Body Image + the Language Around It

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.

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

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.