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Eating Disorders — An Illness, Not A “Lifestyle Choice”

by Julia Manning | University of Missouri

F Posted in: Sports and Culture P Posted on: February 22, 2012
4622281586_d8385c70b1_z Image Courtesy of Flickr, Pink Sherbet Photography

The garage door down, the front door locked… yes. 16-year-old Kelly Johnson sighed in relief. The moment she had been anticipating all day was finally here: her parents were gone, and she had the house to herself. Without second thought, she found herself knelt over the toilet, fingers forced down her throat, relentless to dispose of the lunch she had just devoured. She felt a rush sweep over her body as she saw the chunks accumulate in the toilet — she had control again.

This was a good day for Kelly. Since her parents were gone, she didn’t have to resort to her typical sneaky tactics of hiding her disorder, such as vomiting into Snapple bottles to avoid clogging the sinks or in the shower so her parents wouldn’t hear. Once, she even snuck on hidden ankle weights while at the doctor’s office in order to manipulate her weight.

Kelly got many of these ideas from various blogs that promoted what she was doing as a lifestyle rather than a disease. The sites also offered a large selection of “thinspirations,” photos of extremely thin women like Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Ritchie to whom visitors should aspire to resemble. For the next two years, Kelly continued to live this way, determined to shrink to a size 0 and resemble the models in the magazines.

One day, her mom entered her bathroom to find her violently shaking on the floor as if she were having a seizure. Kelly died that night of an electrolyte imbalance directly related to her eating disorder.

While this particular story is fictional, it is certainly not farfetched but is a compilation of various factual accounts from those profiled in Pamela Prah’s report for the “CQ Researcher.” Due to the rise in mass media accessibility and influence, society has become overexposed to the unachievable standards of beauty for women, causing an increase in the pressure for and obsession with physically perfection. This has only been perpetuated by the explosion of social media, most recently in the popularization of the ‘pro-ana,’ ‘pro-lima,’ and ‘pro-ED’ movements spreading across the blogosphere.

Pro-ED Movement

According to the Social Issues Research Center, Pro-ana — the most popular of the movements – symbolizes the choice to forgo recovery and instead live willfully as an anorexic. Many refer to it as a “lifestyle choice” rather than a mental illness that they believe should be respected by doctors and peers. Pro-lima has similar principles regarding bulimia and pro-ED refers to eating disorders in general.

In her article for the Counseling, Psychotherapy, and Health Journal, Elisa Burke credits the emergence of the movements to be circa 1998. The movements predominately hold their presence on the Internet. Hundreds of blogs with names such as “Pretty Thin,” “My Love Affair With Thin,” “Cerulean Butterfly,” “Survival of the Thinnest,” and “Starving Beauty,” endorse the pro-ED lifestyle as the right choice for its followers to achieve physical perfection and happiness in their lives. Many ideas are shared throughout the blogs, such as crash dieting techniques, methods to best induce vomiting, advice on hiding weight loss from parents, and tips on ignoring or suppressing hunger pangs. Many harbor a community-like atmosphere with a chat component through which participants compete to lose weight, plan to fast together, and post updates on the details of their diets and their weight.

Burke says that the movement also embodies anorexia as a protest. Many involved believe they have the right to be anorexic and the right to represent anorexia, and the movement identifies these rights as sources of empowerment. An example of this discourse is highlighted in the mission statement of the website Rexia World: “If u want sympathy for your ‘disease,’ you are anorexic. If you want respect and admiration for your lifestyle of choice, you are a rexie. Anorexics die. Rexies don’t. Have we understood the difference? This site is for us rexies, who are proud of our accomplishments, and the accomplishments that lie ahead. we will never die.”

Ana’s Underground Grotto emits the same type of message: “This is a gathering point for sentient individuals who are working to cause changes to occur in body in conformity to will. There are no victims here. This is not a place for the faint-hearted, weak, hysterical, or those looking to be rescued. This is not a place for those who bow to consensus definitions of reality or who believe in the cancerous fallacy that there is any other authority on earth besides their own incontrovertibly self-evident, inherent birthright to govern themselves. This is a place for the elite who, through personal success in their ongoing quest for perfection, demonstrate daily the power and results of applying will, imagination, creativity and effort toward meeting their goals.”

