This article will focus solely on some of the social aspects of eating disorders related to being extremely skinny. Eating Disorders are a complicated issue and there is not only one answer as to why they occur.
Eating disorders are unfortunately becoming more and more common. Yet, we seem to have great difficulty understanding why. Different areas of science compete to find a single answer that can solve this problem, but eating disorders are much more complicated that. They can arise for many different reasons, such as traumatic experiences, abuse, violence, a damaged self esteem, depression, stress, bullying, social pressures, lack of emotional support in life, emotional detachment, societies value systems, body issues and fashion in general. Most times, several of these reasons act together in the development of an eating disorder.
A while ago, I read a brilliant article in 'Womans Weekly' (March 2013). The article was called 'Anorexic models' and is an edited extract of Kirstie Clements book The Vogue Factor (2014, Chronicle Books, US). Kirstie is a former Vogue Australia editor. In the article by Woman's Weekly, Kirstie Clements talks about her years at the top end of the fashion industry. Kristie tells (p.41):
”…I was dressing a model from the US on a beauty shoot, and I noticed scars and scabs on her knees. When I queried her about them, she said nonchalantly, ”Oh, yes. Because I’m always so hungry, I faint a lot.” She thought it was completely normal to pass out each day, sometimes more than once”. A little further down on the same page, Kirstie refers to a comment given by a model: ”My flatmate is a ’fit model’, so she’s in hospital on a drip a lot of the time.” A fit model is one who is used in the top designers ateliers, or workrooms, and is the body around which the clothes are designed” (p.41)
These models represent the ideal body image. And yet, they have to go to extreme lengths to look like that. If people, who already are very thin, have to starve themselves to become even thinner to become the ideal body image, something is very wrong. Very rarely have I met a woman who didn’t feel she was somewhat fat or 5 kilos overweight. I have also met many teenagers and adult women, who had big issues with their bodies. Females, who felt a ’shame’ about their body, their intake of food and ’not being perfect enough’. There is this lie too many believe; 'that if I am thin I am happy and people will like me. I will feel good about my self and all of my problems will go away.'
We say to men, that if you are not fit and muscular, you are not masculine. That means, that you are not ’a real man’. And not being ’a real man’, is the lowest of the lowest in a very strict macho society. The fear of being fat has created a shameful relationship to food. Fat has become a symptom for something shameful, something wrong. And since food to a large extent is the main perceived reason for gaining fat on the body, food has become the new ’shame provider’. However, food is essential for us humans. Food is what keeps us alive, healthy and energetic - not to mention the importance for our brain functions. It brings us joy, great pleasure, nourishment and it is deeply sensual. Food is therefore closely connected to our emotions.
I once knew this mother, who became extremly ’devoted’ to yoga and health food. Her behaviour and eating patterns, were a cover up for an already existing eating disorder. She was obsessed about her looks and having a thin body. Because if she didn’t look good and was thin, she feared men would not adore her. And if men did not adore her, she was a nobody and powerless. The problem was not only hidden within the socially accepted yoga and ’health food’ diets, but it was also passed on to her children. By the time the children had reached puberty, they too, suffered from a very troubled relationship to food and a distorted body image. They had learned, that to be socially accepted and beautiful, they had to be skinny. Otherwise they would be worthless. In this case, the childrens problem with food, was passed down from their mother. Sadly, nobody in the surroundings ever questioned the mothers approach towards food, because her behaviour fitted the ideal food and body conscious image. Many suffering from a eating disorders like this, are accepted and normalized through societies fashion ideas about the ’perfect’ body and ’healthy diet’.
Through magazines, advertisements, TV shows and Hollywood movies, we teach our children from a very early age, that if they don’t look like those ’out there’, they are unattractive and have no worth. And what's really troublesome, is that we teach especially girls, that if boys don’t like you, you are the ’biggest worthless loser on earth’.
Reading the article about the former Vogue Editor Kirstie, and how the models violated themselves in the most insane ways to fit the ideals set by the fashion designers, I asked myself: why do these women treat themselves so badly? Why do these women put others ideals higher than their own health? And can you possibly love yourself and feel good about yourself, when you allow others to indirectly make you starve and violate yourself in such a way? I might be wrong in my judgement, but I think these questions are important to ask. Because, who teaches these girls/women such values? And most of all, aren’t designers talented enough to design clothes to a normal body?
Our western society has built this dream, that the most prestigious a female can become, is a model – and that means being extremely skinny and glamorous. Every single magazine, directed towards women, writes about:
2. How a woman lost 100 kg and now feels fabulous, fantastic and all her problems are gone (so you also can lose weight and obtain all these glorious emotions of social worth)
3. You can look great in all of these clothes if you are just as thin as the model (and most aren’t, which 'tells' you that you are not only fat, you are also unattractive)
4. If you would like to be attractive and someone special (someone with a social worth) you have to look like those models and ’red carpet’ celebrities (and since very few people do, you are too fat and must go on a diet.)
Other social aspects I see supporting eating disorders, are Hollywood movies and the music industry. I once read an interview with Jennifer Aniston - actually, I have read many interviews with women from the American Entertainment Industry telling the same story - however, in the interview with Jennifer Aniston, she stated that as long as she stayed as thin as she was, she would be offered film roles. In Hollywood, being extremely skinny and sexy seems to be the one and the same thing. Should any woman not strive towards these ideals, the press would ridicule and bully them. And when they finally made it to size 0, they were heralded as heroes, shining examples to emulate.
Now, looking at the examples given above, it almost seems impossible not to create a world full of eating disorders. It would be so much easier to prevent and treat anorexia, if our society supported a diverse body image and focussed on a positive self esteem, instead of our outward appearence.
This article is only a very short description of the topic eating disorder and the related ’skinny’ aspect of it. The aim is to show, that the social aspects of eating disorders are huge and extremely important. It is just not betweeners and teenagers who look up to all these glamorous people in the magazines, on TV etc. It is also adults who are being greatly effected by it. Understanding this, puts us as therapists in a strange light. For how can you convince people to stop starving themselves, when we idealize and glamourise those who do? How can we call eating disorders a ’mental illness’, when it also is a ’social illness’?