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National Eating Disorder Awareness Week

The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) dedicates the last week of February every year as Eating Disorder Awareness Week. During this week of awareness-raising, NEDA encourages everybody to do just one thing to fight against eating and body image disorders: “Distribute info pamphlets and put up posters, write one letter for Media Watchdogs, register as a Volunteer Speaker or host a Volunteer Speaker, post information on Facebook or arrange interactive and educational activities such as a meditation and yoga event, panel discussions, fashion shows, body fairs, movie screenings, art exhibits and more.”

Part of NEDA’s awareness week involves challenging myths and misconceptions about EDs, namely that EDs affect only young, middle and upper-class white girls. Eating disorders are a growing concern among middle-aged women, for example:

No one has precise statistics on who is affected by eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia, often marked by severe weight loss, or binge eating, which can lead to obesity. But experts say that in the past 10 years they are treating an increasing number of women over 30 who are starving themselves, abusing laxatives, exercising to dangerous extremes and engaging in all of the self-destructive activities that had, for so long, been considered teenage behaviors.

The recent surge in older women at eating disorder clinics is not a reflection of failed treatment, experts say, but rather a signal that these disorders may crop up at any age.

Additionally, eating disorder symptoms (binging, purging, exercise abuse, and extreme body dissatisfaction and dysmorphia) are increasing dramatically in all age groups of not only women, but also men as well. One factor associated with the rise of eating disorder symptoms for women especially is exposure to a thin ideal, especially through TV and magazines. Researchers propose that exposure to a cultural ideal of extreme thinness has a direct impact on body dissatisfaction. As people become more dissatisfied with their body, their tendency to develop eating disorder symptoms increases.

Even brief exposure to thin-ideal images leads to marked increase in body dissatisfaction. Flipping through a fashion magazine, watching a few make-up commercials, or seeing a few weight-loss ads online all render us more susceptible to an increased level of body dissatisfaction and an increased predisposition toward disordered eating behavior. What is more, a high level of awareness about the nature of the thin ideal does not necessarily render a person immune to its effects. Research shows that even highly educated women critical of a thin ideal are still subject to increased levels of body dissatisfaction following exposure.

Why is this a moral problem? Everyday, we make seemingly insignificant choices that end up shaping the sort of people we become. The choice to subscribe to a fashion magazine or to flip through such a magazine at the checkout line of the supermarket, the choice to watch certain television shows which depict women especially in largely unrealistic ways, and even the choice to spend time on websites that cater to women with advertisements promulgating the thin ideal (Facebook especially is guilty of this) are significant choices that shape our moral character. It is not possible to avoid exposure to the thin-ideal completely, but it is possible to be aware of the impact that such exposure has on us all, and especially on women. Although the impact of the thin-ideal happens largely below the level of consciousness, we can become more conscious of how our attitudes and behaviors are being shaped by these cultural forces so that we can begin to challenge them.

Theologically, we might look to Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world,* but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Through exposure to the thin-ideal, whether we want to or not, we are being conformed to attitudes and values that are largely contrary to the gospel. As such, it is suitable that National Eating Disorder Awareness Week occurs during Lent this year. Lent is a season of fasting, where we purge ourselves of those things that keep us from being in right relation with God and with neighbor. The traditional Lenten practice has been to fast from certain types of foods. However, in light of the rising concerns about eating and body image problems especially due to exposure to the thin-ideal, maybe this Lent can be a season of media fasting, a season where we discern how our imaginations and desires have been hijacked by the media and where we try to purge ourselves of those sources of media. Maybe we can get rid of that fashion magazine subscription that we have sheepishly held onto, or maybe we can spend the remainder of the Lenten season avoiding unnecessary time spent surfing the web, or maybe we can give up television for the next few weeks. Through such a Lenten “media fast,” we can work on the “renewing of our minds” that Paul speaks of in Romans, a renewing of our minds that will allow us to begin seeing ourselves as beloved children of God rather than as failures to live up to an impossibly thin societal ideal.

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3 Comments

  1. Unfortunately it is not just the TV and magazines that promote thin. Weight charts in recent years have been adjusted so that ideal weight remains the same no matter how old you are. In years past women over 50+ who had had children and were now grammas were “allowed” some additional weight. Not so anymore. Our weight is not to rise with age and if we carry extra weight and our BMI is not right we are told that we are taking years off of our lives.
    The thin ideal is now a medical ideal as well. No wonder women work so hard to get weight off — and believe me after having several children muscles don’t work as well and losing weight is much more difficult. I cannot judge my sisters who end up with eating disorders as morally deficient.
    When I look at those new weight charts I think of my own grandmother who had nine children was pleasantly round and lived to the age of 94!

    • Elena,
      You are right that scholars postulate a “medical ideal” that has grown in prominence in light of public health campaigns against obesity. The theory is that by overemphasizing the health dangers of fatness and underemphasizing the health dangers of extreme thinness, people have come to associate “thinner” with “healthier.” Critics of the theory ask why, if such a medical ideal exists, we don’t see more preoccupation with thinness in men, who are at greater risk to develop obesity. Regardless of whether the medical ideal exists or not, I think it is safe to say that greater attention must be given to extreme thinness as a threat to public health, in addition to the attention already given to obesity as a public health threat.

      I will say that I agree with you that you “cannot judge [your] sisters who end up with eating disorders as morally deficient.” However, saying that eating and body image disturbances are moral concerns (in addition to psychological, biomedical, and sociocultural concerns) is not aimed at producing blame, but rather at revealing the various ways our character is shaped, often in largely unconscious ways. Realizing the broad effect of the thin ideal should empower us to find new ways of challenging and resisting it so that we can become the people we are meant to come, and the people God means us to be.

  2. Thank you for the reply. I agree with you that we need to find new ways of challenging and resisting the thin ideal. In my own academic research it became fairly clear to me that the image ideal is very intertwined with other larger issues. For example, the food industry designs products to have a long shelf life at the expense of nutritional value. The diet food industry makes enormous profits producing foods that keep people trapped in cycles of weight gain and dieting. Fast food restaurants are known to place their outlets in areas where people have few choices and limited funds. There is also some startling evidence that the food industry intentionally campaigned with advertising and product size to increase the number of calories that the average person would consume all with the goal of earning more profits. At the same time the fashion and media industry promotes the preadolescent body type. I find these kind of practices morally reprehensible. The human person is dehumanized and becomes a consuming black hole for profiteers selling food or image. The result includes poor health, low self esteem and eating disorders. Thanks for your words.

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