Cross Cultural Eating Disorders

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I’m currently working on a post for Teen Skepchick about eating disorders in a cross cultural perspective. At the moment, I’m just in the research stage of this post, so I’m reading a lot about the research that’s been done about cross cultural eating disorders and about the differences in symptoms, causes, and etiology of eating disorders in different cultures.

And I have to say that I am deeply upset by the way we talk about eating disorders. I am particularly upset because I’ve been reading academic articles, pieces by graduate students studying psychology, and other articles that are surveys of the literature on eating disorders. These should be held to the best standards we have. Unfortunately, no matter where I look (except for in very particular blogs written by people with eating disorders, particularly Science of Eating Disorders), I hear the same things over and over and over again:

“When we expose our girls to thin models and beauty ideals they develop eating disorders”

“Girls of African American descent aren’t likely to get an eating disorder because their culture values voluptuous bodies”

“Eating disorders only crop up in other countries as they become infiltrated by Western beauty ideals”

I am SO sick of the conversation around eating disorders being dominated by conversations about models and images of women in the media and the desire to be thinner. It cannot be that difficult for people to understand this, but I’ll say it again: an eating disorder is a mental illness. It is not a diet. It is not even an extreme diet. It is not a desire to lose weight. It is a coping mechanism to deal with difficult things in your life that you can’t cope with otherwise.

There is VERY little evidence that eating disorders are caused by skinny models. What there IS evidence of is that eating disorders are caused by low self-esteem, family disruption, trauma, other mental illnesses (depression, anxiety, OCD, BPD, bipolar, and addiction are common), abuse, or other difficult situations that you need a way out of. The one element of diet culture that does seem to be impacting the rate of eating disorders is that restricting calories can trigger an eating disorder in someone who was already susceptible.

It is such a cliche by now that eating disorders aren’t about food, but I cannot stress it enough: eating disorders aren’t about food! They aren’t about looking pretty or beautiful. I have YET to meet someone with an eating disorder who says they just want to be pretty. I hear them say that they’re depressed, that they can’t cope, that they’re lonely, that they don’t feel acceptable when they’ve eaten, that they feel out of control around food, or that they use food to numb out emotions and manage other parts of their lives.

It is not helpful to keep refocusing the conversation on how someone’s body looks and the beauty ideals. This continues to reinforce them as what’s important, and it focuses the issues on the body again, instead of addressing whatever mental stress has occurred. It simplifies the matter to a point that is unhelpful, and makes treatment and self-understanding very difficult because it doesn’t allow us to reach the real etiology of the disease. It even reinforces those negative suggestions that a woman’s worth is in the beauty standards she does or does not strive to live up to.

Instead of these things, it would be far more helpful to talk about the sexism that makes women feel inadequate no matter what they do, or the bad family systems that don’t allow for good communication or healthy emotions, or the abusive relationships that many women are in, or the trauma and depression of daily life, or the failure of our mental health system to provide us with good coping techniques for when we do start to feel over our heads. If we want to talk about cross cultural eating disorders, maybe we should talk about the different family roles that exist, the different expectations of women in different cultures, the common mental illnesses in those cultures, the differences in guilt and shame in different culture (these feelings are huge in eating disorders), and the relationship that these cultures have to food as symbolic, relational, or positive.

Eating disorders are mental illnesses. They are not an attempt to be skinny. They are not a reaction to the media. They are not the desire to look like a model. They are serious. They are life-threatening. They are painful. They come with depression, constant mental stress, trauma, self-hatred, difficulty with relationships, isolation, loneliness, feelings of guilt and inadequacy, and all sorts of things that ARE NOT simply reactions to the media, but are about how we relate to ourselves and how we relate to others. Can we please start talking about them in terms of the mental situation of the individual suffering, because that is what makes something a mental illness?