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Body Image + the Language Around It

Updated: May 22, 2023

Eating disorders are a daily struggle for over 20 million women (“What Are Eating Disorders?”). Growing up, we all visualized our bodies in a certain way, which was largely influenced by society, media, social media, and pop culture. However, these standards are not always helpful and only result in affecting how most of us see our bodies now as young and grown women.

The constant bombardment of images by the media has inarguably influenced how comfortable or uncomfortable we should feel in our bodies. In turn, it has highly influenced the need to change or “fix” our bodies.

How satisfied or dissatisfied we are with our bodies triggers what we choose to eat or not to eat. This typically results in an unhealthy relationship with food—introducing us (knowingly or unknowingly) to eating disorders.

Did you know that nearly 50% of people with eating disorders are more likely to experience depression (Bell, Leigh)? That’s why eating disorders are characterized as mental illnesses. Statistics also show that the same percentage of people diagnosed with eating disorders will struggle with substance abuse.

Young woman looking into a mirror with harmful words written on it

Let us now look at the various types of eating disorders and how they affect us.

An estimated 0.5 to 3.7% of women suffer from anorexia nervosa. This disorder entails limiting food intake resulting in extremely low body weight. Statistics reveal an estimated 9% of women struggle with anorexia nervosa in their lifetime with 1% being female adolescents (“Eating Disorder Statistics: General; Diversity Stats”), and we end up losing 4% of those struggling with anorexia when undiagnosed or without proper treatment (“What Is Anorexia: Symptoms, Complications and Causes”).

Anorexia is said to have the highest fatality rate of any mental illness (Arcelus, Jon), with most women being diagnosed with dysmorphic body disorders constantly seeking reassurance about their bodies while getting frustrated when other people fail to see the same defects they do (“What Is Body Dysmorphia, Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis and Its Treatment”).

Bulimia nervosa is another eating disorder with the potential to threaten livelihoods, and about 1.5% of women suffer from it (“Eating Disorder Statistics; Research"). This disorder involves eating large amounts of food uncontrollably then attempting to purge the extra calories. Bulimia nervosa is mostly caused by genetics (people with first-degree relatives e.g., parents or siblings who have suffered from it are likely to develop a possible genetic link), biological changes, emotional health, and societal expectations.

Other influences include negative self-esteem and social functioning problems with relationships, anxiety, depression, and personality disorders such as Bipolar Disorder, self-injury, suicidal thoughts, or suicide, and misuse of alcohol or drugs (“What Is Bulimia: Symptoms, Complications and Causes”).

Binge Eating Disorder is yet another disorder highly impacting women and affects at least 3.5% of women according to statistics (Eating Disorder Statistics; Research”) It occurs when a person consumes unusually large amounts of food to the point where one is unable to stop eating even on a full stomach.

Food craving is highly associated with binge-eating and eating disorders psychopathology. Most women struggle with food cravings and for others, it gets worse, especially when they are on their menstrual cycle. Hence, this could relate to bingeing large amounts of food within a specific time and frequently eating alone in secret then ending up feeling depressed, ashamed, disgusted, or upset about the eating habits.

In many instances, we judge ourselves harshly due to the perceived flaws of our weight and body shape. Eating disorders

Young woman reaching for her reflection in a mirror

don’t just stem from our social or cultural pressures, but often being female or female-presenting places specific pressures on the way we present ourselves. Once we hit puberty and start experiencing body changes, that’s when the real conversation about our bodies starts. So much happens. We are taught not to dress in a certain way so as not to expose our body curves. Being fat and curvy becomes an issue. Wearing tight or short clothes becomes a “sin.” Suddenly there’s an “ideal body type” that now seems to only be accepted. Where will the rest of us with other bodyweight go?

According to a study by Katzmaryzk and Davies over the years, the culturally ideal women’s body size and shape have been portrayed as considerably thinner over time with a significant decrease in the models’ body weights and measurement. An estimated 70% of models were found to be underweight (Katzmarzyk, P.).

Field also found out that the importance of thinness and the obsession of trying to look like women on television, movies, and magazines are predictive of young girls who end up beginning to purge at least monthly to achieve this. Several studies have shown a positive association between exposure to beauty and fashion magazines contributing to the increase in weight concerns or eating behavior (Field AE).

Feelings like anxiety, shame, embarrassment, guilt, or denial are experienced at high levels when one is facing an eating disorder. Additionally, there are several communication challenges we face while addressing eating disorders. What is being said and what is heard are sometimes vastly different. This is because anyone going through an emotional struggle tends to hear and interpret comments through a specific filter that can distort the intended message.

According to a publication by Martha Peaslee Levine called “Communication Challenges Within Eating Disorders”, she reveals individuals with anorexia or bulimia usually use suppression strategies to handle negative comments (Peaslee Levine, Martha). Most people with eating disorders tend to suppress the hurt rather than reframe a situation or challenge their assumptions. They take comments as alerts for threats. For instance, they would react more quickly to fat-related words like “chubby” than to words unrelated to fat such as “unhealthy”.

She also talks of the three family variables which can affect people struggling with bulimia nervosa. The variables include negative comments regarding appearance, external control of food intake, and rules related to family mealtimes. According to her, daughters often model their mothers’ relationship to food. Meaning it becomes a significant issue to them if they have watched their mothers struggle with food and their own body image.

