Eating disorders in the United States have long been viewed as individualized, mental health problems. Most likely something that has formed from a traumatic event in one’s life. That may be the case for some people with eating disorders, but I am going to look at it from a more societal l and macro point of view. 10 million women and 1 million men suffer from anorexia or bulimia (Eating Disorder Foundation), which has doubled over the past 10 years. Over the past 50 years, eating disorders have surpassed depression as the leading emotional imbalance upon young women (Journal of Media Research). Eating disorders have turned into one of the top factors resulting in increased mortality rates, and the third leading cause of death in adolescent girls. There was a huge surge in eating disorders when we underwent a major paradigm switch to external beauty standards and mass media coverage. If we look at eating disorders from a sociological perspective we can move away from thinking about eating disorders as a “mental problem” or “disorder” and it will force us to look at the causes less individualistically (micro level) and more societally (macro level).
Defining eating disorders as a social problem has been up for debate of the past couple of decades. Since there is no exact difference between phenomena that is considered a social problem and what is not, it makes defining eating disorders as a social problem extremely difficult. Since social problems stated as social problems if there is a “fix” to them, eating disorders are not discussed as social problems, and they are considered individualized mental health problems. The medical model to treating eating disorders pathologies eating disorders to a certain factor, usually psychological, that happened at a point in someone's life, instead of looking at the cause of eating disorders enforced on us by societal norms, capitalism, and media. Major corporations and media companies can profit from women hating their bodies, they cannot profit from fixing them. Our current media’s obsession with the “thin” body and media industry’s constant perpetration of the “perfect body”, along with editing software-- has skewed our perception of attainable beauty standards.
The way to look at eating disorders from a symbolic-interactionist approach would be that eating disorders are a social construction. In addition, look at it from this point of view infers that we have been taught to want to be unattainably thin or “beautiful” the way that society defines it. In America, being thin is a symbol of being healthy and attractive. Looking at eating disorders from a symbolic interactionist view makes me realize how we have been subtly taught the “right way to look”. Looking at eating disorders from conflict perspective, you would blame society for praising models and setting our beauty standards as what they are today to sell products. At the end of the day, eating disorders benefit capitalism. If people do not like themselves, (maybe even subconsciously), they will try to buy to improve themselves in order to fit into our ever-changing societal norms. I think the conflict approach is the best way to look at eating disorders, because if everyone was happy the way they were, how could major corporations sell us fad diets, extremely damaging weight loss pills, etc...? I think that our society even propagates eating disorders, since major corporations profit from perpetuating unattainable beauty standards. Another way to look at eating disorders is from the functionalist perspective. So for people, it is considered functional to be skinny because they believe that they can keep their jobs and appear more attractive to others who do not know them. Being skinny serves a purpose in society today, since we view thin people as strong and healthy and fat people as weak and lazy, it benefits woman to be skinny to be able to be taken seriously in society by men especially.
As you can see, Symbolic Interactionism, Conflict Theory, and Functionalist Perspective are many ways that can help us analyze eating disorders from a sociological perspective. However, I think the best way to analyze eating disorders in women is from a Feminist Theory. You first look at how society views slender women compared to fat women. In western culture women who have slender bodies are represented by “order and control”, while overweight women are viewed as “fat, slow, and lazy”. No wonder women strive for a slender body in a patriarchal world. In order to look at eating disorders as a social problem, we need to first realize what our society values. Our society values skinny women, even if to get that skinny they are doing it in an unhealthy way. Women all over the country are trying to achieve this unattainably slender body to change a de-valued feminine body into order and control.
Thankfully, with the huge boom in numbers of eating disorders, people are starting to become more aware about how our society is affecting the rise of eating disorders, and look at them less individualistically. The NEDA (National Eating Disorder Association) is playing a huge role in starting social movements and spreading awareness about eating disorders. They plan marches from men and women to attend and workshops. This is a step in the right direction, but I think we need to look more at the root of the problem as a whole rather than the disorder from an individualized perspective.
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