Eating Disorders Aren't Just About Beauty

Illustration for article titled Eating Disorders Arent Just About Beauty

Writer Naomi Wolf was the keynote speaker at the National Eating Disorders Association conference this year. She's super-articulate, very intelligent, and she knows her stuff. I very much respect her and what she has to say. However...

Although I think our cultural ideas and beauty obsessions and diet mentality are absolutely toxic, I don't think that if you eliminated them, you would eliminate eating disorders. Most women feel bad when they're looking at Photoshopped models. Most women diet at some point. Most women don't have eating disorders.

(Not to mention, what about men? What about people who live in cultures when thin isn't overvalued? What about people with non fat-phobic anorexia?)


It's not uncommon for an eating disorder to start with an effort to "tone up" or "lose a few." Yet once the disease process starts — once it kicks in — appearance is the last stinking thing most people with EDs are really thinking about. People told me that my ED was making me look atrocious. I was aware, on some level, that they were right. By that point, the ED had a life of its own. I was terrified of eating. Even if it didn't have calories and exercising didn't burn any of them off, I would have still felt compelled to starve and exercise. I couldn't stop. That's why it's an illness.

I'm aware that the only evidence based prevention programs for eating disorders have focused on improving body image, and I'm not saying they don't work. The research literature shows they do work. But in a survey of 6000 eating disorder sufferers, no one said that their eating disorder had anything to do with vanity or cultural ideas (I heard this in a presentation by Susan Ringwood, the CEO of the UK charity B-EAT). They did say that cultural ideals made it harder to recover, something I definitely endorse.

Eating disorders existed before thin was in, and they will probably exist after Size Zero seems as antiquated and misguided as chastity belts and foot binding. The cultural language of fat and thin and dieting are what we have to put our experience into words. They are how we frame what is happening to us. People in the Middle Ages framed anorexia has an effort to be more spiritual. Now, we look at it as an effort to be thinner or look like some supermodel. But the way we make sense of an illness is different than the illness itself.

It just fundamentally bothers me that fighting eating disorders is seem as (in large part) fighting the fashion and cosmetics industry. They use our obsession with being thin and such to sell products, it's true. They make lots of women feel insecure about their looks, and then go on whackjob diets. The body dysmorphia that accompanies an eating disorder isn't just a really bad version of wondering if these pants make your thighs look fat. Being beheaded isn't just like a really bad paper cut, either. An eating disorder isn't a really extreme diet. It might look like that, but it's fundamentally different.


Wolf mentioned nothing about underlying vulnerabilities like anxiety and depression to eating disorders. She did say that restricting in and of itself is crazy making, which is good. Although she said that "parents don't cause eating disorders," she also said that her own mother's bitching about her thighs primed her for anorexia. None of her other siblings developed an eating disorder, yet I'm sure they all heard the kvetching and comparing. Why Naomi? Why only her? It's fundamentally not okay if your mother is diet-obsessed and tells you you're too fat. Not okay. And that sort of environment is certainly conducive to the development of an ED, but it's impossible to say that had this person grown up in a different environment, they never would have developed an eating disorder.

It was ... frustrating at times to hear no mention of science and biology. My friend Sarah Ravin asked Wolf afterwards why there was no mention, and Wolf said "I don't really do that science stuff." I understand that science might not be everyone's little pet, but seriously?


The emphasis on beauty images only reinforces the idea that EDs are an expression of vanity, or just a bunch of beauty-obsessed kids who need to stop reading magazines. And they're not. Our focus on this does everyone a disservice.

This post originally appeared at ED Bites. Republished with permission.

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My issue with this post is not that valid points are brought up, but that they are, like the concentration on beauty ideals as the sole "reason" for ED's, too absolutist. Yes, ED's are a mental illness. Yes, we don't know nearly enough about their intersection with depression and anxiety. Although I can tell you this one tries to starve themselves to death who isn't depressed on some level. You just don't. Your self-preservation would kick in.

Something else that needs to be stated over and over: Some ED's are not restrictive. Binge eating or compulsive overeating are also ED's. We need to talk about all the different kinds of ED's or we're not talking about the entire problem.

The truth is that half the problem with treating ED's is because of how incredibly personal they are. Lots of people have anxiety and depression, they don't all develop ED's. Why do so many more women than men develop ED's if there isn't something deeply problematic in our relationships with women's bodies and "fatness"? Why are fat women far more "grotesque" in our culture than fat men? What is it about the female body in particular that sparks so much anger and hate and deep resentment of it, in any form? What is this deeply ingrained cultural obsession with trying to contain and control and conform it to whatever beauty ideals exist at any given time?

The aesthetic/moral issue with food and the body is not gone, either. You are still considered "good" in a moral way if you don't eat very much. We still have a very strong link with morality and the "goodness" or "badness" of foods, which translates into a "goodness" or "badness" of bodies. And women's bodies, because they are so incredibly commodified by our culture, have an element of contradiction that is confusing and confounding.

Women's bodies are scrutinized at a level that men's simply aren't. Our bodies are, in many different ways, codified as inherently problematic. The language surrounding "health" is all about keep the body under tight control, keeping it lean, keeping the lines simple and contained.

Do most of us know that on a daily basis? No. Most of the time we're not very aware of the things influencing us at all.

I developed an ED in my late teens and for years wondered why. It wasn't until I got therapy in the last year that I really unravelled all the pieces. Yes, there is anxiety and depression. Yes, there are familial issues. But there is also a deep fear of being "fat" because of what I associate with it...which is not just about how I interpret the cultural messages about beauty and thinness, but the way everyone else does, too. If people didn't interpret them a certain way and get a very particular message about women and fatness...I doubt I would have been subjected to the bullying I was, for years. That didn't come from me, that came from outside.

My ED has always been about simplifying what I'm feeling down to one act: don't eat. Because feeling empty was a lot easier than feeling anything else. It had the side-effect of making me lose a lot of weight, which resulted in people treating me differently. Better. And I hated that as much as I hated myself.

Until we parse out everything that contributes to our deeply dysfunctional relationship with food and our bodies in this culture, there is no way we're going to really get at the root of either ED's as an issue...or the reality of individuals with ED's.