Today women struggle to gain and then maintain a positive self-image, something that often seems as arduous as the tasks put to Hercules by the gods, for a number of factors in contemporary society work against the creation of a healthy sense of self for women. Many of these factors relate to womenÆs physical appearance. Most women are told (either directly or more often implicitly in the images that they see in the mass media) that they must be beautiful to be truly feminine, that they should not feel good about themselves unless they meet socially agreed-to ideals of physical beauty.
Of course, it is simply not possible for most women to live up to the standards and patterns established by models and movie stars with drop-dead gorgeous bodies, flowing (usually blond) hair, a tiny waistline, very slightly curved hips, large breasts, and perfect facial features. The constant messages that women receive that they are not pretty enough (and therefore are not good enough) prompt many women into dramatic and sometimes even lethal assaults on their own bodies in an attempt to come closely to the socially espoused ideal and therefore (they hope) to find happiness. Sometimes these assaults take the form of plastic surgery to enlargen breasts or straighten noses or to make Asian eyes appear to be Caucasian. And sometimes they come in the form of eating disorders.
This paper examines some of the causes of eating disorders and the ways in which contemporary society pushes young women (and occasionally young men, who tend to be even more invisible as victims of eating disorders than are women) into starving themselves so that they can achieve a body shape that has everything to do with culture and very little at all to do with nature.
Before beginning to explore the social and cultural bases of eating disorders, a brief definition of the two most common kinds may be useful.
Anorexia Nervosa is a condition characterized by intense fea...