Why Are Bulimics Mostly Women?
In the most simple terms, we live in a society which is fundamentally unsatisfying to an enormous number of women, and eating disorders are a symbol of this inner emptiness. Many of our institutions, corporations, systems and roles are set up in a male-oriented, hierarchical structure. This type of environment, which favors independence and competition, alienates those women who feel more comfortable in cooperative, interdependent settings. Women’s sexuality is exploited, their intelligence questioned, their roles limited and often confusing. They are bombarded with promises of a “better self” through the dieting, fashion, cosmetics and anti-aging industries. Most women feel unsupported by a culture with such shallow values! They want and deserve something more—something that gives their lives meaning in a deeper way.
It is this role within this society which is at different times limiting, confusing, frightening, and unfulfilling, that propels enormous numbers of women into the safety and numbness of food problems.
• Women are socialized in specific ways.
Generally speaking, in the course of growing up, women are taught to relate and behave in ways which are specific to our culture. This is called being “socialized” or “acculturated.” Although strides have been made, many archaic ideas remain. Four of the most harmful lessons which can contribute to eating disorders are the following: (Buckroyd, 1996)
1. Women should mistrust their spontaneity and energy and instead be careful and cautious, especially about their own capabilities. Boys are allowed and encouraged to have far more physical freedom and to take more risks.
2. Women should not be too needy, and their needs come last. They should also anticipate the needs of others, just as mothers anticipate the needs of babies and children.
3. Women should defer to others by letting others take the lead, thereby giving up their opinions, and placing themselves in subordinate and auxiliary positions.
4. Women should be concerned with their appearance because they will be judged on it. At the same time, their bodies will be objectified and sexualized on a mass scale.
These lessons teach women that they have cultural “limitations.” They become afraid to express themselves freely, and deny their own needs, strengths, opinions, and inherent beauty. Bulimia can be a distraction from feeling disconnected from one’s own self.
• Adolescent women are particularly vulnerable.
The message that women should be concerned with their appearance is communicated to both sexes starting at birth, along the path through childhood, adolescence, and right into adulthood. Particularly when kids enter puberty, however, becoming more independent from their families and facing the culture at large, young girls are bombarded with images of female bodies as objects which are scrutinized unmercifully. They also become aware of stereotypical “feminine” traits, such as cleanliness, docility, unselfishness, politeness, and sometimes being a tease. 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 at this age. Their sure sense of self, strong opinions, and unabashed involvement give way to 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 women. At a time when she is forging an identity, altering her body to fit everyone’s expectations, including those of her culture, seems to be a reasonable way to please everyone. Many young women develop eating disorders when they fail their initial attempts at dieting and are faced with the fear that they will never be an “ideal” woman.
• Having a female body in this society can be frightening.
Men, for the most part, are more sexually driven than women, whether this trait is biologically inherited or learned from their environment. Women, on the other hand, are driven more by a deep desire to maintain connections with others. These two factors have created an environment of pervasive sexual abuse and harassment against women, both young and old, within our society which we are just beginning to face.
Recent statistics of sexual abuse and violence against women are staggeringly high. An eating disorder is a way of coping with the pain of that experience, “My body is my own. I am in control of what goes in and out of it.” It can be an unconscious reenactment of the original abuse or a way to punish the body which was “to blame” for the assault. It can also be a way to distance one’s self from one’s body or numb the feelings associated with abuse or harassment. Ultimately, an eating disorder is a safe place to hide from the pain and fear of mistreatment.
• Contemporary society denies the natural variety and function of women’s bodies.
“Becoming a woman” is for many an embarrassing, self-conscious affair, requiring daily self-scrutiny. Most feel required to shave their legs and underarms, hide their periods, and control body odors. Even women who have experienced the miracle of giving birth are driven to quickly flatten their stomachs afterwards, as though it had never happened! Denying women’s deepest biological truth trivializes their lives. An eating disorder can ease the pain of being disconnected from this inner source of strength and meaning.
• Women are expected to control their emotions.
Many women with bulimia report fearing the intensity of bottled-up feelings. Consequently, many have little experience with their emotions or appetites for sex, food, or living. Some say that they cannot distinguish one feeling from another or that they swing back and forth from extreme highs to lows. Letting out their emotions would mean being engulfed by them or engulfing others. Females are expected to keep their anger in check—not even talk too much! Controlling their bodies, specifically food intake, becomes a concrete way to feel in control of this inner instability. Thinness becomes a measure of emotional control, and bulimia a way to insure it.
• Women are frustrated in the work place.
Although the women’s movement has provided new opportunities for some fortunate women who have taken advantage, the majority of today’s working women continue to be discriminated against in the male-dominated 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, as we said earlier, jobs which require a high degree of competition and supervision can be unsatisfying for many women who are more apt to thrive in an atmosphere of cooperation and mutuality.
In these cases, bulimia can be a symptom of a life devoid of meaning, creativity, or rewarding work. It can also help let off steam or provide a way to self-sabotage in order to avoid failure or intimacy in the workplace.
• The media and money perpetuate the status quo.
The extensive influence of the media is unquestionable. Images of women as sexual objects are endlessly reinforced via television, movies, magazines, newspapers, billboards, and consumer products, conveying to both sexes that women should be thin, pretty, and sexy. Billion dollar businesses depend on women feeling insecure about their appearance.
While a cover girl’s photo or cosmetics advertisement does not cause a binge, these 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? 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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