A Brief History of Eating Disorders, Who is Affected and Possible Causes

A common myth about eating disorder is that it’s a “white girl’s disease” and only affect white, middle-to-upper class females in there teen or college years. The reality is that eating disorders do not discriminate. Individuals of any race, class, sex, age, sexual orientation can suffer from an eating disorder. Eating disorder is a term for a number of eating problems including anorexia, bulimia and binge eating.  Eating disorder is not a sign that a person has a problem with food. Eating disorder is more of an indicator of underlying problems in that person's life. 

Research of the past two decades on eating disorders has shown that the vast majority of people with eating problems are women. Women are affected by eating disorders 8 to 10 times more than men. In the United States, ten million females and one million males are fighting anorexia and bulimia. The following social factors can contribute to eating disorders:

Ø       Cultural pressures that glorify "thinness" and obtaining the "perfect body"

Ø       Narrow definitions of beauty that include only women and men of specific body weights and shapes.

Ø       Cultural norms that value people on the basis of physical appearance and not inner qualities and strengths.

The first medical use of the term ‘anorexia’ dates back to the 1870s. Bulimia also has a long history, but it was not included in the psychiatric diagnostic manual until 1980.Until the 1980’s there wasn’t much known about eating disorders. Available information was often accessible only by health professionals serving primarily upper class, white, heterosexual families. Almost all medical research available to these professionals supported the myth of eating disorders as a "white girl’s disease."

Until recently there has been little attention to eating disorders in regards to race, religion, class, and sexuality. As a result, a diverse group of women of color—Asian American, African American, Native American, and Latina women—has been ignored. Regarding eating problems as "white concerns" has been based on the assumption that women of color are somehow separate from the problem and can protect themselves from dominant images of beauty and weight. In our society where media has a tremendous impact on our lives it’s almost impossible to assume that women of color can escape the pressures of cultural promotion of women’s thinness.

Women of working class were considered not to have time to be weight-conscious. They were also thought to be one step away from hunger and therefore they were not susceptible to developing eating problems. These stereotypes took the needed attention from the possibility that the stress of poverty and being overworked may contribute to the development of eating problems. In the same way, the lack of attention to lesbians with eating problems reflects the bias that they are as a group disinterested in or unaffected by dominant heterosexual beauty standards and therefore would not be at risk.

While anorexia and bulimia are certainly encouraged by the diet and fashion, there is more evidence that eating disorders are coping mechanisms that girls and women first develop in response to one or more traumas, including sexual abuse, poverty, homophobia, racism, and the stress of acculturation.

A multicultural picture of eating problems also highlights reasons why those historically left out of the main focus may be especially vulnerable to eating problems. For example, being one of only a few African American, Latina, or Asian American women in overwhelmingly white schools, neighborhoods, or work environments may cause stress that women may cope with by bingeing or starving. Women who recently immigrated to the U.S. may be particularly vulnerable to bingeing, purging, or dieting as a means of coping with culture shock and discrimination. The processes of exclusion facing many lesbian and gay youth may lead them to turn to (or away from) food as a means of comfort and companionship.

The high financial cost of treatment programs has severely restricted access to professional help for countless women. Self-help groups (such as Overeaters Anonymous and the community-based support-group model developed by the National Black Women's Health Project) have provided no-cost, conveniently located assistance for women. The link between eating problems and socially induced trauma caused by sexism, homophobia, sexual abuse, and racism stresses that the prevention of bulimia and anorexia should not be just an individual concern. There is a change needed in the critical social conditions that may cause the problems, too. Yet, the prevention of eating problems depends on women's access to economic, cultural, racial, political, social, and sexual justice.

