Trigger warning: discussion of eating disorders, suicide, mental illness.
By Wei Sun (Fightback, Christchurch)
Eating disorders are mental illnesses that occur across all genders, cultural backgrounds, and ages. According to the Eating Disorders Association of NZ, eating disorders have the highest death rate of all mental illnesses. Statistically, 1.7% of all New Zealanders – approximately 68,000 people – will have an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime. A mental health survey conducted by the Ministry of Health in 2006 showed that anorexia has a much higher death rate than other eating disorders such as bulimia. One in 100 with anorexia who have sought treatment die each year, and up to 20% die over a 20 year period either as a result of complications from the illness or from suicide. Only 60% fully recover in the end.
Clearly, the extremely high death rate and low recovery rate of eating disorders is very alarming. Studies among the fully recovered population say that serious long term effects can be caused by anorexia even though these people are said to be “fully recovered”. Apart from physical damage, there are also many negative effects on their mental health such as mood swings, anxiety and depression.
So where does this mental illness come from? And why are people becoming more and more obsessed with thinness? Since the 1960s, the cult of thinness started growing in America. Especially among young women, thinness was not just a physical ideal but also a moral judgment—thinness represented a form of virtue, for example, self-control, moderation and restraint. The culture viewed obesity as a mark of ugliness and greed. Reflecting the dominance of American culture, this idea spread around the globe.
The fashion, pharmaceutical and food industries made multimillion-dollar profits from advertising and selling their weight loss products. Even the bookstores started having big sections of weight loss methods, weight loss recipes and so on. In the late 20th century, these diet books had millions in print; today, there are countless more.
As thinness started representing health as well as beauty, magazine publishers created the “slim and flawless” cover girls to further promote this new “physical perfection”. Large scale markets were exploiting women’s insecurities about their looks for the sake of profit.
Females represent approximately 90 percent and males 10 percent of all eating disorders. Why are women especially vulnerable to eating disorders? We are influenced by patriarchal institutions. Patriarchy refers to a system of society in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.
One major manifestation of patriarchy is the primary image of women as objects of decorative worth – good housewives and mothers who ‘belong in the kitchen’. From the conventional family, schools and the media, girls learn from a very young age that the rewards of our society go to those who conform, not simply on the level of overt behaviour, but on the level of biology—if you want to be valued, get thin.
Capitalism motivated producers to create new needs and exploit new markets. The beauty industry not only viewed women’s bodies as controllable and profitable objects but also promoted insecurity by encouraging women to buy beauty products, which represented a woman’s femininity and ability to hold on to her man. Those new markets clearly demonstrate women’s emerging roles as both consumer and commodity during the rise of capitalism.
At the same time, food industries, especially the American junk food industries, put their prices as low as possible to get people to buy junk food. Obesity specialist Dr Thomas Wadden complains that for every dollar spent on anti-obesity research, the junk food industries spend one hundred dollars to get people to keep buying their food.
“We’re being fattened up by the food industry and slimmed down by the twelve-billion-dollar diet and exercise industry. That’s great for the capitalist system, but it’s not so great for the consumer,” Wadden says.
As people started realising the problems of the cult of thinness, variety of self-help and recovery markets flooded the marketplace. However, this meant that the reality of oppression was replaced with the metaphor of addiction. The market thus both created a problem and then posited itself as the solution to that problem.
I am a sufferer of anorexia and bulimia. I started being concerned about my weight when I was 11 years old in China, when half of my female classmates started passing around fashion magazines and talking about losing weight.
At that time, I was 149cm, weighing 36kg, which was on the low end of ‘normal weight’. However, I decided that I was fat and started working on losing weight, because some other girls around me called themselves “fat” and were constantly dieting, even though they were about my size or even slightly smaller.
The media coverage of eating disorders portrayed the image of the sickly anorexic as glamorous and feminine. For many years, I had been hearing things like “if you get fat, you will never get a boyfriend or a job” from my female classmates, friends, and workmates. As I became older, I started wondering why eating disorders only appear among females in general, and began questioning the relations between eating disorders and gender.
I am 21 years old now and still struggle with eating disorders. I have been to the point where I had to be admitted to the hospital due to anorexia and bulimia. But now I have realized that there are relationships between women’s rigid control of their bodies and their lack of power in other areas of life. The concept of feminine identity within patriarchy is fundamentally problematic. I also do not wish to continue being a passive consumer under capitalism.
Commonly offered solutions to eating disorders are personal ones—“get treatment!”, rather than a wider systemic approach— “smash patriarchy!” The feminist Carol Hanisch wrote in her 1968 essay The Personal Is Political: “There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution.” Individualist solutions fail to examine wider issues such as lack of education and a patriarchal system that produces and reproduces gender inequality.
It may yet be possible to dismantle the cult of thinness through social activism. To achieve the purpose of raising public awareness, one very important method in social activism is public education. A critical examination of various features of capitalism and patriarchy, combined with material changes to the structures that enable them, could help to diminish the strictures that define women primarily in terms of our bodies. The rate of eating disorders worldwide would fall when a woman’s body no longer serves as a cage.