Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Everything comes from something...

Everything needs to come from something. I mean, papers come from tired, coffee ingesting, stress riddled students, babies come from moms, and chocolate Easter Eggs come from a giant rabbit that breaks into people’s homes to leave their children sugary filled, hyper-activity inducing treats that said children insist on eating at six AM on Easter morning. See? Everything. So, naturally eating disorders must have come from somewhere… Right?

There are a lot of topics I want to address throughout the course of this blog, which I have mentioned in my previous post. There are many socio-cultural topics I want to explore (like the media and advertising and objectification!). I especially can’t wait to get into my ideas surrounding fat activism and the most recent developments in the mainstream media surrounding celebrities coming out about their eating disorders. For some, Lady Gaga’s new Body Revolution might ring a bell, or Demi Levito’s relationship with her airbrushed Cosmopolitan tummy, or Nicole Kidman’s recent run in with producers who suggest she gain 25 pounds for the roll in her next film so she would “appear more flawed”. To be completely honest, 25 pounds wouldn’t look bad on Nicole Kidman (though who’s to say weight looks good or bad on anyone?), but that’s just my opinion. Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls just recently came out about her eight year battle with bulimia (I literally just googled her. News reports surrounding her confession have popped up constantly, one 58 minutes ago).  All future topics aside, however, I would like to introduce to you the next chapter in this love affair – eating disorders, a history.

I know, that seems like a really boring way to put it, but you can’t make lemonade without acquiring lemons first – just as you can’t do a proper sociological analysis about eating disorders without understanding a bit of their history, and exploring ideal shifts that have led us to this point. What… you didn’t make an association between making lemonade and doing a sociological analysis? Odd… I should work on my comparisons for next time, perhaps. 

Essentially I want to take a bit of time to explore what is really meant by the fact that eating disorders are so prevalent within our society today when they were not considered as such years ago, decades ago, even centuries ago. Today I feel that having an eating disorder does not mean that one simply struggles with a psychological disorder. I will not deny that ED has his psychological roots, but I have this feeling that socio-cultural influences have an awful lot to do with the fact we have seen such an increase in diagnosed eating disorders, or the fact that younger and younger girls are beginning to diet, or associate their self-worth with the way they look. In other words, this psychological problem is fueled by the dominant ideologies of the time. These ideologies surround beauty, what has been perpetuated as perfection (and I would argue we live in the age of perfection), and what people should be striving for when it comes to looks, body type and size. These ideologies shift naturally over time – as in, the ideals surrounding beauty are going to be different in 1950 compared to those of 2012 or even 2045. Sure, there may be some overlap, but they are going to be different simply because society valued different things at that particular point in time. We also can’t deny the fact that social and cultural influences are of great importance to our psychological selves (especially the way we internalize these influences), even if we don’t see it right away. Eating disorders, then, can be seen as culture fueled, rather than culture bound.

So, here we go. Here’s a rundown of how things have changed, and what this means when it comes to ED.
In the past, eating disorders were almost viewed as an anomaly. They were almost a rarity, this being reflected by the 0.1% of women diagnosed in the 1960s or by the medical journals dating as far back as the 1300s describing symptomology in women with what we believe today to be anorexia (and later the addition of bulimia). Way back in 1873 anorexia had been coined l’anorexie hysterique, a form of hysteria found in women -- purely psychological. Patients were usually force fed, and their symptoms seemed to improve (I wonder why?). Those diagnosed with this hysteria were said to be distressed psychologically, refused food by disgust, or were uneasy around food. The sufferers were reported to have been between 15 and 20 years old. In 1840 anorexia was documented through “extreme emaciation” of women “who actively refused to eat despite pangs of hunger”. Farther back, in the sixteenth century, it was reported Mary Queen of Scots may have suffered from anorexic like symptoms!(Keel & Klump 2003).   

These historic cases struck the medical professionals as odd. It was as if they could not wrap their heads around why on earth these women would actively refuse food, starving to death, at a time where good food was hard to come by unless one was of a certain class, or came from a wealthy family. They were said to have been suffering from “the want of food”. There were cases of women dying. It was characterized as a “woman’s disease” in 1840 (however, we know today that men are affected as well, maybe not in numbers as great, but affected nonetheless).

In the case of bulimia, the research was a little bit funny. The DSM really had a hard time forming criteria around the issue. What counts as bingeing, how much bingeing counted as recurrent, what about the ways people compensate for their eating habits? Where anorexia was concerned more of a “weight phobic” disorder, bulimia was assumed to be a focus on the body itself, rather than weight. This disorder too, was reported way back in the 19th century. For example, in 1870 women were reported to fast for weeks (a compensatory behavior), and then eat everything in sight. It was almost viewed as an issue with gluttony rather than a disorder (which in essence is unfair). Purging behaviors were updated and more well understood and researched as time went on, and by the time bulimia was in a category all on its own, it was also established that usually anorexia and bulimia are co-morbid—two (or more) disorders affecting a person at the same point in time (Keel & Klump 2003). This is usually seen with depression, for example. Sometimes disorders lead to the sufferer to develop depression or vice versa. 

