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Bulimia and Society's Perception of Women

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Bulimia is a horrific affliction, and the disease has a massive impact on the lives of men and women alike. This sample sociology paper explores the impact bulimia has on society's perception of women.

How does society's perception of women affect bulimia?

Western Society puts immeasurable pressure on women's beauty; just look at beauty pageants and the increased psychological need to be prettier. This leads to a disconnect between the ways many women (and men) view themselves and the images that they see in the media.

Body dissatisfaction and feelings of powerlessness is the result, leading many of them to try to regain control through extreme dietary restrictions such as binging, purging and starvation. These resulting conditions are known as bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa respectively; both these disorders have negative consequences for individuals and society in general. These disorders are negative causes and consequences of a cycle of unhealthiness that equates beauty with worth and thus devalues large sections of humanity that do fit western ideals. The consequences of eating disorders often focus on individuals but these effects permeate the fabric of Western culture and values and thus affect the whole of society. 

Additional Reading: Learn more about eating disorders and dieting.

What is bulimia nervosa?

Bulimia nervosa is a disorder characterized by binge eating (eating large portions at one time) and purging (or vomiting) (Durand and Barlow 309-316). It is frequent among young women and adolescents but has seen an increase among young men especially athletes (Barlow and Durand, 262-263). The victim often overuses laxatives and purges to prevent weight gain.

These have serious health consequences such as the loss of important minerals (such as those needed for heart function), excessive tooth decay, and erosion of the esophagus and is associated with depression and suicide (Durand and Barlow 309-316).

Bulimia nervosa is caused by several environmental and genetic factors including unstable home life, nonacceptance by peers and bullying, genetics, substance abuse, and hormonal imbalances, the most important factor is the Western ideal of beauty and fitness especially for women (Durand and Barlow 309-316).

Media's influence a root cause

Images of female bodily perfection bombard young female minds and implicate success in life with beauty. The lack of strong female role models makes it difficult for girls to see any other acceptable norm other than heterosexuality, beauty, and thinness (Stanley 21-23). For example Barbie dolls have been caught up in the discourse surrounding the stress placed on young girls to be beautiful (Stanley 21-23). Termed the Barbie doll effect, this theory says that dolls are anthropomorphized and thus that young girls may associate the Barbie doll with how they are supposed to look when they grow up (Stanley 21-23). While parents may educate their children about diversity and relativity in beauty standards it may not be enough to overcome the powerful everyday images that young women and girls face every day (Stanley 23). 

Girl’s magazines and other media are primarily preoccupied with promoting high standards of beauty and of promoting an ideal that girls 'should' be beautiful. Even the everyday dialogue between parents and their daughters are permeated with expectations of beauty. For example the new Dove campaign promotes the idea that all shapes and varieties of people are beautiful, but does nothing to undermine the importance that we place on beauty.

Why should beauty be so important when other more beneficial qualities can be stressed? A study highlighting the need for media literacy in schools stressed that media does contribute to the prevalence of eating disorders and their acceptance among youth (Spettigue and Henderson 13-16). Active changes in attitudes towards women's bodies need to be implemented in order to decrease the prevalence of eating disorders. Read more about media's role in self-image

Celebrity role models hurt self-esteem

Prevalence of bulimia among potential role models (such as Lindsay Lohan) for women and girls also makes binging and purging seem like an acceptable way to control weight among young girls who may not know any better. A study from Arizona State University found that exposure of female undergraduates to images of ultra-thin models were linked to feelings of shame, guilt, depression, anxiety and body dissatisfaction (Stice and Shaw 288-308).

Further analysis indicated that these feelings were essential to the development of bulimic psychoses (Stice and Shaw 288-308). The prevalence of this disorder is a symptom of the devaluation of women's bodies in media and the lack of acceptable forms of control for individuals. These key factors play a role in the increasing numbers found in eating disorder statistics.

Bulimia and eating disorders cause false satisfaction

One of the effects of bulimia is that it satisfies a need for individuals to have control over their own lives. May women and girls feel as though they have no control in a society where they are expected to have control; where individual initiative and choice are believed to result in success. Many individuals take back control by controlling portions or purging their food before digestion thus controlling their weight (Stice and Shaw 288-308).

