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Anorexia Nervosa

Various societies and cultures view the problem of obesity differently. Many centuries ago most countries in which massive famines and diseases were not a rare thing, being obese indicated being healthy, prosperous and having high status. Most businessmen, rich people, affluent and respectable members of society were proud of the fact that they had high content of fat in their bodies simply because food was a scarce resource in those days and many people starved to death having not enough provisions to accumulate fat in their bodies even if they wanted to. Not many people really cared about the problem of obesity back then and women in particular were not bothered by this phenomenon. Since having enough food to eat was the most important thing for people in the past being ample was considered prestigious; the beauty standards were set by the environment that people lived in and the ideas of how shapely and curvaceous a human body was supposed to be were derived in a similar manner. Medieval arts and poetry are the most comprehensive sources that give us an idea about the standards, stereotypes and beliefs that society maintained back then. For example most artists portrayed women having ample and curvaceous bodies as a universal symbol of beauty. Later due to the rapid industrial development as economies became sustainable enough to produce more food to feed the ever-increasing population those views radically shifted. In the present-day society the perception of beauty has changed drastically. Women having lean slender bodies are considered attractive. The attitude toward obesity has shifted too and now people are fighting this problem like never before. The emergence of a belief that lean and slender body type is a symbol of health, prosperity and success made eating disorders more common. The people suffering from anorexia nervosa in particular are mostly women anywhere between 11 and 60 years of age. Eating disorders have become much more common lately but predominantly in countries with robust economies that can produce food cheaply in great amounts.

The emergence of eating disorders like anorexia nervosa seems to be directly linked to the shift in values and standards in society. The environment dictates that it is good to be thin. Consuming too much fat is considered unhealthy, and evil. This cannot but affect women’s perceptions of life and reality; it also forms their habits and influences the daily activities that women engage in. It is a fact that many women become obsessed with how beautiful and attractive their body is. Today, it is perceived as beautiful if a body is lean and not so much curvaceous. This is the current beauty standard that is established in the western society at present. Consequently, many women become literally obsessed with how much fat they consume each day and how many calories they burn on a treadmill in their homes. Generally, doctors proclaim that fat consumption is detrimental to the health of our bodies. Also it makes them look chubby and ample and it is not a good thing. Anorexia nervosa is the extreme point, the last stage of the self-destructive process of obsession with their bodies. It happens when a woman convinces herself that eating is bad and the only thing that can be derived from it is extra calories that in its turn make her body look less attractive. Eating is bad because it makes her gain extra pounds that are so hard to get rid of once they are there. Finally, this self-persuasion comes true for women and their brain reacts the proper way refusing to accept food because subconsciously it is perceived as evil. Many people are suffering from this disorder, and even though there are few lethal cases registered it presents a severe problem. First of all it results in depression and inability to concentrate on work. Women’s self-esteem suffers greatly and it usually leads to severe physical disorders such as vomiting right after eating. The treatment for this disorder must be searched for in psychology because it is not caused by any physical factors but by the mental condition that women experience and that causes anorexia nervosa. For most women it starts as an enormous desire to look their best and have an ultimately slender and lean body. As it was mentioned earlier this desire seems to be dictated by society.

From the biological standpoint when humans are born they already have some degree of genetic predisposition to various physical, psychological and social activities in the world. It is a fact that the future development of a person is predetermined by genes and an individual is not totally free to develop all the possible skills and abilities later in life. Even though mostly every person has a moral right to try to develop a certain physical or psychological skill some people succeed while others fail. It is not a surprise because our body has a certain innate set of features that characterize our personality and literally channel the future development of an individual in a certain predetermined direction. By the same token, some people are predisposed to have a higher content of fat in the body no matter how many hours a day they exercise and others are predetermined to have slim and slender bodies given the fact that they might not exercise at all. For some people it does not really matter how much they eat and whether they exercise at all because fat has less influence on the shape of their bodies, in other words fat is more likely to be burnt automatically in the course of various internal chemical reactions in the body. This idea is akin to the premise that some people are better at playing basketball while others excel in natural sciences and other math-intensive disciplines. Therefore the fact that some people are born to have chubby and ample bodies simply means that it is a part of an internal design that is innate to their bodies and that cannot be completely altered like a short person cannot get much taller regardless of any physical exercises that might be developed in the world today.

When a woman who is predisposed to maintain a high fat content in the body focuses on how many calories she consumes daily an eating disorder is very likely to occur. Such women are likely to spend hours in front of the mirror in a hope to determine that their waistline has got somewhat slimmer as a result of diets, active physical training and abstinence from eating. This obsession becomes an addiction, to put it lightly. The body becomes the primary focus of their attention they desperately try to burn more fat simply to meet certain beauty standards that are created by the society. The environment dictates a person what clothes is more fashionable, what food is healthier and what cars are more reliable. As a result often a snowball effect occurs in the sense that many people just follow the crowd and have no personal ideas regarding certain matters. The situation with beauty standards is very similar. Some women try to lose weight not because they are too fat, on the contrary they may look very attractive and have shapely bodies and yet they desperately want their bodies to be slender and less curvaceous.

