Trigger warning: This article will cover eating disorders. Please feel free to skip this one if you are triggered by topics surrounding food and eating difficulties.
Eating disorders, or EDs as they are commonly abbreviated, are deadly mental illnesses. They have one of the highest mortality rates among psychiatric disorders. Yet, they are still downplayed, stigmatised and glamourised by our society.
What exactly is an eating disorder?
Eating disorders are extremely complicated and multifaceted. First and foremost, they are a mental illness. To manage your own feelings, you turn to food – whether that’s through its limitation or overindulgence. While there is no definite cause for EDs, we do know that there are certain factors that can increase the likelihood of you getting one.
Most experts state that an eating disorder is caused by a combination of psychological, environmental and genetic factors. For example, a psychological factor could be perfectionism, having an obsessive need for control or depression and anxiety. Environmental factors concern your social environment. So, bullying at school, the all-encompassing presence of social and popular media and an aesthetic-focused job (which is often present in sports) can all contribute to the development of an ED. Lastly, there is genetics. In fact, it has been proven that a family history of eating disorders, depression or substance abuse can trigger eating disorders.
"Up to 3.4 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder, 25% of them being male"
Some might assume that the complexity of the mental illness might lessen its occurrence. That’s sadly wrong. According to Priory Group, an independent provider of behavioural care in the UK, eating disorders are widespread. Between 1.25 and 3.4 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder, 25% of them being male. The most common eating disorders actually fall into Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED). This category makes up 50% of all eating disorders and describes patients who do not fit the classic descriptions of more commonly known disorders like Binge Eating Disorder, Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa.
The second most common ED is Bulimia Nervosa, where people have recurrent episodes of overeating followed by compensatory behaviour like purging or vomiting. Lastly, there is Anorexia Nervosa. It is often described as a relentless drive for thinness, which is achieved by under-consuming calories, overexercising or a combination of both.
The problem with eating disorders, especially those focusing on a thin aesthetic is the popularisation and glamorisation of them. Especially on social media and in popular media, thin bodies are celebrated and romanticised.
The romanticisation and stigmatisation of eating disorders
Wherever you look, thin bodies are idealised. Of course, eating disorders don’t only occur in people with thin bodies. However, our society makes us believe that this is the ideal we should strive for. Thus, popular media and social media is full of people with nearly unobtainable bodies (sometimes actually unobtainable because of the use of Photoshop). Many TV shows, such as Gossip Girl or Skins, only show white, popular, conventionally attractive teenage girls have eating disorders.
This not only leads to the romanticisation of EDs but also to a stigmatisation of bodies who do not fit the ‘standard’. For example, people of colour, larger-bodied people and those within the LGBTQ+ community don’t get represented, which makes their experiences invisible in the eyes of many. The exclusion of these people in ED discourse can have serious repercussions; they might refrain from seeking help due to not being the ‘eating disorder target group’.
However, there is not only the problem of the popularisation and glamorisation of the Western ideal of femininity in media, but also the access to damaging content. Indeed, on websites such as Tumblr you will quickly stumble across so-called ‘pro-ana’ and ‘pro-mia’ content.
Pro-ana stands for pro anorexia and pro-mia for pro bulimia. These terms refer to content that promotes harmful behaviour and eating disorders. This kind of content, more commonly referred to as ‘thinspiration’, endorses eating disorders and paints them in a positive light. Sites like this are popular because they give affected people a sense of community, a place where they feel understood. Of course, this is normal human behaviour. A sense of belonging is what we all crave. This is exactly where pro-recovery platforms come in. Institutions like Beating Eating Disorders UK emulate the feeling of safety and understanding while creating a safe space for affected people.
While efforts like the one by Beating Eating Disorders UK are vital for people suffering from eating disorders, they sadly cannot counteract the societal drive for thinness. This thinness nowadays is paired with an obsessive desire to be lean, adding just another layer onto the iceberg of EDs.
Athleisure or Athlanger?
As the word athleisure suggests, it is nowadays ‘normal’ to be athletic in your free time. In fact, it is not only normal but expected. Indeed, over the last few years the magazine covers have changed from the Twiggy-like aesthetic of the 60s to a leaner one. Muscle definition is in – for both men and women.
An article in The Journal of Treatment & Prevention states that ‘magazine content has documented an increase in the frequency of images showing semi-naked men over the past 30 years. This finding, paired with the increase in popular culture's intense focus on muscularity, has had a major influence on current male body image ideals (…)’. This also perfectly illuminates that the aesthetic of the muscular body affects men more than women.
In fact, recently two new types of eating disorders surfaced: Muscle Dysmorphia and Anorexia Athletica. Muscle Dysmorphia is not a full-fleshed ED but a type of body dysmorphia where an individual is worried about the size and tensity of muscles in their body (for example, not being ‘muscular enough’). People with Muscle Dysmorphia believe that their body is too small and that they have to build more muscle. This then often results in eating disorders, since the desire to ‘bulk up’ – as it is referred to in the fitness community – often comes with obsessive calorie and macronutrient counting. Anorexia Athletica, however, definitely is an eating disorder. It is characterised by the fear of weight gain, a restricted caloric intake and excessive or compulsive exercise. This condition falls into the broad category of OSFEDs.
As can be noted by the names Muscle Dysmorphia and Anorexia Athletica, both of them are particularly prevalent in athletes. In fact, eating disorders are particularly widespread in sports that pursue a certain aesthetic (like dance and gymnastics), have weight categorisations (like wrestling) or that are endurance sports where the goal is the be slim and light. A large study of elite athletes in 2004 found that the prevalence of eating disorders in athletes is even higher than in ‘average’ people. 13.5%, as opposed to 9% in the general population, of athletes were diagnosed with eating disorders. While female athletes still showed the highest rate - as with eating disorders in general – with 20.1%, the male rate (7.7%) was considerably higher than within average men.
The defeat of an aesthetic-focused society
This all just re-emphasises how much our society focuses on body aesthetics. It really shouldn’t come to anyone’s surprise that people increasingly develop eating disorders.
There needs to be a lot more done for eating disorder prevention and the change needs to be systemic. Popular and social media needs to be more inclusive and also represent bodies which do not fit the ‘standard description’ of Western femininity. Moreover, social media platforms need to get better at monitoring harmful content such as pro-ana and pro-mia posts and direct people who engage in it to pro-recovery sites. The all-encompassing focus on aesthetics needs to be defeated in every part of life but especially in sports. Shouldn’t your performance as an athlete be more important than the shape of your body?
Once again, the change needs to be systemic. However, if we all unite our efforts while trying to initiate change through individual action at the same time, we will eventually be able to defeat the reign of our aesthetic-focused society.
If you are affected by any of the issues mentioned in this article, or would like to find out more, you can find support through the following organisations:
For more resources on gender equality and differences, head to our Gender Issues & Feminism section.
Edited by Olena Strzelbicka
Researched by Larisa Cuturean