A Figure to Die For
A Look at Eating Disorders
The cover of a recent issue of People (September 20, 1993) features the new supermodel, Kate Moss. She is the ultra-thin symbol of the underfed waif look, the Twiggy of the 1990s. She stands at 5 feet 7 inches and tips the scales at a mere 100 pounds. But how thin is too thin? Consider the average. Typically a 14-year-old girl of 5 feet 3 inches weighs 110 pounds. By the age of 18 she has grown to 5 feet 4 1/2 inches and weighs 125 pounds. It would be unfair to say models like Kate Moss cause dangerous dieting and anorexia among young women, but the image they project suggests that only thin is beautiful.
Too Fat for What?
Susan Kano (Making Peace with Food, Harper & Row, 1989) claims that our society is overrun by people who think they are too fat. She would like to ask these people one question: “Too fat for what?” This may seem like an absurd question, but what in fact do these people mean by “too fat?” “Too fat to walk?” Not likely. “Too fat to swim, or hike, or cycle, or be healthy?” No. Only rarely is this the case. The questioning might go on for some time, but eventually the truth emerges – “Too fat to be 'attractive'.“ It is simply an aesthetic judgment. The most common reason why people, especially women, want to be thinner is “to look better.”
This desire to be thin is especially prevalent among teenage girls. Recently Maclean's (February 22, 1993) published the results of a nationwide poll of 1500 teenagers. Forty-two per cent of the young women said they had been on a diet in the past year, compared to only 13 per cent of the boys. These statistics should come as no surprise. Long, thin bodies are constantly displayed, admired and idealized all around us. In the malls, emaciated female forms stare out at the shoppers. Teen magazines and favourite TV programs perpetuate the perception that slenderness is an essential quality for beauty and success. One honest young man told Maclean's that he would expect “to be teased by other guys” if he dated an “overweight” girl. Many girls think their whole world would be a better place if they could “just lose 10 or 15 pounds.”
Thin is In
The very thin “ideal” is inappropriate and unhealthy for most women. It is appropriate only for a small group of people who have inherited a very lean and small-boned body type. Most women, however, do not fit into this category. The aesthetically-based standards of the modeling industry are several pounds below the lowest recommended weights listed in the current U.S. medical charts. This means that the standards prescribed by current aesthetic ideals are below the healthy range even for women with small frames, much less for those of larger bone structure.
Yet women choose their “perfect” weight with these aesthetic ideals in mind. Consequently, women and girls who are well within healthy ranges consider themselves overweight and try to reduce. No wonder the diet and health spa industries do a multi-million dollar business in North America. Their ads are based on the presumption that all women want to be thinner, since after all, “Thin is in!” The only question is whether the women will “go after it” and be all that they can be, or are they too weak-willed and lazy to do so?
It has become difficult for us to imagine a different set of aesthetic standards and attitudes. Many in today's society have developed what Kano calls “aesthetically thin minds,” meaning not only that they maintain a thin aesthetic ideal, but also that they subscribe to a narrow-minded standard with regard to which body types are beautiful and acceptable. Some will argue that there is something “natural” about a preference for leanness, and that people have an instinctual repugnance to fatness. It would be more honest to admit that they learn their concept of beauty from the media and people around them. Every society has its own ideals, its own definitions of what is attractive and what is not. These vary from culture to culture. Remember how the Chinese bound the feet of their baby girls? This practice was based on their perception of beauty.
It hasn't Always Been this Way
Standards of beauty change over time. History suggests that whatever state is more difficult to achieve, and therefore is also more unusual, becomes desirable. When food was scarce heavy figures were idealized. The opposite is true now, when food is abundant.
Many famous artists idealized full-figured women. Titian, Rubens, and Renoir all painted, etched and sculpted women who would be considered fat by today's standards. This is not to say that fat aesthetic ideals are better than thin ones. Both are unhealthy. Kano cites a French physician who wrote in 1911,
One must mention here that aesthetic errors of a worldly nature, to which all women submit, may make them want to stay obese for reasons of fashionable appearance… Each woman feels herself duty bound to be fat around the neck, over the clavicle and in her breasts. Now it happens that fat accumulates with the greatest difficulty in these places… One cannot obtain weight reduction without… the woman sacrificing in her spirits the upper part of her body. To her it is a true sacrifice because she gives up what the world considers beautiful.
Just as fat aesthetic ideals led to painful and unhealthy overeating in 1911, so also today's thin aesthetic ideals can lead to painful and unhealthy starving. The harmful underlying belief is the same in both instances: a striving after conformity to the prevailing standards regardless of the cost.
When a Diet is No Longer a Diet
The constant pressure on young women to be slim can lead to serious health-threatening consequences. In their efforts to diet down to their “ideal” goal, they may carry things too far and become victims of two common eating disorders, anorexia nervosa or bulimia.
Anorexia is a condition which causes a person to slowly starve in pursuit of the “perfect” body. Dieting, taken to the extreme, becomes a compulsive desire to avoid eating. Anorexia may also involve extremely intense and frequent physical workouts to burn off calories. Bulimia involves starvation, followed by eating binges, then feelings of guilt and finally a need to purge the body of the food either through vomiting or use of laxatives. The young women become trapped in a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle.
