Florida State / English Department Writing Resources / First-Year Composition / Our Own Words / The James M. McCrimmon Award / Our Own Words 2004 - 2005 Edition / Relationship Between the Proliferation of Eating Disorders in Women and Sociocultural Factors
Relationship Between the Proliferation of Eating Disorders in Women and Sociocultural Factors
Relationship Between the Proliferation of Eating Disorders in Women and Sociocultural Factors--Professional Draft
I knelt in front of the blue porcelain toilet and forcefully jammed a toothbrush down the back of my throat—I gagged, and then gagged again. Feeling the stomach acids creep up my esophagus, burning my throat, I wanted to stop but felt compelled to continue. I pushed the bristles passed my tonsils; in a sudden rush my body convulsed and the contents of my dinner spewed my mouth in a putrid mass. The large brown wooden bathroom door concealed my task as the sink gushed in an effort to muffle my noise. I knew my stomach was not entirely empty and that some of the enemy still remained within. I repeated the chore until I was satisfied. Straightening my back from its hunched over position, I stood up and my legs quivered. My stomach caved in, and I could feel my skin sticking to my ribs, I feeling I strove to attain. I looked in the mirror and wiped the tears off my cheeks with my shirt sleeves; tears from my body, signaling that I was abusing it. I felt ashamed and alone, yet empowered. I brushed my teeth with the toothbrush that I designated for use after purging so my teeth would not rot. I used one toothbrush to gag myself, one for after purging, and another for daily use; I had three in all. The process was highly covert and methodical. It would be too embarrassing if anyone ever found out, especially my mother; in that case I might be forced to stop the activity that made me feel balanced. Even though I had swim practice earlier that evening, I felt driven to complete my nightly ritual of 139 crunches and 99 sit-ups. I was tall with a large frame and would not accept the fact that I would never be petite; I was determined to be thinner. Standing at 5’7” and weighing 125 pounds of muscle, skin, and bone, I felt fat. I only purged at home in my own bathroom, and usually did it after dinner because eating and going to bed without exercising causes the greatest chance of weight gain. Since I was a straight “A” student who was very involved in extracurricular activities nobody suspected my illness. Sometimes I wouldn’t purge for a couple of months, and then it would start again. I didn’t do it every meal; therefore I didn’t think I had a real problem. I struggled for four years until my mom caught me; it was humiliating. I was diagnosed with bulimia nervosa just before my sixteenth birthday.
I survived. Each year the mortality rate is approximately five percent among those that suffer from eating disorders (Anorexia 2001). The occurrence of eating disorders is a growing epidemic that mostly plagues women. In the United States, five to ten million girls and women and one million boys and men are struggling with eating disorders (Eating 2002). “Only an estimated 5 to 15 percent of people with anorexia or bulimia and an estimated 35 percent of those with binge-eating disorder are male” (Institute 2002). The general term “eating disorder” describes three very different conditions: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. There are numerous factors that cause eating disorders; and certain aspects that are unique to each of the three. However, sociocultural, or social-cultural factors, as they are called by some, are unavoidable because of their abundant presence in society. The extent to which they affect an individual varies, however, in all cases they are underlying issues. Sociocultural factors include; “the sexual revolution, emphasis on thinness as the ideal for beauty, availability and indulgence of food, role of the media, and obesity and reaction to the larger body size” (Anorexia 2001).
There are many symptoms and health effects unique to each of the three types of eating disorders. The symptoms of anorexia include:
resistance to maintaining body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for age and height; intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even though underweight; disturbance in the way in which one’s body weight or shape is experienced, undue influence of body weight or shape on self-evaluation, or denial of the seriousness of the current low body weight; infrequent or absent menstrual periods in females who have reached puberty (Institute 2002).
Women with anorexia starve themselves; they often miss meals and avoid food; if they do eat, it is done cautiously often in precise insubstantial proportions (2002). Anorexic patients frequently supplement their starvation with excessive exercise to burn off extra calories. Some physical symptoms that result are low blood pressure, low body temperature, reduction in bone density, hair loss or frail hair, yellow skin discoloration, frequent headaches, fatigue, and cold intolerance. In serious cases of anorexia, one of the most remarkable symptoms is lanugo hair which grows “all over the body, including the face, in an effort to keep the body warm” (Anorexia 2001). The illness can be fatal, it is estimated that 1,000 women die of anorexia each year with the most common causes of death being “complications of the disorder, such as cardiac arrest or electrolyte imbalance, and suicide” (Institute 2002).
Bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa are the most common forms of eating disorders. Bulimia, the illness that I suffered from, is distinguished by: recurrent episodes of binge eating, characterized by eating an excessive amount of food within a discrete period of time and by a sense of lack of control over-eating during the episode; recurrent in appropriate compensatory behavior in order to prevent weight gain, such as self-induced vomiting or misuse of
laxatives, diuretics, enemas, or other medications (purging), fasting or excessive exercise; the binge eating and inappropriate compensatory behaviors both occur, on average, at least twice a week for 3 months; self-evaluation is unduly influenced by body shape and weight (Institute 2002).
Bulimia patients are externally healthy and remain very secretive about their purging habits (Pomeroy 180). Some physical side-effects of bulimia include the absence of a gag reflex, irregular menstrual cycle, stomach and intestinal problems, dental and gum disease including erosion of tooth enamel, increased cavities, and staining from stomach acids released during frequent vomiting, electrolyte imbalance, puffiness and swelling (edema), throat and esophagus complaints, parotid gland swelling (underjawline), and heartburn (Thompson 12). The most life threatening side-effect of bulimia and anorexia is electrolyte imbalances, which “can lead to irregular heartbeats and possibly heart failure and death. Electrolyte imbalance is caused by dehydration and loss of potassium and sodium from the body as a result of purging” and starvation behaviors (Eating 2002). “People with bulimia usually weigh within the normal range for their age and height, however, like individuals with anorexia, they may fear gaining weight, desire to lose weight, and feel intensely dissatisfied with their bodies” (Institute 2002).
Both anorexic and bulimic patients often have a distorted image of their bodies. A test often administered to patients is a drawing rating scale similar to the one provided in Appendix A. Patients can be given a variety of questions but most commonly they are asked to circle their current figure and their ideal figure with the difference representing “an index of body size dissatisfaction” (J.K. Thompson 79). The figure that the patient circles for their “current figure” is usually one much heavier than their actual physique. I completed a version of the drawing rating test at my first counseling session; my mother and I were instructed to circle our current figures. When we were asked to show each other what we circled, my mother (at the time weighing approximately 50 pounds more than myself) circled a thinner figure than the one I chose. This was astounding and simply illustrates the vast body image distortion in people with eating disorders.
The newly recognized third category of eating disorders is binge eating disorder which is characterized by: frequent episodes of eating large quantities of food in short periods of time often
secretly, without regard to feelings of “hunger” or “fullness;” frequent feelings of being “out of control” during binges; eating large quantities of food rapidly, without really tasting the food; eating alone; feelings of shame, disgust, or guilt after a binge (Eating 2002).
People with binge eating disorder do not purge their bodies of the excessive calories they consume nor do they starve themselves, so often times they are overweight. Some negative health consequences include “high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, heart disease as a result of elevated triglyceride levels, secondary diabetes, and gallbladder disease. Researchers estimate that approximately 25% of obese individuals suffer from frequent episodes of binge eating” (2002).
As mentioned previously, there are many causes of eating disorders which can be divided into three main categories. Psychological factors that can contribute to eating disorders include low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy or lack of control in life, perfectionist or controlling tendencies (part of the reason for my own bout with bulimia), depression, anxiety, anger, or loneliness (Eating 2002). Interpersonal factors include and are not limited to; a history of physical or sexual abuse, troubled family relations, history of being teased because of weight, and trouble expressing feelings (2002). Eating disorders have always been around due to these psychological and interpersonal factors; however, the recent proliferation of eating disorders must be a result of sociocultural factors which mainly consists of the media reinforcing and expanding society’s scrutiny of body image.
Over time, the ideal female form of perfection has evolved. During the Greek and Roman periods the human body, especially the curvaceous female body, was celebrated as a magnificent creation. Through most of the major art periods (i.e. Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassic, Renaissance etc.) a full-figured woman was depicted in the works. During these eras women looked to their neighbors for comparison and standard setting; they did not have access to the current “information superhighway.” Even as recently as the early 1900’s, Renoir painted enlarged female nudes, his masterpiece being the “Bathers” painted 1918-19 (Russell 8). The shapely image of the perfect women held steadfast into the 1950’s and early 1960’s when Marilyn Monroe, a curvy voluptuous woman, was considered the archetype of beauty—the primary sex icon in America. After the 1950’s, as the media developed, the desirable weight for females began to drop to its current state (Russell 9). The media now presents the minority as the standard—thin women that are unrepresentative of most women. Take the sitcom “Friends” for example, which depicts Courtney Cox, Jennifer Aniston, and Lisa Kudrow as average women. They are all thin if not underweight.
