Disordered eating has long been a byproduct of affluent societies. In places where food was no longer considered a scarcity, its consumption was calculated and manipulated. Although each society has what it generally considers to be an ideal body type, the attainability of this body type varies significantly. When trying to conform to the ideal, people tend to distort their eating habits, frequently resulting in health crises.
Disordered eating in context
In Canada, 70 per cent of women and 35 per cent of men are currently dieting, demonstrating that although women are disproportionately concerned about body image, men are also using extreme means to control their bodies. The vicious cycle that dieting creates is also a cause for concern as it has been demonstrated that due to the increased likelihood of binge eating while dieting, most people dieting for weight loss actually experience weight gain. This can be both frustrating and a catalyst for more destructive weight loss strategies, such as anorexia and bulimia. Considered mental illnesses, these eating disorders are the most fatal of all mental illnesses with 10¬¬–20 per cent of people suffering from them dying from related complications.
Anorexia and bulimia
Anorexia is both a psychological and physiological disorder that involves restricting food consumption to control weight. People with anorexia often have inaccurate and distorted self-perceptions that don’t allow then to see the destructiveness of their actions. It is also a disorder that allows people to feel control over their bodies, which can be especially appealing for people whose lives seem otherwise out of control.
Bulimia is characterized by episodes of binge eating that are associated with feelings of guilt and depression. Extreme measures such as self-induced vomiting, fasting and laxative use are common. Like anorexia, bulimia is also a psychophysiological disorder; however, it is much less obvious as bulimics are often of average weight.
The extremity to which people will manipulate their food consumption indicates that body image and weight preoccupation are serious issues that must be addressed, especially as statistics are indicating that younger girls are becoming concerned about their weight. With close to 30 per cent of girls in Grade 9 participating in weight loss behaviours, these are serious warning signs.
Models and the media
Although we are all responsible for our own bodies, is it too much to ask for mainstream media to be a bit more responsible with the images that they display? When presented with images in magazines, it is impossible to know to what extent touch-ups have occurred. Images can never be taken at face value these days. The same goes for television. Eating disorders and extreme dieting are all invisible to the viewer who has no idea what type of lengths the people on screen go to for their “perfect” look.
As an example, former anorexic model Crystal Renn has redefined herself as a plus-sized model and is very vocal and honest about the transition. After years of over-exercising and undereating for a modeling career that started at age 14, Renn broke the addictive cycle and began eating and exercising in more healthy ways. The resulting 31.7 kilograms in weight gain still gets her work as a model, but her weight is constantly in the public spotlight, indicating that many people are having a hard time with her transition. There was even an incident recently where one of her photos was touched-up to make her look several sizes smaller, further entrenching the thin ideal.
One of the more socially acceptable forms of weight preoccupation takes the form of excessive exercising. Also falling into the category of psychological disorders, this is yet another case where weight control is taken to an extreme. Facing distorted self-perception that blurs the line between healthy and extreme, this is a problem that is becoming an increasing concern. People may have multiple gym memberships to avoid accusations of over-exercising; people may also have gym equipment in their homes. Also, as Renn’s experience demonstrates, eating disorders and over-exercising can go hand in hand.
This is also one of the categories where men are more represented. In order to gain muscle and tone their bodies, use of protein supplements and even anabolic steroids are sometimes used. Interestingly, there may be an increased incidence of male eating disorders as there is now a trend in the modeling industry featuring thinner male models. Currently 10 per cent of people treated for eating disorders in the U.S. are men.
Challenging negative images
One way to challenge unhealthy body ideals that are presented in the mainstream media is to realize that body ideals presented in the media are unrealistic; furthermore they are not static and have changed over time. Thin was not always in and thin will not always be in. Unfortunately, recovery from eating disorders is difficult and relapses are common. Due to the complex psychological factors implicated in disordered eating, fundamental self-perceptions must be altered in conjunction with healthier eating habits.
As for mainstream media perpetuating unhealthy body ideals, we are in part responsible if we are the ones feeding these images and messages. We allow them to have control over us. Simple first steps include turning off the television and not buying magazines. Diminishing our exposure to these images will lessen their influence on us. We must define ourselves, not let our self-image be dictated to us.