Eating Disorders and Advertising Influence

The cause of eating disorders has been linked with advertising for thirty years, but still no responsibility has been taken by advertisers. Studies have been conducted which show a raise in dieting, anorexia, and bulimia with in the last three decades. In 1970 the average age a girl would being dieting was 14, by 1990 the average age had dropped to 8. Today 81% of 10 year girls are afraid of being fat, half of those girls believe they feel better about themselves when they were on a diet. In addition, a recent study conducted by the American Association for Health Education found that teenage girls believe that there physical appearance is extremely important. The ideal body image for teenage girls comes from advertisements. The advertisements sell images of thin, beautiful light skinned women, along with the image is a message from the advertising company telling girls to lose weight, or increase their breast size. The ideal image of beauty has lead women from 11 to 17 to want to lose weight, according to the Health and Natural Journal. These images can be found in both magazine advertisements and television commercials. Television commercials tell girls and women, if they lose weight or apply beauty products they too will find love or be happy once again.


Helpful information and links to several other websites on Eating Disorders and the media:
Video-"The More You Subtract, The More You Add" Jean Kilbourne

Eating Disorders and Films

How does our society influence our ideas about body images?  How does the media affect this influence?  More specially, think in terms of the media and films.  How does all of this affect the increasing trend of eating disorders?
Young girls are negatively affected by the overwhelming messages they receive from films portraying overly skinny movie stars.  These young girls are faced with societal pressures to fit in.  Young girls are turning towards eating disorders to obtain the ?mythical norm? that we have discussed in our class.  For example, in the article entitled ?What We See Is Not Natural?, by Andrea Gordon, a school youth worker points out that ?The message is ?thin is in?? It?s out there no matter where they look, between the videos, the movies, and the magazines.?  Older women are also affected by these societal pressures to stay thin.  The films which we see portray the young, skinny, beautiful actresses as the ideal; therefore, leading many to resorting to eating disorders to achieve these distorted standards that thin is beautiful. Interestingly, studies have looked at this topic in terms of race.  Studies have compared white women to black women, and looked at how the media influences their body images, thus leading to eating disorders.  These ideas are looked at in the article entitled ?Black Women Ignore Many of Media?s Beauty Ideals? written by Dakota Smith.  Smith points out in her article that ?white women are negatively influenced by seeing size 0 and 2 women in the media.?  In
contrast however, the same does not hold true for black women.  Smith sheds light on the fact that black women just don’t feel bad in the same way white women do by watching television.?  This goes to show the different norms different racial groups hold.


Eating Disorders and Television
    Through the media young adolescents definitions of beauty and attractiveness become defined and take on a cultural definition of what society wants young girls to look like.  The media is not the direct cause of eating disorders but plays an important role in young girls and an increasing number of boys drive for thinness and body dissatisfaction.  In a study done in the Journal of Communication it said, "...watching "thin" shows is a consistent predictor of women's drive for thinness and viewing "heavy" shows is significantly related to body dissatisfaction."  The National Eating Disorder Assoc. said young adults spend 3-4 hours a day watching TV, this is a great deal of time and one can learn different behaviors and ideas about the ideal weight by viewing TV.  The shows that tend to cause the most alarm are TV sitcoms because they use jokes aimed at people who are overweight on the show.  It has been said that women account for 90 to 95 percent of those who suffer from eating disorders, and men make up 5 to 10 percent.  Children Now Organization found that, "Women are much more likely than men to make or receive comments about their appearance in all three media-on TV 28% of women compared to 10% of men received comments on appearance.  This facts show that the medium of television can have an effect on how women and men view their bodies.  Eating disorders has become a male and female issue and also women and men of color have been left out of the picture in regard to this disorder but it affects them as well and should be a growing concern that they have been left out of these studies.  An interesting study was done in Fiji since the introduction of TV in 1995 that girls who viewed the TV shows were 50% more likely to see themselves as fat as compared to girls that hadn't viewed the TV shows.  Since the introduction of TV in eating disorders have increased 5 times since then.  That is an alarming fact as to the effect TV can have on our young people around the world.  The effect of the TV media has become an issue that involves race and gender of all young people around the world.    


These well known faces have all been in the spotlight due to their weight