Physicians knew about eating disorders as early as 1870, but the general public did not discover the phenomena until the 1980’s (Brumberg 11). During the 1980’s the occurrence of eating disorders was growing and continued to sweep the nation throughout the 1990’s. This trend as stated above paralleled the growth of the media. The media has been transformed by the television which is constantly conveying images to people about what is acceptable. “In the typical American household, the television is on for more than seven hours per day, providing, among other things, potential exposure to over 35,000 commercials per year” (Levine and Smolak 27). Throughout the mid 1970’s to the present day, the television has been the main source of information for women (Eating 2002). During the same period, the ideal body type for women was changing. This new image, what society holds as the epitome of beauty, is just the opposite of natural shape. It is a straight, stick figure, where the bones protrude from under the skin, in an overall gaunt appearance.
The average weights of models, actresses and Miss America Pageant “beauty” contestants are “well below the national norm” (Russell 9). Skinny is now equated with beauty and images are plastered all over the media. Magazines feature articles and advertisements containing these very thing models and celebrities; women look to these publications to find out “what is in.” Murray, Touyz, and Beumont (1996) found that 60-80 percent of eating disordered patients reported that “the mass media had influenced the way they felt about their bodies, in part because they wanted to look like the media ideals of beauty” (Levine and Smolak 28). In addition, the occurrence of health/dieting magazine articles has increased dramatically. A study done by Wiseman, Gunning, and Gray (1993) “tabulated the number of television commercials for diet foods, aids, products, and weight loss programs for the years 1973 to 1991, demonstrating a steady increase in the prevalence of these advertisements” (Heinberg 34).
The craze for thinness has been implemented by the media with television as the primary culprit, constantly forcing images of extremely thin women in the faces of impressionable young women. Women are independent thinkers, but they are faced with conflicting messages. Designers such as Calvin Klein have presented strung-out looking models with bags under their eyes, practically starving, as the essence of beauty. The average American woman would not find this advertisement aesthetically pleasing, but they are aware that it is representative of society’s view of beauty so a contradiction arises. Some women will disregard the view and be happy with their own appearance; others will dwell on it, but won’t take any action simply having a decreased self-esteem, while others especially those with psychological and interpersonal factors will become obsessed with the images and will develop an eating disorder, and the final group of women is the minority that actually “fit the thin mold.”
The prevalence of eating disorders is a pressing issue that affects a majority of women. College women can be prone to them because going to college “constitutes a whole other area of stress” (Anorexia 2001). A survey I completed on the college campus at Florida State University (see Appendix B) found that 86% of the women surveyed knew someone that once suffered from an eating disorder and 17% of those surveyed either currently suffered from or had at some point suffered from an eating disorder. A simple random sample was taken of 35 females from different floors of a college dormitory. There seemed to be a positive correlation between playing with Barbies and subscribing to beauty magazines and eating disorders. Five of the six women who admitted to having an eating disorder, always played with Barbies as a child and had subscribed to a beauty magazine, but none of them currently subscribed. Surprisingly, their average appearance rating of 7.6 was slightly higher than that of those who never suffered from an eating disorder (average of 7). This may be due to the fact that people who admit to having had an eating disorder most likely combated it in the past and now have a heightened self-esteem. Unfortunately, the general population of women is left unhappy with their bodies, which gave them a lower rating of 7. Six women, or 17% of those surveyed, gave themselves an appearance rating of 5 or lower, and none of those six were women who had suffered from an eating disorder. Although no women reported ever having cosmetic surgery for something nonessential, 34% said they would get cosmetic surgery. It is shocking to learn that 34% of women surveyed at FSU are dissatisfied with their bodies to the extent that they would undergo plastic surgery. 17% already have tried to correct their image by engaging in an eating disorder and another 17% have an exceptionally low level of confidence in their appearance. My data suggests that overall the media lowers the self-esteem of the average woman.
Women should be informed of the facts. Did you know that “if we took an average 5’2” woman, age 22 and normal weight of 125 lbs and expected her to fit in the Barbie image – she would have to be 7’2” tall? (Anorexia 2001) Most photos of women in magazines are airbrushed to enhance their bodies to an unearthly proportion. Thighs and stomachs are shaved and shaped to appear more slender, while busts are enhanced. While watching E!Television, I learned that Actress Kate Winslet made a public announcement that her body was airbrushed when she appeared on the front of GQ magazine minus her natural curves. She said she liked the way she looked in the photos, but it was important for people to know the truth.
Numerous options for treatment of eating disorders exist. Some include support groups, family, group or individual counseling, prescribing psychiatric medicines such as anti-depressants, and hospitalization (Eating 2002). If you are suffering from an eating disorder it is important to realize millions of other people are struggling with you. To seek help, get referrals, or answers call the National Eating Disorders Association toll-free 1-800-931-2237 or contact the counseling services at Thagard Health Center. Don’t wait until it is too late.