A couple of centuries ago, society had very similar requirements as to the beauty standards for women. In a similar manner a woman that had a thin body was considered to be more attractive as compared to women that suffered from obesity. Furthermore, women whose bodies were not perfectly slender tried to make their bodies look slimmer and leaner with the help of some elaborate inventions or simply by wearing clothes that conceals the body shape. The development of corsets for example helped women hide the fact that they were overweight and therefore probably made them feel a little better about themselves. Corsets did not really make women any slimmer; they just created an erroneous impression of a slender body that was a secret desire of any woman back in those days many decades ago as well as it is now. In a similar fashion some cultures practices binding feet with the same purpose of making a body appear more slender than it really was and thus to hide the fact of obesity. These two examples perfectly illustrate how the society maintained the same views and influenced people’s values back then. In a similar fashion it dictated women how they were supposed to look and what they needed to wear to meet certain standards.

Thus far we have discussed that it is the environment that makes women crave for a slender body. Today this ideal of a female body is being massively advertised and promoted by the mass media and it has already established a solid position in women’s minds. Nowadays the society announces new updated version of the beauty standards regarding the shape of a female body. The development of this ideal has been under way for centuries and today it is being headed in the same direction. In a similar fashion, today women want their bodies tight, firm and less curvaceous. Now like never before these standards influence the life of every woman in the present-day culture. This new ideal is extremely conspicuous in television commercials where we see a well-shaped beautiful woman opening a can of Coke. Also the presence if this ideal is salient in magazines where the pages are filled with pictures of half-naked attractive women that are put in there with a purpose of catching the reader’s attention. The pattern here is easily determinable. Women now prefer having a slender body which is much thinner and less curvaceous. This newly baked ideal is being actively promoted in the mass media, in movies and on television. There are numerous beauty contests such as Miss America Pageant for example that actively assisted in the creation of this ideal. Today, women turn to the mass media to see what a perfectly shaped body looks like. Hollywood promotes this image in the movies, television commercials have their own way of getting the viewer’s attention and money, and magazines publish pictures of attractive women exposing parts of their bodies to increase sales. This culture is ruled by money and corporations that are willing to do whatever it takes to snatch a dollar from a person’s pocket for it is the primary objective of the economy. The goal of any business is to make money. Higher profits resulting from an increase in sales signify that the economy is back on track and is fulfilling its major objective. The mass media could not care less what women think about the ideal of a female body. This ideal was created by society in order to achieve the objective. Magazines and televisions sell this image to the consumers that enjoy seeing women the way they look on the front cover of Playboy, Cosmopolitan and other publications. These standards are established by society, a complicated notion which basically represents a network of economic agents that derive monetary profit from creating an image that appeals to the end-user. The bottom-line is that the role of the mass media in shaping the image of a perfect body can hardly be overestimated.

The development of eating disorders has taken on a new scale in the 20th century. As discussed above the beauty standards sold by the mass media generate long-term obsession with the body for most women. It is safe to say that women who are born with a perfectly shaped slender body are not many. Most females have to constantly control their eating and drinking habits in order to meet the expectations of the environment that they live in. This is how moral dissatisfaction with their bodies and low self-esteem lead some females to anorexia nervosa. Researches that have been done recently indicate that family life plays a vitally significant role in the development of mental disorders and anorexia nervosa in particular. The reason it is the case is because most females’ lives change drastically once they get married and have to take care of their husbands and children. This dramatic change alters their eating habits as a result of new emotions that they experience living with a husband. The factor that was found to be most significant in the development of anorexia nervosa is pregnancy. When children are born in a family a great responsibility is imposed on women. But that is not commitment that makes women suffer from anorexia. As a matter of fact during pregnancy a female body physically changes and even if a woman has a slender and lean body it oftentimes loses those features in the process and becomes chubby and ample. This is why pregnancy exasperates most females as their bodies put on more weight and lose firmness and shape that used to be the object of pride not so long ago. Pregnancy is very emotionally painful for most women who have made their bodies the object of primary attention and have been worshiping it in the course of their lives. It emotionally torments them to contemplate that object of pride is being destroyed by the process of pregnancy and that oftentimes leads to some serious psychological traumas and disorders. It lowers their self-esteem and is often considered a personal defeat. For these women having an eating disorder right after pregnancy is extremely likely.

So far we have paid adequate attention to the question of how the environment makes women adopt the ideal sold by mass media. However, the question that remains unanswered is what makes them do it. Also it is not really clear why the standard body type has become even more slender and leaner even though most men perceive women having curvaceous and shapely bodies as more sexually attractive. This is where the theory introduced above becomes inconsistent and breaks apart. The premise that is being used here is that an extremely slender body type is not really what attracts men’s attention. Therefore, if men do not necessary push women to have that extremely slender body type, how did this ideal image originate in the first place? There are a few psychological theories that come very close to explaining this phenomenon.

