Anorexia Nervosa: a Feminist reading of a distorted perception of beauty

The focus of this essay is to explore the eating disorder Anorexia nervosa. Anorexia was chosen for the topic for this essay as it has both a long history in human culture but is still a very current and prevalent issue. The subject of anorexia will be explored using various sociological perspectives. First, the feminist perspective will focus on women’s experiences and explore anorexia from the standpoint of a woman as opposed to the often male-dominated perspective of traditional society (Hall and Steven, 1991). The functionalism theory interprets society as a whole made up of correlated parts such as traditions, institutions, customs, etc; therefore, this perspective will examine the association between societal pressure and media influence and anorexia. And lastly, the symbolic interaction perspective analyses symbols, subjective interpersonal significance and the interaction between individuals through communication (Van der Spuy E, M de Klerk H and Kruger R, 2003) anorexia can be explained through various symbols such as food and self-image and how these are used to communicate self-image to other individuals.
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterised by extreme anxiety about one’s weight and keeping it as low as possible by very strictly limiting the intake of food (NHS, 2011).There are various statistics relevant to anorexia available in the UK. According to The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), approximately one in 250 females and one in 2000 males will experience anorexia (2004). In the UK, approximately one in every 100 women between the ages of 15 and 30 years suffer from anorexia (Disordered Eating, 2011). However, reports have shown girls as young as five years old have weight concerns and are potentially susceptible to develop anorexia (Disordered Eating, 2011). According to Beating Eating Disorders (B-EAT 2011), around 1-2% of young women are thought to be anorexic at any one time and approximately 11 people in 100,000 develop the condition each year. Approximately 40% of people with anorexia recover completely and an estimated 30% will continue to suffer long-term effects of the illness (Disordered Eating, 2011).

Anorexia is a serious health issue because it is the leading cause of mental health-related deaths (NHS, 2011). The mortality rate for anorexia is estimated to run around 13-20% per year (Howlett et al., 1995). It is also important to study because it is associated with various health complications. One of the primary complications is loss of fertility which may cause lifelong difficulties (B-eat, 2011). There are also other complications due to malnutrition such as osteoporosis which can increase the risk of spontaneous fractures even from minor traumas (B-eat, 2011).
The feminist perspective is a sociological perspective based on a female-centered viewpoint as an alternative to the male-centered viewpoint that often dominates traditional philosophy, society, and culture (Rodgers 2005). According to Hall and Steven (1991), feminism has the three basic principles of: valuing women and validating women’s experiences, ideas, and needs; recognizing the existence of ideological, structural, and interpersonal conditions that dominate women; and a desire to change these oppressive limitations through criticism and political action. As body image is part of a woman’s concept of her sexuality, it is related to her feeling feminine and attractive and consequently her self-esteem (Fobair, 2006). Feminist theory suggests that the reason women feel dissatisfied with their bodies is because of a social phenomenon and not individual choice (McKinley, 2002). Women tend to be more concerned about the appearance of their bodies than men, who are more concerned with the functionality of their bodies (Ziebland, 2002).
Landwerlin (2001) suggests that the extreme pressure of women to conform to the idea that beauty in women is being exceptionally thin has led to an epidemic of eating disorders. Women feel the need to meet impossible demands of beauty and thinness and struggle to meet the expectations of the feminine stereotype (Parker and Mauger, 1976). Women with anorexia are obsessively pursuing the ideal feminine body shape in an exaggerated manner (Boskind-Lodahl, 1976). Boskind-Lodahl (1976) suggests that anorexic women are controlling their appearance to gain the approval of others, especially men, and gain a sense of self-worth through this validiation Chernin (1986) believes that women with eating disorders are using their bodies to express unhappiness about their role in life in a male-dominated society. Because a woman’s body is representative of her identity, women are able to express confusion about her role in society through eating disorders such as anorexia (Chernin, 1986).
Conversely, there are some feminist theorists who believe that women with anorexia are not conforming to the feminine ideal, but rather rejecting it. As women with anorexia are overly thin, they actually become unattractive and challenge the concept of being valued for their appearance (Moorey, 1991). Lester (1997) suggests that by becoming so overly thin, women are flaunting the fact that society demands this viciously harmful body type to be considered attractive. It is an unmistakable statement that she believes societal pressure is causing her to starve herself and be dangerously unhealthy (Bordo, 1997). It is in a sense over-conforming to the point where the woman disappears, first physically, then spiritually. She is trying to break away from the stereotypes of femininity beauty shoved onto her from a male-centered society (Malson and Ussher, 1997).
