Eating disorders are a growing problem in today’s society. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia involve distortions in body image and self-esteem that drive women to use food to express a variety of inner conflicts. These disorders generally occur in women, but some men are affected, as well. A number of societal pressures can be linked to the development of eating and food issues.
Women often experience the pressure to achieve excellence on a number of levels. The family may have a strong internal scripting for achievement that can put tremendous pressure on individuals to do well in a variety of fields. In addition, these women may feel pressure from the society at large to “be the best they can be,” leaving them vulnerable to feelings of never quite measuring up and the inability to deal emotionally with feelings of inadequacy and disappointment.
Advertising ensures that companies make billions of dollars on instilling the idea that people are never quite attractive enough, physically fit enough or shaped well enough to gain true social acceptance and love. Women, in particular, are bombarded with constant messages about their appearance and often feel they can never achieve the ideal of perfection that is constantly promoted by companies’ marketing efforts.
This negative messaging has a deeply harmful effect on self-esteem as women grow into adulthood, and they may attempt to match the “ideal” body weight or body shape by controlling their food intake in a number of unhealthy ways.
In many cases, eating disorders develop as a result of athletic activities and the drive to “win” in competitions. Women not only want to achieve the perfect body form for their sport; they may also be driven by the feeling of control that intense dieting and food management brings to them.
In some cases, the development of an eating disorder is a response to a profound need to gain social acceptance and be thought of as attractive in order to gain social approval. This response is often reinforced by women influencing each other to engage in actions to improve appearance with intensive dieting, excessive exercise and even purging of food after eating (1). For some individuals, indulging in these activities occasionally can lead to a full-blown eating disorder.
Some evidence indicates that over-involvement by parents in young women’s lives can be a factor in developing an eating disorder. This may result from the women’s inability to express negative emotions regarding the relationship or a fear of disappointing the parent. The average onset of eating disorders is 19 years (2), an age where young adults are beginning to explore their own way in the wider world. The close identification with the authority figures’ body images, values and emotions can lead to an inability of women to deal with their own depression, anxiety or anger, which causes them to convert their disruptive feelings into food-related actions.
Eating disorders are caused by a broad range of factors, and examining all of these areas of life can help women with eating disorders to gain an understanding of their own feelings and reactions to these powerful influences.