Brumberg, Joan Jacobs. Fasting Girls. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.
Heinberg, Leslie J. “Theories of Body Image Disturbance: Perceptual, Developmental, and Sociocultural Factors.” Body Image,
Eating Disorders, and Obesity. Ed. J. Kevin Thompson. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1996.
Levine, Michael P. and Linda Smolak. “The mass media and disordered eating: Implications for primary prevention.” The Prevention of Eating Disorders. Ed. Walter Vandereycken and Greta Noordenbos. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. 2001. Online. 22 March 2003. Available
National Eating Disorders Association. 2002. Online. 19 March 2003.
National Institute of Mental Health. 6 August 2002. Online. 19 March 2003. Available
Pomeroy, Claire. “Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder: Assessment of Physical Status.” Body Image, Eating Disorders, and Obesity. Ed. J. Kevin Thompson. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1996.
Russell, G.F.M. “Anorexia Nervosa Through Time.” Handbook of Eating Disorders. Ed. George Szmukler, Chris Dare, and Janet Treasure. Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 1995.
Thompson, J. Kevin. “Assessing Body Image Disturbance: Measures, Methodology, and Implementation.” Body Image, Eating Disorders, and Obesity. Ed. J. Kevin Thompson. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1996.
Thompson, Ron A. Bulimia a Guide for Family and Friends. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1990.
Woodring, Darla. Questionnaire Exploring the Media’s Relationship with Eating Disorders. Florida State University, Tallahassee. 6 March 2003.
Relationship Between the Proliferation of Eating Disorders in Women and Sociocultural Factors--Process Memo
Essay III or the research paper/feature article first seemed like a burdening task. I am all too familiar with MLA formatting from high school and have labored many hours completing extensive research and compiling the information in order to produce a well written paper. I thought this paper was going to be the same sort of methodical process. However, my personal experience spiced up the paper and having a connection with the topic also made the assignment more enjoyable. I liked collecting my own data, although if I had more time I would have made my research valid by including a larger sample size and would have analyzed the results in a more scientific manner (utilizing a statistical analysis). I included myself in the introduction and a little throughout the piece such as when I explained the “drawing rating scale.” Even though some students at the half-class peer review expressed their desire to hear more about my story, I resisted in order to maintain the objective of the assignment—a “research” paper. A descriptive narrative detailing my bout with bulimia would have taken another 10 pages.
I learned new information about the three types of eating disorders from researching my topic. The general format of my paper is as follows: descriptive lead in; general introduction to the three types of eating disorders and statistics regarding the seriousness of the disorders and who is affected, followed by my thesis. I then list the symptoms and health effects of each of the three disorders and describe the causes, highlighting the importance of sociocultural factors. Next, I explain the evolution of the ideal female form and illustrate the recent explosion of eating disorders. Toward the end of the piece I attempt to prove/reinforce my thesis; sociocultural factors (mainly societal pressure conveyed by the media) are the driving forces behind the recent proliferation of eating disorders. I also provide my own theory that women adapt to this pressure in one of four ways; one being the development of an eating disorder. After, I report the results of my own research which supports my thesis. The concluding paragraph describes the treatment of eating disorders and reaches out to those suffering, imploring them to get help. Overall, I think my paper was successful; it was organized effectively and adequately fulfills the requirements. I hope you agree.
Relationship Between the Proliferation of Eating Disorders in Women and Sociocultural Factors--Questionnaire
Girls, please help me with my English assignment by filling out this anonymous survey. Please answer the questions honestly, fold this slip of paper when you’re done and place it in the manila envelope.
Did you play with Barbies as a child?
Always Sometimes Never
Have you ever subscribed to any beauty magazines (i.e. Glamour, Teen, YM, Cosmo, Seventeen etc.)?
Do you currently? Yes No If Yes, how many? _____
How often do you read beauty magazines?
Everyday Weekly Monthly ½ Yearly Yearly Never
How often do you watch MTV or E! Television?
Everyday Weekly Monthly ½ Yearly Yearly Never
How happy/confident are you with your appearance (10=extremely happy with my appearance wouldn’t change a thing; 1=not happy at all, I hate everything from my nose and hair to my thighs)?
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Would you ever get cosmetic surgery?
Have you had cosmetic surgery for something nonessential?
Do you know any female who has suffered or is suffering from an eating disorder?
Have you ever suffered (or are currently suffering) from an eating disorder?
Thanks for your time!