willing to risk their health in a desperate attempt to achieve an attractive appearance because they ‘are seduced by the promises of happiness, success, and love that thinness is presumed to fulfil’ (Seid 1989).
Studies have also shown that control can be a contributing factor towards men developing eating disorders but the control is generally not the pressure of appearing powerful to society as a whole, ‘it is the broader issue of identity as well as those of appearance that seems to give rise to the eating disorders’ in males (Gordon 1990 p65) This social inequality within society also effects males, but in a different way because ‘some feel stigmatised for having a “female” disorder and the resulting sense of shame can make them reluctant to seek help.
‘ (Gordon 1990 p33) This could definitely explain the lack of reported cases of male eating disorders because they feel that society will not accept them if they admit what they are actually experiencing and may try to hide it by using another illness or explanation to cover it. In ‘The Social Construction of Anorexia Nervosa’, J. Hepworth (1999) interviewed a clinical psychologist who admitted that he had is suspicions of male patients occasionally, but felt that it was ‘difficult it get men to admit to an eating disorder. ‘ (Hepworth 1999 p71).
There is a notable connection between male eating disorders and sexual identity. ‘A significant percentage of those male anorexics who have been studied tend to have explicit conflicts in their sexual identity (as opposed to the conflict in social gender roles that we have described for females with eating disorders) – that is, many have explicit homosexual conflicts. ‘ (Gordon 1990 p65) In ‘The Social Construction of Anorexia Nervosa’, J. Hepworth (1999) interviews care workers; psychologists and nurses, to ask them about their opinion on the treatment and diagnosis of anorexics.
When discussing males being treated for anorexia a psychologist accounts that they have only ‘treated one boy with anorexia nervosa, unfortunately he had an extremely disturbed family background [and] a strong family history of psychiatric illnesses’. (Hepworth 1999 p70) This reinforces the idea that anorexia is more influential in males who already have other psychological problems. An explanation for this belief may be clarified by a nurse who accounts that ‘anorexia in men seems to be diagnosed differently anyway. It’s usually put down to depression or [… ] endogenous depression’.
(Hepworth 1999 p72) The social situations and pressures which people are put under may have a large influence on the development of an eating disorder. One example of this is school where it was found that ‘anorexia nervosa typically affects young, well educated middle-class females. ‘ (Crisp, Palmer, ; Kalucy 1976) School may play a large part in this with many middle class students studying at same-sex institutions where the competitive pressures may be heightened. Another example of institutions having an influence on the susceptibility of a person to develop an eating disorder is ballet school.
Garner and Garfinkel (1982) compared a significant group of aspiring ballerinas with a group of college students on their scores on the Eating Attitudes Test, ‘a screening device that has been used widely in assessment of anorexic and bulimic symptoms. ‘ (Gordon 2000 p124) 183 ballet students were asked to complete the test and the results found that over 30 percent obtained scores equivalent to those obtained by anorexic patients, whereas the regular college students scored only 12 percent in the anorexic range.
The experiment was conducted again with a group of modelling students and similar, though less severe, results were found. ‘As Garfinkel and Garner point out, these percentages reflect the fact that in an environment in which thinness per se is a premium for success, the rate of anorexia nervosa is about ten times greater than that which is found in a comparable age group of females in the general population. ‘ (Gordon 2000 p124) This evidence clearly displays that environments can create the pressure to control eating.
Although there have been few studies it is suggested that the pressure for males is less, on the subject of extreme weight control, because in environments such as ballet school and same-sex education the emphasis is generally put onto muscle or intelligence. Naomi Wolf (1990) encapsulates all of these ideas in her book ‘The Beauty Myth’. She observes how beauty has been influential for long as humans have been existed ‘because it is biological, sexual and evolutionary’.
(Wolf 1990) Although she does take into account that beauty is not ‘universal or changeless’ (Wolf 1990) because female beauty is perceived differently around the world. Wolf feels that beauty is not ‘about women at all. It is about men and power. ‘ (Wolf 1990) She points out that the ideas of the beauty myth are so ingrained into women that women would not purchase a magazine showing real, healthy women in a positive light, and if the magazine ‘ran seductive portraits of men.
It would run aground, losing the bulk of its advertisers. ‘ (Wolf 1990) In conclusion, a sociologist would account for the high incidence of eating disorders among women because there are many pressures from the media to change body shape in order to achieve a more attractive appearance which will lead the achievement of, it is portrayed, a happy and perfect life.
Respect and power within society is also portrayed as achievable through the control of weight. Although equality has been gained in many aspects for some women’s lives, others feel that they have little control over their actions because of the still very prominent male dominance in society, so to counteract this lack of control they find another way to obtain control through the management of what the consume through food.
Male eating disorders are much less prominent because of a difference in pressures from the media about body image, with males being more driven towards muscle than weight control, and the superior roles that they play within society also contribute to males avoiding the feelings of a lack of control. A backlash of this social power is that males feel they cannot show weakness, which contributes to many men not seeking help for an eating disorder. The basis for much of the female prominence is due to feelings of inadequacy which is caused by influences in the surroundings of women.
REFERENCES Banner, L. (1983). “American Beauty”. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Brown, C. Jasper, K. (1993). “Consuming Passions”. Toronto: Second Story Press. 16-27. Crisp, A. H. Palmer, R. L. & Kalucy, R. S. (1976) “How common is anorexia nervosa? A prevalence study”. British Journal of Psychiatry. 218, 549-554. Dolan, B. (1991). “Cross-Cultural Aspects of Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia: A Review. ” International Journal of Eating Disorders 10/1, 67-78. Garfinkel, P. E. & Garner, D. M. (1982).
“Anorexia Nervosa. A multidimensional perspective”. New York: Brunner/Mazel. 112-117 Gibbens, A. (2006). “Health, Illness and Disability. ” Manchester: Servis Filmsetting Ltd. 253. Gordon, R. (1990). “Anorexia and Bulimia: Anatomy of a Social Epidemic. ” Cornwall: T. J Press Ltd. 32-33, 65. Gordon, R. (2000). “Eating Disorders. Anatomy of a Social Epidemic. ” Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd 124-126 Seid, R. P. (1989). “Never Too Thin: Why Women Are at War with Their Bodies. ” Scarborough. ON: Prentice-Hall.