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Eating Disorders In American Society

Updated on January 22, 2015

Make Me Beautiful

Perfection; something we all try to achieve, but very few feel that they actually accomplish. We are inundated daily with images of what is ‘perfect’ – gorgeous hair, flawless skin, shiny white teeth…. and a fat-free physique.

For many people today, the images we see daily of models, celebrities, and icons usually show impossibly thin women and unnaturally fit males. We are told that what we see is the definition of beauty, and that what we see is what we should try to be. For some people, that means taking the idea of the ‘perfect body’ to a new extreme.

In general, sufferers of eating disorders are not outwardly the kind of people anyone would expect to have a kind of mental illness. They are usually perfectionists, obsessed with improving themselves until they have reached the ever-unattainable goal of perfection. They are usually overachievers, hard working and eager to please. Sometimes they are the star of the football team, or the homecoming queen, or the president of the student body. But it is often their own body that causes them the most stress.


Eating Disorders in America

In the United States alone, it is estimated that about 24 million women and men suffer from an eating disorder, as per the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. These disorders can seriously affect the health of the sufferer, and in the most extreme cases, can often result in permanent damage or even be fatal. Many different factors can trigger an eating disorder. Sometimes the cause is biological, where the individual experiences a close relative struggling with the disorder, and develops the symptoms themselves. Recent studies have shown that low levels of serotonin may also trigger an eating disorder.

Most often the cause is underlying emotional or mental issues, which may cause a person to feel the need to change their physical appearance in order to maintain control in distressful situations. These kinds of triggers may be anger management issues, problems within a relationship, family conflicts, or even puberty. Most often, young women and teens develop eating disorders because of emotional issues common to young-adulthood.

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The Many Faces of the Need to be 'Skinny'

There is a wide range of behavior that may constitute an eating disorder, encompassing everything from food denial, to over eating, to bingeing and purging. The most common form of eating disorder is known as anorexia nervosa. This behavior is classified by the Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders group (ANRED) as “the relentless pursuit of thinness.” Most sufferers of this disorder will often deprive themselves of food or exercise compulsively. Anorexia sufferers often have the highest mortality rate of any eating disorder; up to 20 percent of those with the disorder will not survive it.

Other common forms of eating disorders are bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. Bulimia sufferers often enter a ‘binge and purge’ cycle with food, where they will over-eat, and then induce vomiting to rid their bodies of food. Those with the disorder often eat in secret, and develop a sense of guilt about eating. To rid themselves of the guilt – and the food – they often induce vomiting, over-exercise, or abuse laxatives, which causes them to feel a dual sense of relief, from both the actual substance of food and from the guilt they feel for eating.

Those with binge-eating disorders often use food as a method of managing depression and anxiety. They too often eat in private, to hide their issues with food from others. For many sufferers, eating when sad becomes a compulsion, and an easy way to feel better when other methods don't seem to work. This can often lead to unhealthy eating habits, obesity, and harmful "yo-yo" dieting which can lead to many permanent health problems.

Majority of eating disorders are caused by, or eventually develop, a condition called 'body dysmorphic disorder.' According to the Mayo clinic, BDD is a chronic mental illness in which the sufferer believes there is a flaw in their appearance, and often they can't be convinced otherwise. In relation to many eating disorders, those with BDD often believe that they are 'fat' or unattractive, and often drastically alter their eating habits to try to alter what they perceive to be an 'imperfection.'

This can occur in people of any and all body types, not merely skinny people who believe they are large, as is the common misconception, and can also occur in males, females, transgender, the elderly, the young, and anyone in between. It is important to to recognize that this is a disease, and to treat the condition with patience and respect, as well as to encourage physical treatment in the form of therapy or medication, if necessary.

It is important to never pass judgement on someone with this disorder, and to be on the look out for tell-tale signs if you suspect someone may be suffering from the disorder.

Eating Disorders Can Affect Anyone


Who Is Really To Blame?

Everyday, people around the world are told what is beautiful by the media, society, and many other social constructs. This often leads people, men and women alike, to have a poor self-image, and occasionally to change their eating habits to try to become what the world has told them is beautiful. However, while it seems easy and logical to place the blame on the modern world for these feelings of inadequacy, the sad truth is that eating disorders have been around since history was first recorded. Ancient Egyptians and Persians used to starve and binge for religious events and acts of penance, the ancient Romans were infamous for their indulgence and purging of food, and in the 18th century, religious devotes would starve themselves to extreme thinness, often as a way of showing their ability to conquer baser appetites.