This feminist theory that women with anorexia are actually trying to break away from conformity can be extended. To escape the feminine role that is forced onto them, women may adopt masculine characteristics as the solution (Elks, 1994). Elks (1994) believes that women use anorexia to transform their bodies into a sexless state, by denying the normal curves of a woman that are associated with feminine characteristics such as pregnancy. It is a rejection of fertility and obligation to a family as a mother or wife. By suppressing the development of hips and breasts, women are changing their bodies into a more genderless figure (Elks, 1994). All of these feminist theories suggest that women are using their bodies as a political statement. Orbach (1989) suggests that anorexia is an ambivalence about femininity, both a rejection and exaggeration of the feminine idea whether anorexia is an over-conformity or rebellion against the notion of feminine beauty, it is still calling attention to the effects of gender roles in society.
The functionalism perspective sees society as being held together by social consensus, a functioning body that is made up of different interdependent elements such as customs, traditions, and institutions (Parsons, 1975). All of these parts affect each other so functionalism reflects on both the micro-scale individual components as well as the macro-scale function of the whole. Parsons (1975), a functionalist theorist, suggested that each individual had expectations of his and others’ actions and that these expectations were derived from the accepted norms and customs of their society Parsons suggested that individuals were expected to fulfill certain roles in society and conform to that specific society’s customs and what was seen as the norm. The perfect society then, would be one where there is no conflict between the norms of society and the performance of the individual within these institutions and traditions (Parsons, 1975). In modern society, mass media bombards images of extremely thin women as being the ideal form. Anorexia can be seen as society’s struggle to align this “norm” of very thin models and celebrities to all women.
Robert Merton, another influential functionalist theorist, had similar notions to Parsons. Merton expanded Parsons’ ideas that some structures within society may be dysfunctional (Holmwood, 2005). Merton’s theory of deviance suggested that there was a possibility of discontinuity between the cultural goal and the reaction of an individual (Merton, 1957). Among these scenarios are conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreats, and rebellion (Merton, 1957). The prevalence of anorexia in society can be explained through several of these cases. Because of the widespread exposure of thin, beautiful women in the form of advertisements, movies, television and shows, the reaction of trying to conform to this image is easy to understand. Every day women see what type society labels as beautiful and strive to conform and be just like that image. Young girls and mature women alike suffer anorexia to achieve this conformity. Anorexia can also be seen as an innovation type scenario; women see the thin models and celebrities and will attempt to become this image through unaccepted methods such as starvation and malnutrition. Ritualism occurs when an individual strives to follow society’s norms but is not rewarded in the end. This is true in the cases of women where anorexia causes severe health issues and achieving the thin body type comes at a cost of morbidity and mortality.
Merton also proposed the idea that human function could be categorized as either manifest functions which are obvious and intentional or latent functions which are vague and involuntary (Holmwood, 2005). Manifest functions are what people expect whereas latent functions are unrecognized and unexpected (Merton, 1957). Dysfunction, such as anorexia, can be seen as manifest or latent as well. Anorexia as a manifest dysfunction is recognized because it is a serious medical issue documented in hospitals and primary care. Anorexia can also be seen as a latent dysfunction since it was not necessarily anticipated as a product of media bombardment of thin models and celebrities. Anorexia can be interpreted through a variety of methods using the functionalist theory. Because anorexia is a reflection of self-image that is highly affected by society and mass media culture, the functionalist theory is a competent interpretative perspective for this topic.
And lastly, the symbolic interaction theory is a micro-scale perspective, emphasizing the interpretation of symbols and self-perception as constructed by others through communication and interaction. Symbolic interaction not only examines the interaction between individuals but also within the own individual (Van der Spuy E, M de Klerk H and Kruger R, 2003). Because human actions consist of identifying the self as an object, it serves as a symbol which a woman can use to communicate to others and herself. Anorexic women are communicating their refusal to eat and the resulting thinness of her body as a symbol to others. Kaiser (1990) suggests that the self develops from the combination of the interaction with other individuals who give feedback and with those individuals with whom she compares herself. These other individuals may be friends, peers, stereotypes, etc. The woman compares herself to these other groups and takes their feedback into consideration in the development and perception of her self-image and body.