Seeing their mothers criticize themselves in the mirror or hear derogatory comments toward their own bodies teaches them how to look at their own bodies.

This also means parental comments on their daughters’ weight and appearance have a strong impact. A mother projecting her own insecurities onto her child causes patterns to form. The satisfaction or dissatisfaction of the daughter’s body can be directly linked to their mothers’ comments and relationship with food, which is quite powerful if you ask me.

We can acknowledge that the media influences eating disorders in various ways with the overall presentation of society’s “thin ideal” and unrealistic expectations, contributing to an increase in unhealthy eating behaviors. But do we realize to what extent?

Did you know that media images of the “thin ideal” are said to affect our moods such that we feel angrier and more depressed after viewing just 20 images? This causes body dissatisfaction-and that’s just after what could be 60 seconds scrolling on Instagram.

We realize that the implication of not giving the right information only leads to the glorification of unhealthy eating habits or unhealthy ways of getting rid of excess weight. In my opinion, negative societal attitudes, as well as stigma, are detrimental to everyone suffering from an eating disorder. It has become common for women struggling with an ED to be judged. Even those who are victims of eating disorders through genetics are not spared. This only makes these women feel as if others perceive them as weak and fully responsible for their eating disorders. This then only serves as a barrier to accessing support. It also prolongs the discovery of the disorder and the healing process.

Young woman writing on a mirror kind words about herself

The journey to recovery can be long and difficult. However, it is very much possible to recover from an eating disorder. Treatments such as therapy, education, and medication are important options to try out. You may require a mental health professional for the therapy, a registered dietician to help with meal plans and nutrition, a medical specialist to treat any health issues, and your family, friends, children, or partner for support ('Eating Disorder Treatment: Know Your Options"). Other options include Spiritual Connection- through connecting with your higher power. You could also recover through journaling your thoughts, which helps your emotional state and mental health. Reaching out is also an important way of reminding yourself that you are not alone and can get love and support from family and at the same time always be there for them as you all go through your recovery process.

Also note: recovery is a personal decision and we need to find the power within ourselves to make recovery-oriented decisions. Some days will be harder than others but when the end goal is to follow recovery-oriented decisions regularly, then it becomes a habit. It can start by changing your mindset, which might mean changing the media you are taking in regularly. It was noted that it can only take 20 images to sink our self-perception, so if we look at the content we choose to surround ourselves with, ie. who we follow on social media, we can change the ideas we are being fed day in and day out.

Realizing the power of our words is the biggest asset we have; we can change the narrative by how we address people with eating disorders.

So, whether you are a mother with a child who watches how you love yourself or the partner of someone who is struggling, it’s important to think of how we phrase our words. Even compliments can be double-edged, especially when they’re always body-centric. Choosing to uplift and compliment one another on attributes that focus on who we are and not what we look like reminds us that we are more than what meets the eye.

We are all people and we have the opportunity to build each other up with our words. With the impact that language can have on our self-perception, we are obligated to make sure we are making our words count for the better. Let’s ditch what society and the media say we should look like. We are all beautiful regardless of what the scale reads. We are women, and we are the custodians of our own image.


Rachel Ramsey photographed by Shea Renusch; Article by Felister Wamaitha

1 “What Are Eating Disorders?” National Eating Disorders Association, July 14, 2021.

2 Bell, Leigh. “Using an Eating Disorder to Cope with Depression.” Eating Disorder Hope. Eating Disorder Hope, September 3, 2015. disorder-to-cope-with-depression.

3 “Eating Disorder Statistics: General; Diversity Stats.” National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, March 3, 2021. informed/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics/.

4 “What Is Anorexia: Symptoms, Complications and Causes.” Eating Disorder Hope. Eating Disorder Hope, August 17, 2021.

5 Arcelus, Jon, Alex J. Mitchell, and Jackie Wales. “Mortality Rates in Patients with Anorexia Nervosa and Other Eating Disorders.” Archives of General Psychiatry. JAMA Network, July 1, 2011.

6 “What Is Body Dysmorphia, Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis and Its Treatment.” All Things Mental Health. All Around Mental Health, February 26, 2021.

7 “Eating Disorder Statistics; Research.” Eating Disorder Hope, August 4, 2021.

8 “What Is Bulimia: Symptoms, Complications and Causes.” Eating Disorder Hope. Eating Disorder Hope, August 17, 2021.

9 Katzmarzyk, P., Davis, C. Thinness and body shape of Playboy centerfolds from 1978 to 1998. Int J Obes 25, 590–592 (2001).

10 Field AE, Camargo CA Jr, Taylor CB, Berkey CS, Colditz GA. Relation of peer and media influences to the development of purging behaviors among preadolescent and adolescent girls. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 1999 Nov;153(11):1184-9. doi:10.1001/archpedi.153.11.1184. PMID: 10555723.

11 Peaslee Levine, Martha. “Communication Challenges Within Eating Disorders: What People Say and What Individuals Hear.” Berlin: ResearchGate, 2017.

12 “Eating Disorder Treatment: Know Your Options.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, July 14, 2017.

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