Why are Bulimics Mainly Women?
In simple terms, we live in a society that is fundamentally unsatisfying to many women. Their sexuality is exploited, their intelligence is questioned, their safety put at risk, and their roles are often limited and confusing. They are bombarded with promises of a “better self” through the dieting, fashion, cosmetics and anti-aging industries. Most feel unsupported by a culture with such shallow values. Their role within this society, which is at different times limiting, confusing, frightening, and unfulfilling, propels enormous numbers of women into the security and numbness of food problems.
Here are a few of the main reasons why specifically women are vulnerable to eating disorders:
Women are socialized in ways that increase their risk of getting eating disorders.
In the course of growing up, girls are socialized to relate and behave in ways specific to our culture. At increasingly early ages, they are bombarded with images of female bodies as objects to be scrutinized unmercifully. They are also made hyper-aware of stereotypical “feminine” traits, such as cleanliness, docility, unselfishness, politeness, and sometimes being a temptress. By the time sexual game-playing starts, most of them already know that their bodies are tools for popularity and power, and that there is appropriate and inappropriate behavior associated with being a girl.
Also, a strange thing happens to girls when they reach adolescence. Their sure sense of self, strong opinions, and unabashed involvement give way to feelings of powerlessness, insecurity, and doubts about their appearance. They are no longer cute little girls, they are budding sexual women. From a girl’s perspective, this puts her in a vulnerable position with regard to men, and a competitive one with other females. At a time when she is forging an identity, altering her body to fit cultural expectations seems to be a reasonable way to fit in with everyone. Many young women develop eating disorders when their initial attempts at dieting fail, and they are faced with the fear of never being an “ideal” woman.
Although strides have been made, many archaic ideas remain, such as women should put the needs of others ahead of their own, they should mistrust their spontaneity and leadership skills, or their bodies are objects to be judged, objectified, and sexualized. These lessons teach women their social and cultural “limitations.” They become afraid to express themselves freely and deny their unique needs, strengths, opinions, and inherent beauty. Bulimia can be a reaction to, and distraction from, feeling disconnected from both body and soul.
Having a female body in this society can be frightening.
Statistics of sexual abuse and violence against women are staggeringly high. Women are often fearful and feel unsafe in the world. An eating disorder is a way of coping with their vulnerability.
In the case of abuse, an eating disorder is a form of self-harm: an unconscious reenactment of the original act, or a way to punish the body that was “to blame” for the assault. It can also be a way to distance one’s self from the body, numb the feelings associated with abuse, and regain control that was lost: “My body is my own. I am in control of what goes in and out of it.” Ultimately, an eating disorder is a safe place to hide from pain and fear.
Our society denies the natural variety and function of women’s bodies.
Women come in all shapes and sizes, but rather than embracing the natural diversity of bodies, society only places a value on thinness. “Becoming a woman” in contemporary Western culture is for many an embarrassing, self-conscious affair, requiring daily self-scrutiny. Most women feel pressured to shave their legs and underarms, hide their periods, control body odors, and obliterate signs of the aging process. That’s in addition to the cultural pressure to be thin. Even women who have experienced the miracle of giving birth are driven to quickly flatten their stomachs afterwards, as though it had never happened. An eating disorder is a misguided effort to achieve the “perfect” body, even though that is a superficial and unattainable goal.
Also, few young women are prepared for the normal weight gain that accompanies puberty. During this time, girls gain about a third of their adult body weight in preparation for childbirth. Rather than celebrating this miraculous maturation, our society denigrates it.
Women are expected to control their emotions.
Many women with bulimia fear the intensity of their bottled-up feelings. Few have experience with emotions or appetites for sex, food, or a meaningful life. They are expected to keep their anger in check, deny their fears, not even talk “too” much! Some say that they have reached a point where they cannot distinguish one feeling from another. Letting out their emotions might mean being engulfed by them, or engulfing others. Controlling their bodies, specifically food intake, becomes a concrete way to feel in control of this inner instability.
Women are frustrated in the workplace.
Although the women’s movement has provided opportunities for a fortunate minority, women continue to be underrepresented in the upper- echelon marketplace and political arena. Those who are able to land jobs in the areas of their interest and expertise are often paid less than men and are under tremendous pressure to perform. Also, many of our institutions, corporations, and systems have a more patriarchal, hierarchical structure. This type of environment, which favors independence and competition, can be unsatisfying for those who are more apt to thrive in cooperative, interdependent settings. Bulimia can be a symptom of a life devoid of meaning, creativity, or rewarding work. It can also help let off steam or be a way to self-sabotage in order to avoid risk or failure.
The media and money perpetuate the status quo.
The extensive influence of the media on each and every one of us is unquestionable. Billion-dollar businesses depend on women (and men) feeling insecure about their appearance, and they accomplish that goal with impossibly thin and sexualized images.
While a cover girl’s photo or cosmetics advertisement does not cause a binge, constant reminders that thinner equals better establishes values that lead to distorted ways of viewing food and the self. How can a woman feel good about who she is on the inside if everyone else seems to focus on the outside? How can she accept her natural size and shape when she is urged to take up less space at every turn? Ironically, many of the thin actresses and models, who are paid enormous sums for their “look” and skinny bodies, are themselves struggling with eating disorders in an effort to remain marketable.
Reprinted with permission from Bulimia: A Guide to Recovery
By Lindsey Hall and Leigh Cohn
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