What Can Be Done In The Future

It was just as important for perfectionists of the past to pursue the image that society claimed to be beautiful. For now, the world and the media will continue to dictate what is beauty, and what is perfection. As a society, we can only continue to remind each other and future generations that beauty is something that comes from within, and that one’s weight is not equal to one’s worth. Some young people will still develop an eating disorder, but by increasing awareness and decreasing the stigma, we can ensure that help will always be available. Perhaps one day, society will stop buying into the cult of ‘skinny,’ and real beauty will be the new equivalent for perfection.


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    • KMSplumeau profile image

      KMSplumeau 2 years ago

      Thank you so much! I always appreciate your encouragement. We all know people who are affected by eating disorders of some nature and open discussion may be the best way to bring the issue more into the light. Thank you!

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      KMS, this was another great hub from you. This is so informative and useful on eating disorders for us Americans throughout the years and the age ranges. Voted up!

    • KMSplumeau profile image

      KMSplumeau 2 years ago

      Kylyssa, thank you for your feedback. Yes I'm inclined to agree, many people who yo-yo diet could be considered to have an eating disorder. Many people agree that maintaining one's own body should consist of responsible diet choices and lifestyle changes, and not "crash" diets or rapid weight-loss schemes. So many people, and I believe young people in particular, like the wrestlers you refer to, are told that the number on the scale is all that matters, and strategies for simply maintaining a healthy lifestyle are often ignored. The most important thing is to encourage people just to have a positive self-image and be healthy, and maybe the numbers on the scale won't matter. Thank you so much for your feedback!

    • Kylyssa profile image

      Kylyssa Shay 2 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      I think that eating disorders have long been common; they just weren't talked about. My sister suffered anorexia and I knew girls and boys in school who clearly had eating disorders.

      There was a twist to the situation with the boys I knew with eating disorders. Their wrestling coaches were the cause. Their wrestling coaches encouraged the growing boys to diet to either stay in or drop down a weight category.

      I also think the millions of people who've yo-yo dieted for most of their lives should be counted among those with eating disorders.

      It's a difficult thing, to live in a society that absolutely hates fat people with millions of years of evolution to fight to avoid being fat when living in plenty.

    • KMSplumeau profile image

      KMSplumeau 3 years ago

      Dear Buildreps, you were absolutely right. I believe the report that I originally found this statistic from was much older, and I didn't notice upon my first reading. I made the changes to that paragraph, and I can't thank you enough for pointing that out - I always want the information I put out to be accurate. Thank you again!

    • Buildreps profile image

      Buildreps 3 years ago from Europe

      I cannot believe only 8 million (7+1) Americans have eating disorder. That would be less than 1%. I believe that at least 50% of the Americans have some sort of eating disorder, especially obesity. That would be 150 million... Is it possible to check this figure again?

    • KMSplumeau profile image

      KMSplumeau 3 years ago

      Thank you for reading, it was difficult to research and read about many of the tragic cases where talented men and women with bright futures were negatively affected by an eating disorder. Thank you again, and I hope we all can help future generations to love themselves just the way they are.

    • easylearningweb profile image

      Amelia Griggs 3 years ago

      KMS, you have hit on a very important subject and as parents and teachers it is important for all of us to be aware of this.

      I agree with Jackie, I remembered Karen Carpenter too, such a lovely voice.

    • KMSplumeau profile image

      KMSplumeau 3 years ago

      Thank you, and I agree, celebrities like Ms. Carpenter were under an overwhelming pressure to keep up a certain body image which is at times completely unrealistic. Thank you for reading, and commenting.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 3 years ago from The Beautiful South

      Very interesting article. Guess I will never hear this mentioned I don't think of Karen Carpenter. Had so much and just gone so quickly from such a stupid thing. She was so busy and young I imagine she had nothing to worry over. Great to bring to attention. ^+

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      This is a well written article about a very real problem. You are right that eating disorders have always been around since ancient times, but our current society seems obsessed with being thin, just look at how many advertisements litter the Internet and tv for weight loss, diets, and exercise programs etc. How do we change it..I don't know, but thanks for sharing. Voted up.

    • KMSplumeau profile image

      KMSplumeau 3 years ago

      Thank you! I know many people who have been personally affected by this as well, the problem is ever-growing and more needs to be done to improve the way we all view ourselves. Thank you so much for your feedback, I'm glad you enjoyed the article.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      As a former teacher I saw a great deal of this, and it increased over the years. When I first started teaching in 1978, eating disorders were hardly ever heard about. Today? An epidemic! Good information and I'm glad you are raising awareness about it.