Media stereotypes women as thin models, but, in reality, they have been graphically altered with imaging software making these images unattainable. Thus individuals are afflicted with a sense of not ever being able to succeed and succumbing to the cycle of binging and purging leading to obsessions with thinness and delusions of not ever being thin enough (Durand and Barlow 309-316). The act of purging for women carries with it a lot of shame and self-hatred which also then leads to feelings of lack of control and thus to more purging (Durand and Barlow 309-316). 

Low self-esteem contributes to bulimia

In one study, low self-esteem and body dissatisfaction were negatively correlated with 'feminist values' such as non-sexist roles and personal empowerment (Snyder and Hasbrouck 593-598). Women who believed themselves of worth, no matter what their body type were not likely to exhibit these risk factors for bulimia (Snyder and Hasbrouck 593-598).  Educating women about their roles in accepting and perpetuating unattainable ideas of beauty and worth can perhaps have a positive effect on future generations of bulimia sufferers. 

Furthermore, in another study of non-white minority women, it was reported that those who exhibited high levels of acculturative stress and body dissatisfaction also had a high incidence of bulimia (Perez, Voelz, Pettit, and Joiner 442-454). A similar survey of high school girls in Fiji corresponds to this conclusion when they found that in the years 1995-1998 the self-reported incidence of bulimia jumped from 0 percent to 11.3 percent (Becker et al. 509-514). It seems that westernization has promoted the same high expectations of beauty for non-western women leading to an increase in eating disorders. 

Bulimia: Many causes, few solutions

The prevalence of bulimia in the United States is a cause and symptom of other issues including women's inequality, high standards of fitness, mental illness, and objectification of people in the media. Bulimia does nothing to promote healthiness, and, in fact, debases healthy choices for those that could allow individuals to lose weight fast. It symbolizes the power that beauty and thinness have over women's choices.

When women are expected to be beautiful at the cost of their health and self-esteem it undermines their ability to see themselves as wise, intelligent, courageous or strong. It is a burden for society because it underutilizes human potential. When women see themselves as more than just supermodels, and as scientists, engineers, and auto mechanics we can fill a void and provide full-filling careers for both sexes. 

Hopefully with women rejecting media stereotypes and becoming more health conscious society can help individuals fighting low self-esteem and body dissatisfaction instead of perpetuating it. Only when we teach women and girls that they are worthwhile will we end a cycle of eating disorders and depression among youth and hopefully lead a generation of women to successful and happy lives.  

Works Cited

Barlow, David H. and Vincent Mark Durand. Abnormal psychology: an integrative approach. 3rd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2002. Print.

Becker, Anne, Rebecca Burwell, David Herzog and Paul Hamburg. "Eating behaviours and attitudes following prolonged exposure to television among ethnic Fijian adolescent girls." The British Journal of Psychiatry 180 (2002): 509-514. Print.

Durand, Vincent Mark and David H. Barlow. Essentials of abnormal psychology. 4th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2006. Print.

Perez, Marisol, Zachary R. Voelz, Jeremy W. Pettit and Thomas E. Joiner. "The Role Of Acculturative Stress And Body Dissatisfaction In Predicting Bulimic Symptomatology Across Ethnic Groups." International Journal of Eating Disorders 31.4 (2002): 442-454. Print.

Snyder, Rita and Lynn Hasbrouck. "Feminist Identity, Gender Traits, And Symptoms Of Disturbed Eating Among College Women." Psychology of Women Quarterly 20.4 (1996): 593-598. Print.

Spettigue, Wendy and Katherine  Henderson. "Eating Disorders and the Role of the Media." Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology 13.1 (2004): 13-16. Print.

Stanley, Debbie. Understanding bulimia nervosa. New York: Rosen Pub. Group, 1999. Print.

Stice, Eric and Heather Shaw. "Adverse effects of the media portrayed thin ideal on women and linkages to bulimic symptomatology." Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 13.3 (1994): 288-308. Print.

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