Column: Disordered eating

By Gus Bode

The incidence of eating disorders is at an all-time high. The National Institute for Mental Health estimates that in the United States alone, between 5 and 10 percent of girls and women are affected by anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and other eating disturbances. Estimates suggest males are also affected by eating disorders, but at a much lower incidence.

One in 100 females in the U.S. binges and purges to control weight, and one in two women are on a diet to lose weight. Eighty percent of American women report being dissatisfied with their body shape and size.

Men express a far lower degree of body dissatisfaction, even though men are, on average, heavier than women. Even more sobering research reports that 40 percent of girls between the ages of 7 and 9 want to be thinner, and’ 80 percent of 10-year-old girls report concerns about being ‘fat.’


What do these numbers mean? First, they mean that we are in the middle of a crisis. Girls and women are increasingly at odds with their bodies, engaging in a range of harmful behaviors in the pursuit of thinness. They come to equate self-worth with a number on the scale or a clothing size.

These numbers reflect the objectification of the female body. They signal that disordered eating and body dissatisfaction is very much rooted in gender-related experiences. From an early age, girls and women are confronted with messages about what it means to be female.

These messages include expectations about women’s role in relationships as caregivers and nurturers, focused on the needs of others rather than on their own. They position women in the role of a sexual object and set them up as targets for physical and sexual harassment and violence.

These, along with other social discourses about the ‘feminine ideal,’ shape girls’ and women’s experiences of self. The internalization of these messages can result in depression, low self-esteem, self-silencing in relationships and a sense of disconnection from the self and body.

As girls and women internalize these messages, they are socialized by them. They evaluate themselves by the degree to which they ‘measure up.’ But they are evaluating themselves against expectations that are unrealistic and oppressive. Perhaps because these experiences and systems are so common, women fail to see them as negative.

‘ Beliefs that weight loss and a smaller body will make one feel better about one’s self abound. The perversion and tragedy is that these things can make one feel better (at least for a time). This is not the solution, but a symptom of something larger that feels painful and intractable.

Addressing disordered eating and body image concerns can be a difficult process, especially because these behaviors have been reinforced, or have at times been adaptive. Despite these difficulties, however, psychotherapy, accompanied by medical and nutritional support, can be very helpful in moving out of eating disordered patterns. Additionally, by raising our own awareness and by supporting the consciousness-raising efforts of others, we can begin to resist and challenge this epidemic.


Cormier is a staff psychologist at the Counseling Center.