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What About Eating Disorders?

After posting the blog about my personal crusade to debunk the feminist critique of beauty and fashion, I decided this was a great chance to answer some questions people thought I couldn’t answer back in 2005.

When the book came out, readers were impressed.  Many women said they were glad to see the refutation because they thought the critique was rubbish and were tired of hearing it.  The historical research was more thorough than anyone had ever done on the topic, so I think even the unconvinced found it hard to sustain an argument.  The only implicitly negative responses were two questions that were hurled at me over and over:

What about the eating disorder problem?  

What about the effects on our self-esteem?

Those who asked obviously believed I had either not thought about these issues or was trying to hide from them.  They were wrong.

These are not historical questions, but instead are issues that have to be addressed by psychological experiments or social research.  I had gone to the trouble of digging into those literatures to be able to answer the questions–because I knew they would come. The problem was that a big review of social science literature plumped down in the middle of a historical narrative just doesn’t read right. And the book was running long. So, my publishers wanted to take out the social science passages, which ran about 15 pages.  I reluctantly agreed and I have regretted it ever since.

Another response was that I had imagined the entire critique: "Nobody ever said you couldn't be feminist and wear lipstick." I would just stare and think, "You have been living under a rock."

Now, at long last, I have a good opening and a platform from which to answer. The pages about eating disorders that were cut from Fresh Lipstick are downloadable (complete with footnotes) here.  Since I assume many readers won’t care to go through all the statistical discussions and so forth, let me summarize the situation on eating disorders in this post.  (Then, tomorrow or the next day, I will address the self-image question.)

First, let me say that eating disorders are a serious health threat to those who have them. The question is not whether anorexia or bulimia are real diseases.  The question is whether they are caused by exposure to fashion ads in the same way that, say, lung cancer is caused by cigarettes.

When you first dip into the research literature that tries to prove media effects on eating disorders, what surprises you most is that nearly every article begins with the observation that, despite the widespread belief in the proposition, armies of social scientists have never been able to demonstrate the effect.  Fifty years of scholarly effort, having tried every possible way to measure the relationship between these images and the disorders, have shown neither causality nor correlation.

By now, many know that anorexia and bulimia affect a very small percentage of the population–estimates vary, but it is certainly less than 5%, maybe 1%.  Importantly, this small group of females uses media images differently than most of us do.  That is, they actually do try to emulate the images and are disturbed that they cannot do so.  But the truth is that most of us see the pictures, shrug, and go on about our business, apparently unaffected.  Oh, we may be inspired to try a new hairstyle or even think about buying a new fragrance, but we do not go home and contemplate suicide because we don’t look like cover girls.  We just don’t.  Most of us are sturdier than that, most of the time.

Studies do show a connection between exaggerated sensitivity to the images and a battery of problems with self-control and self-esteem.  However, the evidence does not at all suggest that the images cause the problems with self-control and self-esteem.  Instead, there are pre-existing social and, very likely, biological conditions within this small group that make them respond to the images in a way that is radically different from what is normal.

Eating disorders are concentrated in a very small segment of the US population that is overwhelmingly white and upscale. The bigger problem, runaway obesity, suggests that fashion ads do not, in fact, make us eat less.

There are further distinctions about the affected population worthy of note.  First, eating disorders are starkly middle- and upper-class, white phenomena.  Since we are all exposed to fashion ads even while standing at the bus stop, we would expect the disorders to be evenly distributed among the population, in addition to appearing at much higher levels of incidence than they do, if the pictures were the primary cause for the health issue. Second–and this is really important–eating disorders tend to have a family lineage. That is, eating disorders occur more often within some families where the behavior has already been present, much like genetically-based diseases and other consumption disorders, such as alcoholism.  There have even been the “identical twins separated at birth” kind of studies that show the propensity will manifest, even if the conditions of nurture are different.

Knowing the concentration and demographic pattern of eating disorders helps us to better explain a fundamental contradiction of the beauty critique’s argument. They tell you that women, especially the young, are starving themselves trying to “conform to the single ideal of beauty” presented by fashion ads.  This self-starvation is presented as a prevalent problem, a public health danger, something that is on the rise, and therefore a cause for urgent concern.  But the critique also asks you to believe that fashion advertisers are malevolent because women, on average, are much larger than the pictures in the ads, so the images are “unrealistic.”  But these are mutually exclusive conditions: there cannot be a widespread starving problem and also an average size 14 among women. The only way to resolve the contradiction is to understand that the fashion ads have an acute effect on a small group with a serious, but antecedent condition while the main population is actually overweight.

Even in the 1990s, the bigger public health problem was not self-induced starvation but a rising tide of obesity.  Though critics tried to make the case that an epidemic of anorexia was ranging through the population of teenage girls, the truth was that the average weight of the American population had been increasing by 10 pounds every decade for quite a long time. The gains were especially pronounced among the young, leading to the rise of juvenile diabetes and other health threats related to overeating. If fashion advertising, which has also escalated in frequency of public exposure in the past century, had the kind of cigarettes-to-cancer effect that is claimed, we would not have an obesity problem.

A whole generation grew up thinking being a feminist meant learning to love your midsection. We need to stop this navel-gazing and raise our sights.

Today, we understand better that obesity is the disease that haunts the developed nations.  Unlike eating disorders, it affects most of the population. Obesity is more pronounced among minorities and the poor, but overall it is a “rich world” problem.

When we look at the eating problem from a global perspective, we can see that, far and away, the bigger threat to health, worldwide, is hunger.  Not hunger induced by reading too much Vogue, but the starvation that comes from being too poor to get food.  This kind of hunger affects hundreds of millions of people every day.

One of the best ways to deal with this problem is–you guessed it–to economically empower the women in rural areas of developing nations.  The UN estimates that if women had the same access to credit, technology, land, and education as men, food production would go up, thereby reducing the number of hungry people by about 150 million. Such measures might be especially effective because females are disproportionately represented among the hungry:  it is one of the conditions of their subordination that they are fed less.

Therefore, I strongly disagree with the slogan that says “fat is a feminist issue” and the accompanying contention that Western women should eat as much as they like and should be admired for their size.  Elites throughout history have flaunted their better access to food supplies by showcasing fat women. It is inappropriate under the circumstances to engage in that kind of thing.

My belief is that nobody has the right to overeat when so many are starving.  Women in the West may have the means to overeat–or the desire or the privilege or the opportunity–but they do not have the right.  Until the women of the world are freed from true starvation, the hunger of poverty should be a feminist issue, not the fat of overprivilege.

To get to the self-esteem stuff, you can click here


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