March 8 is International Women's Day. This is an opportunity to focus attention on the health and well-being of women. Mental health remains a key concern. Certain mental disorders have significantly higher rates among the female population. These include depression, anxiety and deliberate self-harm.
One mental illness that occurs predominantly amongst women is eating disorders. Statistics suggest that around 70 per cent of cases are women, with lifetime prevalence rates of around six per cent in the female population.
Highest rates are seen in the 15 to 24 age group, meaning that they often strike women in the prime of their life. Rates are increasing in this age group, with body dissatisfaction among women doubling since the 1970s. Sadly, eating disorders have one of the highest mortality rates of all mental disorders. Eating disorders are literally taking the lives of some of our best and brightest young people.
Much research has examined the causes of eating disorders among women, suggesting a combination of biological, psychological and social factors.
Culture of Thinness
At the societal level, some commentators have blamed a "culture of thinness," which constantly emphasizes the desirability of a perfectly svelte body in women. It has been argued that this culture of thinness is incessantly purveyed in advertising and marketing targeted at women.
This valorization of thinness is summed up in the infamous words of Kate Moss "nothing tastes as good as skinny feels."
we must collectively question and challenge the concept of perfection in terms of physique, behaviour, intellect and achievement.
It has been argued that this can undermine self-acceptance in some women, resulting in frantic attempts to obtain the supposedly perfect body. This has been implicated in the rise of eating disorders across the globe. Indeed, a classic research study in Fiji found a sharp rise in eating disorders after the introduction of western television, permeated with commercials and soap operas featuring thin women.
Social media has also been implicated in rising rates of eating disorders. Some researchers have suggested that the desire for approval and validation on social media networks can encourage young women to pathologically obsess about body image.
Social media is also home to numerous pro-anorexia channels, which valorize eating disorders as a legitimate lifestyle choice. This is an under-researched area needing further exploration.
An area which has received a lot of research attention is family environment. A family history of dieting and high levels of parental perfectionism is a strong predictor of eating disorders in young women.
Indeed some research suggests that this perfectionism can be pathologically internalized by young girls to an extreme; resulting in constant self-scrutiny and critical self-evaluation regarding body image and diet. This can result in an obsessive attention to supposed bodily flaws and imperfections, leading to pathological dieting and sometimes dangerous levels of exercise.
Moreover, some research suggests that eating disorders can be provoked by parental divorce. This can cause a lot of confusion and even self-blame in girls and young women. In these cases, eating disorders could be considered a maladaptive reaction to a malicious situation.
Indeed, some have argued that eating disorders in general should be considered an embodied semiotic response to egregious social circumstances. In this interpretation, eating disorders are considered a dysfunctional form of expressing anger and frustration in a world which allegedly values female silence, submission and subservience.
What can be done?
Individuals, families and society can take measures which might mitigate problems associated with eating disorders and disordered eating in general.
Firstly, the wider encouragement of critical thinking may help young women better process (and defend themselves) from constant media messages about the desirability of so-called "beauty" and "thinness."
Secondly, we must collectively question and challenge the concept of perfection in terms of physique, behaviour, intellect and achievement; constantly noting its impossibility within a single human life.
Thirdly, we can better discuss the concept of approval, encouraging young women to understand the relative value of self-approval (internal validation) in contrast to approval by others (external validation).
All this could lead to healthier women, healthier girls and a healthier society.
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