If you had to blink a couple of times and make sure you were reading the text correctly, you’re not alone. The fact that there are websites promoting an extremely harmful mental disease is incredibly alarming, dangerous, and disturbing. While the movements may be a completely new topic to some, the websites became very visible around 2001 when they were featured in the likes of Time Magazine and “The Oprah Winfrey Show” but have since been banned from Yahoo! and other large site hosts. However, they are still maintaining their presence in other areas such as tumblr and can be found through this home page site .

It makes me sick to my stomach knowing girls of any age with access to a computer can wander across these blogs and potentially be persuaded by their messages. Many of the sites are sustaining the right to stay in cyberspace due to First Amendment protections, but the context of the movements is still centered around an illness – one that effects 35 million Americans. This is a very real issue that has moved from being dealt with in the confines of one’s home to being marginalized in the public eye.

Unachievable American Standards

The public eye has set the standard of our culture for what the appropriate and healthy body should look like — a standard that is largely skewed in comparison to other cultures and medical standards. Research released on body image in 1997 by the Social Research-Social Trends Analysis reveals that prejudice against the overweight in our culture is so severe that obese women are more likely to face mental conditions such as severe anxiety or depression than the chronically ill or severely disabled.

These problems are not caused by obesity itself but by social pressure and the association of beauty with thinness. These prejudices are uncalled for and detrimental to those who are in their direct line of fire, not to mention they create even further health complications. Women should not feel like they can’t leave their houses without being publicly ridiculed or judged because they are a size 12 and have a couple of rolls on their stomachs. This is also not to say that obesity should become socially acceptable; rather, a healthy body should be the goal we all strive to attain.

You might ask, what is this media ideal – this implied but expected standard that American culture has set on its women? Moroccan author and researcher Fatema Mernissi was confronted with it head on while shopping one day in New York City. After being unable to find her size in a garment, an employee told her that she was too big to shop at the store. Offended, Mernissi questioned this statement, “I am too big compared to what?” “Compared to a size 6,” the woman replied. “Size 4 and 6 are the norm; deviant sizes such as the one you need can be bought in special stores.” She continued to explain that, in the United States, one’s weight has the potential to affect their employment status. “Many women working in highly paid fashion-related jobs could lose their positions if they don’t keep up a strict diet.” In her essay, “Size 6: The Western Women’s Harem,” Mernissi describes this experience as a demeaning and eye-opening glimpse into American culture.

While it is valid that in some fields image is very important, and in all areas having a healthy lifestyle is imperative, do we really want to be a society that values one’s weight over their brains? If America is the land of the free, is it fair when women over size 6 aren’t free to shop at the same stores as others? Are we really free to be whomever we want, or are we being constrained to fit an unachievable model?

The Social Research Social Trends Analysis describes the standard we are setting as one that is impossible to obtain, and research proves the problems are only getting worse over time: “25 years ago, top models weighed only 8% less than the average woman; now, they weigh 23% less. The current media ideal for women is achievable for less than 5% of the female population—and that’s just in terms of weight and size.”

Loyola University Chicago sophomore Fiona Baqai also noticed the difference in beauty ideal perceptions and pressures when she moved to the United States after previously living in five different countries around the world.

“In Europe, because everyone already eats so healthy, you don’t see the ‘too skinny’ body type,” Baqai said. “While Europeans are more upfront about being obese, you don’t see the stick-thin images in the media as much as you do in the United States. There is more pressure on celebrities to stay thin in the U.S. In Europe, they are essentially left alone and you only see images of extremely thin girls throughout Paris and Milan, and that is strictly fashion-based. When I first moved to Seattle, I noticed how focused the girls at my new high school were on fitting into the same clothes as their mothers and how completely rejected the overweight girls were. It was a cultural mentality I didn’t want to have to adjust to.”