Feminists have long expressed concern with women’s estrangement from their bodies when they deviate from male norms of desirability. Stark manifestations of this devaluation is obvious in women’s distaste for their body image, not because they “have unattractive bodies, but because they see themselves inaccurately and tend to dislike their bodies as they dislike themselves. When women use the male norm, especially the lean, muscular form, as the ideal, and see themselves as a deviation and therefore inferior to that standard, they find special distress from additional real or imagined fat or softness on their bodies. An extreme reaction to the fat is the disorder anorexia nervosa, which vividly illustrates the radical disjuncture between women’s perceptions and the realities of their bodies. Anorexia nervosa reveals the violence some women can inflict on themselves because they “grotesquely distort” their looks. The distortion is inextricably bound up with severely deficient self-esteem, which results from a sense that one is inferior. Quite normally it is alarm over body changes that seems to precipitate the anorexia. What most see as normal development and changes” the female anorexic interprets as fatness. Puberty may end her secret dream of growing up to be a boy. Anorexia nervosa is psychopathological behavior involving over-control of eating for weight reduction, and phobias concerning changes in bodily appearances. Although only so many women go to such extremes, untold numbers share the negative attitudes toward the female sex and the belief that a woman can acquire value only through a self-destructive process of identification with men. Frequently this self-deprecation has been acute in pregnancy, which biologically and socially represents the most critical and indisputable difference between male and female. The self-disparagement internalized by women tends to arise in those who most fully accept the societal dictum that they are inferior because not male, with its corollary that they acquire value only insofar as men find them valuable. As prominent French feminist Simone De Beauvoir observed in her landmark 1950s book, The Second Sex, “Women who are primarily interested in pleasing men are distressed to see themselves deformed, disfigured. . . Pregnancy seems to them no enrichment, but a diminution of the ego.” Feminists have rightly defined the alienation of women from their bodies as a critical social justice concern. Misogyny remains so entrenched in our society partly because it forces its way into that most private and individual aspect of women’s lives: their experiences of their own bodies. Women squander tremendous amounts of energy berating themselves for their failure to meet impossible and destructive standards of physical “perfection.” Unless they learn to accept and love their bodies instead, women will behave as patriarchy intends for them to behave; to blame themselves for problems whose real source is a society which denigrates the non-male.

According to the feminist theory mentioned above, women are dissatisfied with their seemingly inadequate importance they think they have in a society. They cannot accept the way society treats them and the rights that it endows them with are perceived as inadequate. Women’s estrangement from their bodies results from this moral dissatisfaction that is caused by perceiving themselves as a weaker sex. Consequently, women try to identify themselves with men and that is where the lean and muscular body image comes from. Women suffering from anorexia nervosa subconsciously possess a feeling of antipathy toward their bodies and low self-esteem that makes them crave for a body that looks manly. Having a slender and less curvaceous body makes these women feel stronger and more confident. When women’s self-esteem dwindles and their ego is deprecated the only thing that is left is the body with blood and bones but there is no personality inside. By the same token, when a woman accepts the ideal that is created and advertised by the mass media, she involuntarily kills her inner ego and self-esteem, and subconsciously accepts the fact that her personality is worse than her body. Most women buy health magazines not with a purpose to learn something valuable that might be useful to improve their heath and increase energy in the long-run but simply because they want to look just like the model on the front cover. This idea of having a slender body gives them additional motivation. Feminists argue that women must step back from this obsessive idea that kills their ego and self-esteem and concentrate more on their personality. Once a woman starts to respect herself more and value her inner self anorexia nervosa will stop being a problem.

As a result of this extensive discussion presented in this paper, we have established that anorexia nervosa eating disorder is caused by women’s ultimate desire to keep their bodies slender and slim. This desire is dictated by the society that sells this image of a perfect body in the mass media therefore making women focus their attention on the looks rather than on their inner self and personality. Also we have established that the slender body type was derived from women’s ambition to enjoy equal rights and be treated fairly by males in the society. Women who feel that their deeds are not appreciated or disregarded tend to desire a slender body simply to look more like men. Women think that this will make them stronger and more confident but in reality it literally annihilates their self-esteem and personality. Feminists’ views on this matter are rather intolerant. They argue that the underlying nature of eating disorders is inconsistent and it really would not be the case if women had more self-esteem and were more self–confident. Our society has to realize all the harm that had been imposed upon womankind and start conveying some radically transformed messages that would help women with anorexia understand all the falseness of their own body perception. Our society has to acknowledge that it is to a large degree responsible for this destructive shift in woman’s psychology that cannot ever result in any positive outcome. Our body is a unique gift of Nature and it has to be viewed as something ultimately perfect, something that completely reflects our personality. By the same token, personality to a certain degree determines our appearance. Women have to change their perceptions of their own bodies and realize that they are beautiful the way they were created by nature and not by society. In the end, they should value their personality more and stop being so materialistic about their bodies.


Rosemarie Putnam Tong. Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction (Boulder: Westview Press, 1998)

Simone De Beauvoir. The Second Sex. 1950.

Sara M. Evans. Born For Liberty: A History of Women in America. (New York: The Free Press, 1989)

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