The Normalization Of Eating Disorders
Leela Moza writes
As the influence of social media increases, we forget how deceiving a picture can be. It is no secret that we live in a diet-obsessed world where body types come and go out of fashion. The moment a certain body type becomes the norm, everything around us completely changes to adhere to it. The way we wear clothes, the aspects of our bodies that we highlight, the workouts, the diets and the language surrounding the body type. Society capitalizes on our insecurities, more than 50 billion dollars are spent on diet products each year. Wrapped in a pretty package of health and ‘summer’ bodies, the normalization of eating disorders is something we do not even notice.
Culture and Eating Disorders
From a biopsychosocial perspective, we know that eating disorders are often perpetuated by cultural beauty standards. And like with anything cultural, these beauty standards are not permanent.
In a different era, when sugar and fats were considered luxuries, being ‘thin’ was not an attractive trait. Being thin indicated your social status, it implied that you were not rich enough. Often, individuals gained weight deliberately or dressed in clothes that made them look ‘puffier’ as a symbol of their social stature. As the Age Of Industrialization came upon us, the mass production of food increased, and with it the luxury once affiliated with certain food items disappeared. Being ‘thin’ became an attractive body type, and it was only fueled further by the sexualization of certain celebrities. It was only very recently when the ‘popular’ body type changed yet again, an ‘hourglass’ figure was sought after and the rise in popularity of celebrities such as Kim Kardashian only added to the fire.
Cultural norms, technology, and media contribute to a popular image of what individuals should look like, and the societal pressure to fit into that category contributes to the rise in eating disorders. Despite the prevalence of disordered eating is higher in women, it is not a gendered phenomenon. Men face as much pressure as women when it comes to ‘looking a certain way,’ whether that points towards their height, a certain body type, or clothing. However, as we live in a patriarchal society, the power dynamics weigh more heavily on women than on men.
Fad Diets: The Gateway To Eating Disorders
When we look at how diet-obsessed the society is, it makes sense that at every corner of your life another fad diet waits for you. Coupled with the constant societal pressure of looking a certain way, the health claims that certain fad diets make are enough to influence an individual to try them. While it may start as a drive to become a ‘healthier’ version of yourself, the fad diet bandwagon may actually be a gateway to eating disorders.
A pattern that could clearly be seen throughout quarantine was a sudden obsession with losing weight that was disguised as a journey towards a ‘healthier, new you.’ The capitalism that rages through our society made it almost impossible for us to sit back and do nothing; capitalist ideologies make us think that everything we do has to be inherently ‘productive’ which means that it must bring forth an observable, tangible result. And in this case, that result is weight-loss.
The reason behind these diets leading to eating disorders is its restrictive aspect. The demonization of certain foods, only eating within a certain ‘window’ of time and often cutting out entire food groups. The reality is that restrictive eating cannot last for a long time, individuals often fall off the wagon as their cravings catch up to them leading to an episode of binge-eating. In most cases, this binge-eating episode is seen as a failure and is associated with feelings of guilt. Ultimately, these feelings become conditioned and affiliated with eating, and lead to an eating disorder.
Even from a neurobiological point of view, restricting and not eating certain food groups is not healthy for the body, it may lead to malnutrition, starvation, or just deficiency of certain elements. Putting your body through this constant stress can lead to physiological as well as psychological disorders. 95% of fad diets fail and individuals gain the weight they lost back. These fad diets are not meant to be sustainable, they cannot be followed for a long time. They are designed for failure and the feelings of guilt that accompany them result in pathological dieting or full-blown eating disorders. Among teenage girls in India, around fifty percent could be diagnosed with disordered eating, if not a full-blown eating disorder.
The reason most of these disorders are swept under the carpet is the normalization of these fad diets. The demonization of carbohydrates, fats, and sugar as a food group is so common and widely-advertised that it is often seen as fact instead of what it actually is–a marketing strategy. Disguised as eating ‘clean’ or eating ‘healthy,’ these fad diets are not called out for their role in disordered eating. As a society, our definition and idea of ‘healthy’ has become synonymous with a certain body type. Our obsessive need to look a certain way, look like a certain person or body type is so common that it is not seen as something abnormal. We connect over our common struggles with food, and we applaud those who have managed to restrict their pattern of consumption; for a country, so divided and torn, the only thing that unites us is our unhealthy relationship with food.
Disordered Eating Habits In College
Glamorizing alcohol abuse, sleep deprivation and disordered eating is so common in college that it is often seen as a part of the ‘authentic college experience.’ When for the first time in their lives, young adults are suddenly wholly responsible for the food they eat, in some cases it can lead to disordered eating or resurfacing of old eating disorders. Instead of being seen as a threat to student health, more often than not, disordered eating is glorified or even encouraged. From the myth of ‘Freshman 15’ to the normalization of not eating before drinking because it is ‘more economic.’ The increased stress as well as workload during college can lead to disordered eating, around 41.42% of females and 28.57% of males are at risk of developing an eating disorder.
One of the biggest reasons behind disordered eating is the harmful language and behaviors that are so intertwined with college culture that they can be hard to recognize. Cycles of binge-eating, purging, erratic fasting are not uncommon amongst the student population. A student who skipped breakfast and lunch to study is not pushed to realise the physiological harm they are putting their body through, instead it is a behavior that is lauded. Skipping meals in favour of studies or because of workload is so commonplace in colleges that it is not even seen as something abnormal. The normalization of this idea and language surrounding it that implies that choosing not to eat is a ‘normal’ and ‘authentic’ part of your college experience can be triggering to those who suffer from disordered eating or even eating disorders.
Taking over and re-making the narrative of what is considered an ‘authentic college experience’ is essential. Putting grades in front of health is not an authentic college experience, pulling all-nighters is not an authentic college experience, having your stomach pumped is not an authentic college experience, commenting on how less you have had to eat is not an authentic college experience–it is physiologically harmful and sets the course for our relationship with food and our body for the rest of our lives.
We are in dire need of shifting our perspectives on eating disorders and disordered eating habits. We need to learn more about eating disorders and hold corporations, celebrities and others accountable for, knowingly or unknowingly, encouraging it. Eating disorders do not look a certain way; the image popularized by the media of eating disorders is only one end of the spectrum. Eating disorders can come in all shapes, sizes and intensities. And as a society, it is important for us to shift the narrative of what a ‘perfect body’ is.