This paper is on the eating disorders of anorexia nervosa, a complex and often fatal illness, and bulimia nervosa, a related condition. It attempts to explore the extent to which social expectations, primarily male ideals about the female body, are a major causal factor in the etiology of anorexia, but looks as well at other explanations.
Anorexia nervosa is defined as self-starvation leading to a loss of body weight to a level 15 percent below normal, accompanied by hyperactivity, hypothermia, and amenorrhea. Hypothermia results when the body fat is lost and the victim becomes cold all the time. Amenorrhea is defined as the absence of at least three menstrual cycles.
Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder that affects from 5 to 15 percent of young women. Girls with bulimia may appear normal in weight and personality, but they are preoccupied with their appearance and actively dislike their bodies. Bulimia is stimulated by society's emphasis on thinness; some doctors feel parents may also contribute by emphasizing appearance, by pushing food on children, and by over-restrictive parenting.
Bulimics go through periods of secret binge eating during which they consume large amounts of food. They then use vomiting or laxatives to purge the food from their bodies. Bulimia need not be a lethal condition in itself, but it often leads to anorexia.
Technically, anorexia is not a medical condition until weight loss has begun to damage the body physically. Before that, it is a psychological condition. If the progress of the illness is not arrested in the psychological stage, then treatment of it becomes far more difficult. The physiological damage becomes almost self-compounding, and the sufferer may spiral downward to death. About 10 percent of those who suffer from anorexia nervosa die from it or from its complications. Sullivan (1995) found that women suffering from anorexia nervosa are at much greater risk of dying than either fema...