Sturman 2 Gender, Race, & Class: Examining the Culture of Eating Disorders
I delivered a presentation on eating disorders to a racially, economically, and culturally diverse group of ten Northeastern University male and female students in a seminar. I asked the group to shout out a description of what type of person they thought would have an eating disorder. They all agreed, “Girl, wealthy, obsessed with pop culture, and white.” This response isn’t at all surprising. Some of these beliefs are based in reality; others are not. The popular conception held by mainstream Americans is that only middle-upper class, white females are affected by eating disorders. But when looking at the literature, it is clear that these disorders span across all different types of people and cultures. This analysis works to debunk some common misconceptions about the gender, race, and class of eating disorder sufferers as well as explain how beauty ideals have become so destructive in contemporary society.
Gender: Sexual Orientation, Feminist Perspectives, & Media Out of the entire population of people diagnosed with an eating disorder, 10% are male (Wolf, 1991). Homosexual men are overrepresented in this population. Percentages of homosexuals in samples of eating disordered men are commonly twice as high or greater as compared to the percentage of homosexual men in the general population (Fichter & Daser, 1987). Pressure from the homosexual community to be thin is one theory to explain this
Sturman 3 overrepresentation. When looking more deeply into this theory, it is apparent that in this community, there is a stronger desire to appear feminine and to adapt traditional female roles than in the heterosexual male population. Females face a significant amount of pressure to be thin. This pressure is felt from many different sources. The feminist perspectives call obedience and sexuality a main cause of eating disorders. To demand women to be thin, to relinquish their curves, and therefore their sexuality, is a way to control women and maintain patriarchy. "A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty but an obsession about female obedience" (Wolf, 1991). …the men whose plates are filled twice (a privilege which marks a boy’s accession into manhood), is often balanced, on ordinary occasions, by restrictions which generally apply to the women, who will share one portion between two, or eat the leftovers of the previous day; a girl’s accession to womanhood is marked by doing without (Bourdieu, 1984). To make restriction of food and thinness a female’s role in society and a model of feminine perfection, is to maintain a power hierarchy with men at the top, and women at the bottom. The thinner her body, the less space and, therefore, the less power a woman has. A woman who restricts her dietary intake, and preserves a bony, thin body is an obedient one (Wolf, 1991). It is culturally ideal in today’s society for women to be thin. Being thin is considered beautiful, and with beauty, women gain status. Strict eating and
Sturman 4 exercise regimens are not only considered achievements by an individual, but also by the people who surround her (Morris, 1985). The popular media has a hugely influential role in dictating this ideal. Images of stick-thin models, actresses, and pop stars are plastered across magazine covers, prime-time television shows and commercials, popular movies, billboards, taxis, and buses. Many of these images are of white, famous, wealthy, young women. It is impossible to escape this ultra-thin beauty ideal, and young girls are being constantly exposed to and pressured by these images. Therefore, when trying to think about who eating disorder sufferers are, it is easy to imagine what we see in media and pop culture – skinny, white, wealthy young women. Gone With the Wind, a novel by Margaret Mitchell, adapted into a...