Feminist Perspectives On Eating Disorders - History


When World War I (as well as World War II) began, many women had to work out of the household because their husbands were fighting in the war and the family needed financial support. Many women took jobs that were deemed masculine, including the production of war supplies. In reaction to this advertisers began to heavily market their products to women, to make them feel more feminine while doing “a man’s job”. The marketing industry boomed with the growth of advertising in magazines.

Until the 1920s women in America were kept “under wraps”, wearing clothing that covered almost every inch of skin (other than hands and heads). After getting the vote women began to wear clothes that displayed their arms and legs, heightening the issues of body image. Women grew concerned about the appearance of their limbs and tried to keep them smooth and desirable. The ideal figure changed, and women were expected to be more slender. Inevitably, this is when the dieting craze began. The average woman in the West however, has become far larger, even as the ideal has remained for a slender figure, with obesity being as much 60 percent in many studies.

From this point forward women in the media grew smaller and smaller. In 1965 Vogue introduced Twiggy, known for her large eyes, long eyelashes, and thin build. The media began to focus more on women’s bodies and because there are few positive female role models in the media, women tried to imitate these figures.

With the average model weighing 23% less than the average woman, ideal body image becomes virtually impossible (Wolf, 184). At any given time 25% of American women are dieting (Wolf, 185). Between 5-10% of American women are anorexic (Brumberg, 20). Between 90-95% of anorexics and bulimics are women (Wolf, 181). On some college campuses 1 in 5 women have an eating disorder (Wolf, 182). It is also reported that 5 to 15% of hospitalized anorexics die while in treatment, one of the highest fatality rates for mental diseases (Brumberg, 24). These alarming statistics further prove that American culture affects eating disordered behavior and allows these behaviors to thrive.

Feminists want to take action against what they claim to be harmful images the media uses against its viewers. Few efforts have been made to reverse this possible epidemic as people tend to become desensitized to such images and may not recognize their possibly harmful potential. Recently, the cosmetic manufacturers of Dove have promoted their “Campaign for Real Beauty”. This campaign uses many different body types to advertise their products, including overweight women, older women, and women with imperfections. Tyra Banks has also made efforts to expose the “less than ideal” body types. Banks has taken advantage of her fame to promote different body figures. The new talk show host has publicly defended her recent weight gain and attempts to deliver the message that being sexy has nothing to do with being thin or healthy.

Media has also been blamed for poor body image and eating disorders in women. Magazines, TV shows, and various other advertisements show thin models as having the "ideal body type" for women. Some scholars argue that these types of media items can enforce poor eating habits and eating disorder-like behavior. The other factor may be the growth of clinical obesity in the average woman, but the opposing direction being taken in the figures of media personalities.

However, other researchers have contested the claims of the media effects paradigm. An article by Christopher Ferguson, Benjamin Winegard, and Bo Winegard, for example, argues that peer effects are much more likely to cause body dissatisfaction than media effects, and that media effects have been overemphasized. It also argues that one must be careful about making the leap from arguing that certain environmental conditions might cause body dissatisfaction to the claim that those conditions can cause diagnosable eating disorders, especially severe eating disorders like anorexia nervosa.

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