The Rise of Eating Disorders

Any sociological account of the rise of eating disorders is almost certain to acknowledge them to be a reaction to the cultural heritage that their sufferers are burdened by. The rise of eating disorders clearly shows them to be an almost exclusively western phenomenon, and a by-product of the modern culture of consumption and media influence. While there had been documented cases of eating disorders prior to the 1980’s, since that decade anorexia and bulimia have both reached almost epidemic proportions, while the average weight of a white westerner is ballooning, with comfort eating and compulsive overeating becoming more and more prevalent. Therefore, this essay attempts to account for the rise of eating disorders by looking to the culture that has fostered them.

It is perhaps the domineering role taken up by medical discourse in the discussion of eating disorders that has led to the unspoken denial that they have a firm cultural foundation. Sociology has not, I feel, played a full enough role attempting to find a solution for a blatantly social problem, although many pioneering moves have been made. According to Susie Orbach anorexia “represents one extreme on a continuum on which all women today find themselves”, all are vulnerable to “requirement of the cultural construction of femininity”(Bordo 1993:47); while feminists such as Chernin have also looked at anorexia as the extreme product of this society’s obsession with weight (Clarke et al 1988).

While it may be true that “your true self…lies immeasurably above that which you usually take to be yourself”1 this is a credo that many western women do not take to heart. Through the perceived mindset of society, an illogical ideal of what constitutes beauty, (often cemented by media representations of beauty), there appears to be a universal fall in self-esteem. There is huge cultural importance placed on thinness, and all society is expected to compete with their own genetic make-up to achieve the perfect form. The western socio-cultural physical ideal is the slim muscular form, and the pressure placed upon us to attain this is the root cause of eating disorders. There are many close similarities between the values of those with eating disorders and the rest of the female population, in fact the only major difference appears to be that sufferers have gone too far.

All those suffering with eating disorders choose varying positions in relation to the social ideal, rushing to embrace it or flee it in their differing ways. Anorexics are willing to starve themselves to attain it, compulsive overeaters not only reject it but strive to oppose it, while bulimics become ensnared in a masochistic cycle of bingeing and purging as they struggle internally with the desire to consume and the desire to conform. Bulimia embodies the unstable double bind of consumer capitalism. Anorexia and obesity are opposing approaches to trying to find a solution to this double bind. Backlash against this ideal has on one hand produced a mentality of “I want to walk in the snow and not leave a footprint”2; and on the other has produced women such as the American Carol Yager, who died in her sleep aged thirty-four years weighing a colossal 114st – cause of death, crushed by her own body-weight. These extremes exhibit how the monster we have created is now turning to destroy us. Continue reading “The Rise of Eating Disorders”