Fun fact: Anorexic tendencies also popped up in religion – through fasting to please God. I found this really interesting – people sacrificing something dear to them for their deity. I would argue that in essence, a person with an eating disorder has a deity, but it isn’t necessarily God. That’s where it gets dangerous, you see. You live through your stupid disorder, you worship it, and you give it everything. You sacrifice something in order to please it. ED is God in that case, ‘nuff said.

With my aside aside, as you can see, the above history, though brief, gives us an illustration into the struggles surrounding the psychological aspects of ED in past eras. As mentioned, doctors simply couldn’t understand what got women thinking this way! ED was purely attributed to the psychological, however, if we view the changes in the ideals of beauty over time, we can clearly see that culture and societal ideals may have had a bit to do with influencing some of these women to develop a disorder that compromises lives and destroys relationships.

Bonafini and Pozzilli (2011) explore a little something called the ideal shift. They state that the ideal of feminine beauty has changed over time. I feel that this is one of the biggest contributing factors when it comes to the amount of women who are suffering from eating disorders in the current day and age. I mean, as the history shows us, there have always been cases, but as I’ve mentioned, today we must not solely focus on the psychology of that, but the outside sources provided by culture and society (especially Western notions of beauty) that have caused an explosion in the realm of eating disorders, a tipping point if you will. I mean, just 50 years ago, 0.1% of women were affected, whereas today it is at least 1.5%! What happened to cause that!?

                                I blame capitalism. And Cosmopolitan magazine, but that’s beside the point. 

Women, and the ideals surrounding the way they look, have gone through a metamorphosis over centuries. Essentially in the beginning, beauty was about what you could do, not what you looked like. What I mean is that if you had a good baby makin’ body, you were golden. Skinny chicks need not apply. There have been some pretty dramatic changes in what constitutes a beautiful body. If you ask me, it’s fucked, but without them, I suppose I would not have the chance to write about the issue at hand, would I? Bonofini and Pozzilli explore the fact that representations of the body beautiful have existed through art originating in the Palaeolithic times in the form of statuettes that represented the female figure. They mention several Venus statues such as the Venus of Willendorf and Venus of Frasassi. Now, Venuses were supposed to embody sexual love and beauty. They were connected to woman as the creator of life and an erotic emblem. So, in other words, 
fertility was hot
It is said that many of these Venuses would have a BMI of over 30, a figure today that is associated with obesity. Take a look at the photos of these Venus statues and paintings. I would argue that if the women weren’t “plus” sized, they were at least healthy looking, and even had bellies (which was desired and acceptable at the time).
The Venus of Willendorf -- The original hot mama

Renoir -- After the Bath

Tiziano -- Danae


The 15th century brought on a focus on proportion and perfection in body forms through mathematics. This shift again during the Renaissance and Baroque period, where female beauty was encapsulated trough sensuality of the feminine body. The 17th century saw depictions of voluptuous women… These “round beauties” stuck around until the late 19th and 20th century. Women were classical, maybe a little curvy, but nothing “over the top”. There were the more androgynous flapper era females of the 1920s, who actually bound their breasts and adopted the straight, slight figure. It was when the 1960s hit, when the waif like appearance (embodied by the infamous Twiggy) became the figure of ideal beauty. These bodies were basically intangible to the majority of the female population, but that was what was desired. Fat was no longer viewed as necessary or beautiful, but as the consequences of laziness, sadness, and poverty. Skinny was in. Skinny women were happy. Skinny women were successful, and who wouldn’t want that? 

Today our culture revolves around the way we look, and we are constantly bombarded with images that tell us that we are not good enough, and that we must strive for perfection in order to be happy. We define ourselves through numbers. Perfection happens to be linked with the way you look. Our culture revolves around the thin ideal, around beauty pageantry and “ideal weight for your height”, fad diets, and attributing food to sin. For example, many of the winners of Miss America Pageants were in the danger zone when it came to their BMI (which is below 18.5). Their BMIs had drastically dropped over time, actually. So, we idealize these women who are potentially starving, their body weights in a zone that does not support proper functioning of their bodies. Even in modeling today, many of the size zero models are suffering from various eating disorders even though there has been a call to ban models with BMIs under a certain range so as to not “promote eating disorders in young women). A friend recently told me that there were apparently NEGATIVE jean sizes in the making! What the fuck is this shit?! I mean, as if it isn’t enough to categorize a size 14 woman as “plus” sized, there is now a movement to strive to be a negative size... Takign up so little space that you are less than zero.