ANAD (Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders), a Vancouver based organization and support group, claims that one in 100 females between the ages of 12 and 18 fit the criteria for anorexia. Most anorexics are between 14 and 18 – high school age. Those who are bulimic are generally in their early 20s – college and university age. Ninety-eight per cent are female. In her work at a secondary school in Vancouver, the school nurse encountered only one male student who was anorexic. He was trying to maintain a certain weight in order to continue qualifying for a particular level of wrestling. He could not control his increasing height but became ill attempting to control his weight.
It would seem that some young women are more vulnerable to these eating disorders than others are, even though the societal pressures are similar for all teenage girls. The typical anorexic is a model child, a conscientious people-pleaser and often a perfectionist. She is seldom a troublemaker in school; rather she is good at accomplishing the work that needs doing. Perhaps that is why parents find it difficult to believe that this child might be an object of concern for the school counselor or nurse.
The onset of these disorders can be quite gradual. How many young women don't decide to cut out junk food and to exercise regularly in order to lose just a couple of pounds? There is no harm in that. Yet there comes a time when a diet is no longer a diet, but becomes a dangerous way of life. We would do well to learn about the typical symptoms of these eating disorders. Both are characterized by a preoccupation with food, weight and counting calories. The young women claim to “feel fat” when weight is normal or low. They express guilt about eating. “I shouldn't be eating this.” “I'm gonna gain five pounds this weekend.” They weigh themselves frequently. They may become moody, irritable, oversensitive to criticism and intolerant of others. They tend to think in extremes. “If I'm not thin, I'll be grossly fat.”
Specific Symptoms of Anorexia include the Following:
sudden weight loss not due to illness;
significant reduction in eating coupled with a denial of hunger;
signs of starvation such as thinning and loss of hair, appearance of fine raised hair on the body, yellowish appearance of palms or soles of feet, dry, pasty skin;
cessation of menstruation;
and unusual eating habits such as a preference for foods of a certain texture, colour or mixture.
Specific Symptoms of Bulimia include these:
evidence of binge eating (through observation, large amounts of food missing, stealing of money or food);
frequent weight fluctuations;
secretive vomiting (frequently leaving for the bathroom immediately after meals);
other evidence of purging (diuretic/laxative abuse, excessive exercise);
and frequent, unusual dental problems due to frequent vomiting.
A Figure to Die For
In the fall of 1992, Lynn Johnson addressed the topic of anorexia in her well-loved daily comic strip “For Better or for Worse.” Lizzie and her best friend, Dawn are now attending Junior High. They become friends with a new girl, Candace. Candace is very slender, yet is constantly concerned about her weight. In the final strip of this series, we see Candace bumming a cigarette off one of the guys. Dawn informs a horrified Lizzie, that smoking “curbs your appetite.” Through a cloud of smoke, Candace mutters, “If I could lose 10 Ibs, it would be awesome. If I could just lose 10 Ibs… I'd have a figure to die for!!”
Sadly enough, when these disorders are carried to the extreme, “a figure to die for” becomes a distinct possibility. Less extreme instances of anorexia and bulimia can still lead to serious medical problems including heart, kidney, stomach and intestinal damage. They may also lead to mental and emotional disturbances, affecting sleep patterns, a person's sense of reality and well-being, and the ability to concentrate and to relate well to others. These eating disorders do not remedy themselves. The young women are seldom willing to admit that there is a problem. Most of them only seek professional help at the urging of a close friend or family member. But if treatment is begun early, the outlook for recovery is good.
Many local health units offer group and individual counseling programs. Such treatments aim at presenting the consequences of eating disorders, normalizing eating habits by teaching nutrition, challenging myths about food and dieting, teaching stress-coping strategies, and decreasing preoccupation with weight by encouraging and focusing on other more worthwhile activities and achievements.
Beauty is Fleeting…
Should this topic of eating disorders even be a concern for us? Yes, it should. Christian young people are as much affected by the pressures of society and of the media as any others. The trends of the world do not simply pass by the doors of the church. But we know that we should not judge each other by outward appearance.
Of course, this does not mean that the Bible never makes reference to a person's looks. When Adam met Eve for the first time, undoubtedly physical beauty played a role in their perfect and sinless attraction to each other. Sarah was beautiful enough to attract the attention of the Pharaoh. Jacob loved Rachel at first sight. Potiphar's wife noticed that Joseph was “well-built and handsome.” David had “a fine appearance and handsome features.” Nabal's wife Abigail was beautiful, as was Bathsheba. The Song of Solomon celebrates the physical beauty of a man and a woman.
In all of these descriptions of beautiful people, the Bible never gives us a standard by which to measure physical attractiveness. Certainly no height or weight is mentioned. In several cases, for example, those of Sarah, Joseph and Bathsheba, good looks led to awkward, dangerous and sinful circumstances. We would be hard-pressed to find one biblical instance in which a person's good looks proved helpful in better serving the Lord. There is no reason for young people to think that being slender is a particularly laudable or perhaps even biblical virtue. It isn't. Each one of us is fearfully and wonderfully made, uniquely able to serve God with all the capacities of heart, mind, soul and body.