Blowers et al (2003) suggests that this external pressure from different groups causes women to internalize societal norms that thinness is beautiful and important for success for a woman. When comparing magazines read by young women and by young men, Heilman (1998) found that ten times as many promoted the thin figure in advertisements targeted to women. Through media alone, young women are more susceptible to body image issues and according to Marcotte et al (2002), young women become more depressed than their male counterparts during teen years. This depression and low self-esteem could push these girls to resort to anorexia to match the model figures seen in so many advertisements. Kaiser (1990) proposes that a symbol should communicate the same thing to others and herself. So women apply self-control to behave a certain way in order for others to have a specific image of her. Individuals who suffer from anorexia exhibit this exact behavioural pattern of demonstrating extreme will power to refrain from eating (Slabber, 1985).
Symbolic interaction proposes that clothes, food, and physical appearance can sometimes used to simplify social interactions (Van der Spuy E, M de Klerk H and Kruger R, 2003). All of these items serve as symbols which are used to communicate the self to others and to themselves. This symbol of the body is a mental picture that one has at any given time and a positive body image correlates strongly to a feeling of acceptance (Van der Spuy E, M de Klerk H and Kruger R, 2003). Dissatisfaction with their body image is correlated to eating behaviours in females as young as grade school children (Vander Wal and Thelen, 2000). Women with anorexia have a distorted body image and continue to strive to be as thin as possible (Drewnowski et al, 1995). Further encouraged by mass media and modern society’s fashion culture, women see the clothes they are supposed to wear on extremely emaciated figures (Kaiser, 1990). Kilbourne stated that women are driven by the fear of being overweight, as the intolerance against fat people, more specifically fat women, is one of the few remaining prejudices that are found socially acceptable (Benokrates 1999).
Anorexic women also view food as an important symbol in her life. She is obsessed with the idea of it and at the same time rejecting it completely because it symbolizes weight gain (Kaiser, 1990). Further obsession on this symbol turns food and the idea of eating into a neurotic fear of gaining weight which leads to starvation to the point of malnutrition and danger. This feeling of power and control over abstaining from food becomes a symbol of herself and the extent of her will power and so becomes addicting and repetitive (Wardlaw1999). The symbols and interactions with other individuals that anorexic women interpret and experience play a large role in the development and continuation of their anorexic condition. Associating the symbol of food with becoming fat, which goes against the media stereotype of beauty in women, perpetuates anorexic tendencies in symbolic interaction theory.
Anorexia is a serious health issue but with the help of various sociological perspectives, the intentions behind it can be understood so the affected individuals can be helped as best as possible. Understanding anorexia through the feminist perspective explores the topic from the viewpoint of the women, as opposed to the generally male-dominated perspective of traditional society. Feminist theory suggests that anorexic women are overly conforming to the idealised thin figure of the women to express unhappiness in the male-dominated society. Other feminist theory thought suggests anorexic women are actually rejecting the feminine role in society by becoming so emaciated; they shed their feminine shape and become an androgynous figure that rejects their role as a mother or wife. The functionalist perspective examines anorexia as one part of society that interrelates to other aspects of society, all coming together in a social consensus. This social consensus promotes various actions in individuals such as conformity, innovation, and ritualism. Women are driven to conform to the thin image of celebrities and models and use innovative methods such as extreme starvation to achieve these results. However, these results may be without reward if it leads to health problems and possibly death. Symbolic interaction perspective investigates anorexia in terms of how individuals perceive symbols and its interaction with other individuals and also themselves. Women view food as a symbol of weight-gain and grow to detest it, becoming obsessed with the idea of rejecting food. These anorexic women interpret their self-image as a reflection of what others think of them and use this feedback to view themselves. The media ideal of the thin female form influences women into viewing this as the only acceptable form of beauty in women. All of these sociological perspectives provide insightful logic into how anorexic women think and offer rationale behind their actions and motives. Studying anorexia through various sociological perspectives gives a comprehensive overview of many possible theories and explanations as to why this disorder afflicts these women. By truly understanding the underlying rationale behind these women’s actions, it is possible to help these women carefully and efficiently.
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