We live in a time of reckoning when it comes to body image and particularly female body image. From marketing campaigns to hashtag campaigns on Twitter that admonish fat-shaming, to international fashion brands incorporating women with healthy body weight into their print and television advertising, it seems like society, as a whole, has only recently begun to accept that there is a significant connection between self-esteem, via the normalization of unrealistic standards of beauty, and eating. It is crucial to understand how one’s socially influenced self-image influences pathological eating habits, including binge-eating and under-eating. From that understanding, pathological eating can be explained in terms of the social stigma of being fat or overweight, and the corrective or compensatory measures people take with their diets to move further away from the stigma.
Over the last several decades, dozens of studies have been conducted on the effects that exposure to media images of the ideal female body on young women has on young women. The overwhelming majority of these studies demonstrate adverse effects on self-esteem and body-image (Harrison et al., 2006, p. 507). Women exposed to images of thin models end up feeling worse about their bodies than women exposed to pictures of average and plus-size models (Harrison et al., 2006, p. 508). The unattainable female beauty standards that are normalized and spread by western media, understandably, have a powerful effect on the emotions and mental health of women.
For men, similar effects are observed when the images shown are tweaked for male desires and sensibilities. Men are inclined to believe that their bodies are small and weak when they are shown idealized male bodies (Harrison et al., 2006, p. 508). Concerns over one’s body image, and mainly, dissatisfaction over one’s body, are strong predictors for both dietary restraints, as well as disordered eating. One of the responses to feelings of stigmatization and male body inadequacy is what is commonly referred to as muscle dysmorphia. Men are socialized to believe that similarly, extreme body ideals are the norm and what should be strived for (the actors who appear in superhero movies, comic books, action figures, etc.). This social pressure is also capable of producing disordered eating (such as eating copious amounts of protein and calories to gain weight and extreme dieting to cut weight) (Klimek et al., 2018, p. 352).
The social psychology behind eating disorders is relatively straight forward. Individuals, pressured by the norms and values with which they have been socialized, feel compelled to meet those norms and values. Physical appearance is related to one’s self-esteem, and self-consciousness about one’s body (exacerbated by constant media images and socially sanctioned stigmatizing of those with undesirable bodies) leads to poor self-evaluation (Brechan & Kvalem, 2015, p. 54). In a society where unattainable standards of body perfection and beauty are normalized and inculcated into young minds, people understandably feel overwhelmed by their inability to meet these standards, and, motivated by the cognitive dissonance they experience when comparing their own imperfect bodies to those they see in the media, and perhaps even around them, engage in pathological eating as a corrective measure.
Social stigma and behavior
The social-psychological mechanism behind pathological eating can be explained in terms of the associated stigma. For stigma to occur, people in a society have to do five things: label and distinguish human differences; attribute negative stereotypes to those differences; placement into distinct in and out-group categories; the stigmatized experience status loss and discrimination that create inequality; those doing the stigmatizing have the political, social and economic power to do so (Abu-Odeh, 2014, p. 250-251). Fatness as a stigma is characterized by all five of these aspects. Fat is linked with negative stereotypes such as a lack of self-control, laziness, stupidity, low self-worth, poor social skills, and slovenliness (Abu-Odeh, 2014, p. 250). To be fat is to deviate from the norm and to stand out in a negative sense.
People with poor self-esteem and body-image, understandably, are troubled by the associated stigma and feel an intense drive to correct for it. This, in turn, affects healthy eating habits. This link between social psychology and eating behavior is especially pronounced in young women, where social pressure and achievement threats associated with weight and body type (i.e., fat and overweight women are doomed) precipitate eating disorders (Sanftner & Crowther, 1998, p. 395). With some women, the psychological effects of fat stigmas produce such frequent and unpleasant emotional states, that they end up binge eating, rather than undereating (Sanftner & Crowther, 1998, p. 395).
It is society and social influences on individual psychology that affect eating behavior, especially in young women, but also in young men. The desire to conform to what is perceived to be socially constructed ideals ends up influencing how and what people eat. In young women, the stigma attached to fatness, and the ideal body type portrayed in popular media is different than it is for me. The stigma of being an overweight woman prompts many women to engage in disordered eating that typically includes extreme dieting, undereating, and even regurgitating food after eating. For men, the idealized male form is generally portrayed as the impossibly muscular man. Just as femininity is linked to thinness, masculinity is linked to muscularity. Failing to live up to these ideals and the perception that one is, therefore, stigmatized produces negative emotional states and even mental illness in people, which prompts pathological eating behaviors.
- Abu-Odeh, D. (2014). “Fat Stigma and Public Health: A Theoretical Framework and Ethical Analysis.” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 24(3): 247-265.
- Brechan, I. & Kvalem, I.L. (2015). “Relationship between body dissatisfaction and disordered eating: Mediating role of self-esteem and depression.” Eating Behaviours 17(2015): 49-58.
- Harrison, K. et al. (2006). “Women’s and Men’s Eating Behavior Following Exposure to Ideal-Body Images and Text.” Communication Research 33(6): 507-529.
- Klimek, P. et al. (2018). “Thinness and muscularity internalization: Associations with disordered eating and muscle dysmorphia in men.” International Journal of Eating Disorders 51(2018): 352-357.
- Sanftner, J.L. & Crowther, J.H. (1998). “Variability in Self-Esteem, Moods, Shame, and Guilt in Women Who Binge.” International Journal of Eating Disorders 23(4): 391-397.