Media Influence 

This increase in demand for perfection is due largely to the rise of media outlets and influence, such as the blogs mentioned earlier. Women are constantly viewing and comparing themselves based on their exposure to the seemingly perfect models, actresses, and entertainers they see on TV, billboards, and in magazines.

“Thanks to the media, we have become accustomed to extremely rigid and uniform standards of beauty,” Social Issue Research Center (SIRC) contributor Kate Fox said. “The media helps us to see ‘beautiful people’ all the time, more often than members of our own family, making exceptional good seem real, normal, and attainable.”

The effects of this constant exposure are having repercussions not only on those who suffer from eating disorders but also on the average woman. According to Fox’s research, an increasing number of normal, attractive women with no weight problems or clinical psychological disorders look at themselves in the mirror and see ugliness and fat; 80% of 18+ women are unhappy with their bodies and tend to over-estimate their weight. A Harvard University study shows that children have not escaped the consequences of this either; up to two thirds of underweight 12-year-olds considered themselves to be too fat.

Prah found that the media can also marginalize the disease by depicting only the most extreme cases of sufferers with images of women who look like skeletons. Therefore, the teens who do suffer from the disease don’t accept it because they think, “I’m not as bad as them.” Ellen Rome, spokeswoman for the Chicago-based Academy for Eating Disorders, agreed with the harmful effects of the media on those with the disease: “The media reflect and exacerbate the problems; these teen girls watch and read and observe and emulate.”

Making Healthy the New Skinny

It can be argued that the pressure to remain thin only escalates during the college years as all eyes are focused on who will or won’t gain the freshman 15 and female-male relationships become increasingly shallow and appearance-based.

“I think the pressure to be thin has definitely increased over the past years, and especially more in college than I thought it would,” University of Northern Iowa sophomore Abby Burch said. “When going out and seeing all of the girls in their skimpy dresses and skirts, you find yourself constantly comparing yourself to other girls and putting pressure on yourself to maintain a body image that allows you to fit in those clothes too.”

Perhaps we should be moving our glance away from other women, especially ‘thinspiration,’ and towards more positive influences such as recent Grammy sensation, Adele. In an April 2011 interview with the Rolling Stone, Adele argued her talents should be valued over her looks.

“I don’t have time to worry about something as petty as what I look like,” she said. “I enjoy being me; I always have. I’ve seen people where it rules their lives, you know, who want to be thinner or have bigger boobs and how it wears them down, and I just don’t want that in my life.”

Once plagued by an eating disorder herself, plus-size supermodel Crystal Renn has a very refreshing vision for the appearance of American women.

“I don’t want to see only size 14’s, and I don’t want to see only size 2s,” Renn shared in the September 2009 issue of Glamour. “I want to see all different women with all different shapes…I understand that there’s a need for the fantasy, I completely do, but having images of girls who are so unattainable—that represent nobody—is not something that’s very positive.”

Our generation has a very important role to play in the perpetuation of the American beauty ideal. We can chose to keep reinforcing these unachievable standards by our obsession with thin models and celebrities, 0r we can encourage healthiness as the main value for all individuals. Instead of judging someone on how much weight they’ve gained or lost, let’s instead look at their accomplishments and personality qualities and try to lay our judgements there.

I know I might be proposing a completely unrealistic idea, but if we continue down the path we’re on now, notions like the pro-ed movement won’t seem as bizarre and we will have a much more dangerous problem on our hands. The only way to change this notion in society is to ignore the media and form our own opinions. Don’t judge, take care of yourself, and be healthy, comfortable, and confident with your own body.

Julia Manning Julia Manning Julia, a Sports & Culture editor for NGJ, is currently a sophomore at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She hopes to pursue a career in broadcast production with an emphasis in sports documentaries and features. She is originally from Johnston, Iowa and loves Friday Night Lights and Dave Matthews.

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