Why a Modern-Day Plague?
“BEING thin became the most important thing in my life,” admitted 34-year-old Ann. Her fear of being overweight led to a greatly restricted diet and the loss of 60 pounds [30 kg] in a short time. “She became skin and bones and looked as if she had come out of a concentration camp,” her husband said.
Then, out of sheer hunger, she started to go on a food binge. Afterward, to avoid gaining weight, she used laxatives and induced vomiting to get rid of the food. ‘How could anybody get into such a revolting habit?’ you may wonder.
“It’s easier than you think,” confided Ann. “I just wanted to be thin. There’s a great deal of pressure put on women to look trim. I was bombarded by the fashion magazines, which stress ‘thin, thin, thin.’ So I was determined to be superthin and attractive.”
Ann thus fell into the relentless grip of eating disorders. She was held there for ten long years. As she noted: “You never dream that it will lead to what it does.” But Ann is not unique. She is among an estimated one million American women who develop either anorexia nervosa or bulimia each year. Many men have also developed these eating disorders, and many men are also very overweight. But just what are these disorders?
Anorexia nervosa is characterized by severe and prolonged inability or refusal to eat because of emotional conflict. It is not caused by physical illness. This condition leads to significant weight loss. The person—usually a young woman—is intensely fearful of becoming obese and feels too fat even when emaciated. Menstruation ceases. She refuses to maintain her weight above the minimum normal for her age and height.
Bulimia is characterized by repeated binges, that is, the uncontrollable eating of large amounts of food in a short time. Thereafter, a bulimic tries to get rid of the calories by self-induced vomiting, use of laxatives and diuretics, or vigorous exercise. The constant concern of the bulimic is body shape and weight.
Compulsive overeating is characterized by uncontrollable eating, followed by guilt and feelings of shame regarding the behavior and the subsequent weight gain. The compulsive eater seems to overeat when upset or excited. Obesity often results, since compulsive overeaters generally do not purge themselves of the food.
But simply gaining or losing weight, or being overweight or thin, does not indicate that you have an eating disorder. There may be genetic or physiological causes. An eating disorder exists when one’s attitude about food and weight has gone awry. Then one eats—or refuses to eat—because of profound emotional disturbances.
On the Increase
Most authorities report an increase in eating disorders, some even calling them an epidemic. In an article entitled “Eating Disorders: Implications for the 1990’s,” researchers explained that these disorders “have increased dramatically in frequency since 1970 and are now commonly encountered in clinical practice.” Reportedly, 150,000 die annually from complications associated with anorexia nervosa and bulimia.
Ann, however, fully recovered. She was fortunate. As many as 21 percent of those who develop anorexia nervosa die from the disorder. Suicidal thoughts are common in those with bulimia, and several doctors report that one third of their patients have tried to take their own lives.
These eating disorders affect all age, ethnic, and racial groups and cut across all social levels. This growing plague has invaded many economically developed lands. In Japan the increase reportedly “has been dramatic” since 1981. Sweden, Britain, Hong Kong, South Africa, Australia, and Canada all have had increases.
But why have eating disorders, though reported for hundreds of years, become epidemic in the 20th century?
“The Shrine of Slimness”
After 40 years of research, Dr. Hilde Bruch explains: “I am inclined to relate it to the enormous emphasis that Fashion places on slimness. . . . Magazines and movies carry the same message, but most persistent is television, drumming it in, day in day out, that one can be loved and respected only when slender.”
Before the year 1900, dressing in fashionable clothes was primarily the concern of the wealthy. But after World War I (1914-18), the advent of department stores, women’s magazines, and fashion photography created an increased interest in fashion among the masses of women. Chic new fashions were mass-produced in standard sizes. But to wear these, a woman had to have the “right” figure. Thus, figure flaws became a source of frustration and embarrassment for women who could not fit into such stylish clothing.
Then, in 1918, America’s first best-selling diet book linked weight control to self-esteem. Overweight in women became viewed as a character flaw and a social impediment. In her book Fasting Girls, Joan Brumberg explains the result: “In effect, by the 1920s outward appearance was more important than inner character because sexual allure had replaced spirituality as woman’s ‘shining ornament.’ . . . Many internalized the notion that the size and shape of the body was a measure of self-worth.”
Thus, an obsession with dieting and physical beauty developed. Today, an estimated 50 percent of the women in the United States are on a diet at any given time, most of them for appearance’ sake! A poll taken by Glamour magazine asked 33,000 women: “Which would make you happiest?” Forty-two percent answered, “Losing weight.” That was nearly twice as many as for any of the other selections offered by the poll, such as “Success at work.”
As we enter the 1990’s, thinness has become a symbol of strength, achievement, and attractiveness. “Given our longstanding and extravagant collective worship at the shrine of slimness, it is no wonder that so many contemporary young women make dieting an article of faith,” explained Brumberg. One apparent result? An epidemic of eating disorders.
Despite social pressure to be thin, not all women develop eating disorders. Thus, who are especially vulnerable?
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Health Risks From Eating Disorders
Blood disorders, abnormally low blood pressure, abnormal drowsiness or weakness, irregular heartbeat, sudden heart failure, yellowing skin, hormonal disorders, cessation of menstruation, bone-mass loss.
Irregular menstruation, muscle weakness and cramping, dehydration, dizziness, tooth-enamel erosion and cavities, cold intolerance, fatigue, digestive problems, irregular heartbeat that can lead to sudden heart attack, tears and hemorrhages in the esophagus, abdominal pain.
Weight-related high blood pressure and fatigue, severe obesity (increasing the risk of diabetes), coronary heart disease, cancer, hormonal disorders, and gallstones.