Letting Barbie Off the Hook

Part of the goal of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is what's known as "awareness-raising." People want to raise awareness of what eating disorders are, what causes them, and how they can be treated. This is not necessarily a bad thing. However, the information that is spread, and the topics covered by the media, don't necessarily reflect that latest scientific understanding of eating disorders.

So many stories discuss the need to look "perfect," and society's pressures to be thin. I'm not going to deny that these factors are true, but I think the blame is a little misplaced. These things can trigger eating disorders and allow them to flourish, but that's a far cry from looking at them as a cause.

Some of the people I know who are desperately trying to prevent eating disorders--a noble cause regardless!--are looking at things like discontinuing the use of emaciated models, changing the way women are used in advertising, and promoting gender equality. Again, these are all things that I support. I just have to question their impact on preventing eating disorders. It's easy to zero in on these things because sufferers tend to be inexplicably drawn to thin models and fashion magazines during their illness.

There's also some intuitive sense there: many women want to look like the models in magazines, even if it's just on a subconscious level. And some of these women may go on diets or exercise to look just a little more like that (though it is typically covered in improving "health"), but most don't develop eating disorders.

I do think our culture is more than a little toxic, but if that were the case, more people would have eating disorders. I absolutely think we should stop using emaciated models- for their sake and also for ours. But there's a difference between doing that and trying to prevent eating disorders. A few studies have found that challenging the thin ideal can help lower the risk of eating disorders short term, but I remain skeptical.

I think our obsession with dieting and freakish fears of obesity are far more damaging. Why? Diets (which are really just socially sanctioned forms of malnutrition) become normal and EDs love to hide behind things like "diets" and "healthy eating." And we stop getting worried. Most people are afraid of fat, and we buy into what people with eating disorders say.

So maybe it's time to let Barbie off the hook, and instead look at little closer at what our own "health" industries are promoting.

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Kim said...

Great post. Of course I support awareness of eating disorders, but I would prefer the general public be aware of the difference between triggers and causes.

sarah said...

I'd say focusing on the bizarre obsession with obesity and fighting it is a bigger deal than Barbie - and hate that "wellness programs" often let insurance companies and others collect "health information" because I'm quite sure that SC isn't the only state that's thinking about charging those who are overweight more for health insurance

**emily said...

honestly, I did a paper on this for graduate school, and I have to say that my research came up with the fact that the majority of eating disorder sufferers are predisposed. That doesn't mean that media, etc have no effect, because they do. But a lot of what causes eating disorders happens in kids before the age of five.

Carrie Arnold said...

It's exactly like Kim says: we confuse triggers for causes.

I don't think you can get an ED without the genetic predisposition. The cultural triggering can vary greatly, though.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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