What is beautiful today? Apparently, a BMI of between 18.5 and 24. In fact, studies have shown that the preferred body type reflected women on the low end of that scale, between 18 and 20, many times below 18. It’s cultural shifts and ideals like these, the fact that our self-worth is equated with the way we look, and the way we look is equated with a number that does not take into account the person in question outside of their initial weight and height that is the problem. So long as the ideal of beauty is a woman who looks emaciated, we are in huge trouble. It sort of makes sense now, the prevalence of dieting, the pressures to be thin, and the ages at which females are becoming affected by these ideals  ... It’s culturally and socially bound. These feelings of worthlessness and the need to change in order to embody this ideal takes a huge toll on the psychological health of hundreds and hundreds of people. It not only fucks with the minds of women, but with those of the heterosexual men interested in them. They too are exposed to these unattainable beauty ideals, and are potentially influenced through them of what to expect in a woman.

There is clearly a parallel between disordered eating and predisposition people have to certain mental disorders – I’m not denying that in any sense. We can see from the medical history that eating disorders did have that medical focus, that the culture behind it was either ignored, not as prevalent, or simply not realized. I wanted to shed light on the fact that our psychological selves are influenced greatly by the cultural queues present in our day and age. With beauty ideals constantly shifting and the consistent demands for conformity and perfection –the idea that thin is in and that there is a very fine line as to what constitutes the ideal feminine body… there is no wonder there is an immense pressure to fit into the cookie cutter! Now, I will be devoting an entire section of this project to the media influences that have a hand in promoting eating disorders, I simply wanted to highlight the shifts in cultural ideals I would argue have a helping hand in the causing patterns of self-destruction and psychological trauma  becoming more and more common in people (especially women today).

We’re being taught from a very young age to define ourselves through our bodies. We are also taught to hate our bodies. They will never be adequate or perfect. YOU must change in order to fit into the perfect little pocket that society apparently values above all else. The beauty of it? We see it everywhere, and many of us are able to recognize the dangers of advertising, or recognize the dangerous paths the younger generations are exposed to – being socialized to think that they need to embody something intangible in order to be valued. It’s wrong, and many people will agree with me, I’m sure. It breaks my heart when I see little girls comparing their bodies to one another, complaining about how the cookies with their lunch are going to "make them fat". I want to hug them and tell them that they are being sucked into an evil evil place, that the world of advertising and the models they see on TV aren’t the be all end all. Above all, I want to tell them that these cultural ideals are fucked. And that they need to love themselves.

Seems a little hypocritical coming from a person suffering from one of the disorders made prevalent by dominant ideology today. 

I mean, it’s important to love yourself. I used to love myself. I don’t know what happened, but I’m ready to take myself back. Big is beautiful, small is beautiful… But when you’re sitting at 123 lbs. (yeah, I’m down from last week) and you can actively see your ribs pocking through your shirt, knowing that you did this to yourself and that it is not natural… small doesn’t seem like all that great a thing. Writing like this, acknowledging the issue, this gives me strength. It’s empowering to explore these cultural shifts and then beat them down with a club that has pokey bits sticking from it at all angles. At the same time I feel weak. I have actively explored and talked about psychological and cultural roots and the history of the issue that is controlling my life – but I’m scared to make myself a fucking bowl of oatmeal for lunch. This whole thing can be a double edged sword, but to end of a strong note… You can actively criticize society and culture and the ideals perpetuated by it. You don’t need to subscribe, and you don’t need to blame yourself if things got a little out of hand (back to the ‘it’s not your fault’ mentality). 

Like I said, everything comes from something. By highlighting history and current trends in society, we can clearly draw a parallel when it comes to eating disorders.

Bonafini, B.A. & Pozzilli, P. (2010). “Body weight and beauty: The changing face of the ideal female body weight”. Obesity Reviews, 12, 62-65.

Keel, P.K., & Klump, K.L. (2003). “Are eating disorders culture-bound syndromes? Implications for conceptualizing their etiology”. Psychological Bulletin129, 747-769.

Photos from Google search engine


  1. Hey Heather,

    Just wanted to say that I'm incredibly proud of you for having the courage to tell us about your struggle and for being aware that it is hurting you - so many girls I have known with eating disorders have been (or at least seemed to be) oblivious to the damage they were doing to themselves. It hurts to see you so thin and I really really hope that you can exorcise your demons soon. If there's anything I can do to help, please please please let me know. For now, know that I'm rooting for you! You may feel physically weak now, but you're a dancer and therefore a mentally kickass woman. You can do it. <3

  2. For a long time, you are oblivious. It's when you're at your low... That's when you realize ED's got you by the throat... At least, that's the way it was for me. I am confident that things are going to get better. It is going to be one heck of a struggle... It has been so far. But it's going to be OK.

    Thanks for rooting for me.