Eating disorders in young women

Issue 

The fact that we live in a sexist society was brought home in July by the publication of a study titled Youth Cultures of Eating, which found that one in five women suffer from an eating disorder. The study, funded by the Australian Research Council, compared data collected in 2000 and 2006 from interviews with 8950 young people.

While eating disorders are not new, this study indicates the problem is increasing. It found that 18% of girls surveyed in 2006 had starved themselves for at least two days, up from 9.9% in 2000. The study also found that 11% used vomiting for weight loss, up from 3.4%, and 8% smoked to suppress their appetite, up from 2.4%.

One of the researchers, Dr Jenny O'Dea, associate professor in nutrition and health education at the University of Sydney, told ABC Radio on July 20, "I think the crux of that sort of poor body image, that sort of desperate need to try to achieve the perfect body, comes from this idea that, you know, to be a better person, to have a successful life, to be happy, I have to lose weight."

It's not young women who are the problem here. Rather, it is the billions of dollars spent on fabricating a very particular (and unrealistic) image of how women "should" look. Women are confronted with that image everywhere: in shop-window displays, in movies and magazines, on television and billboards (according to a current beer ad, women should not even have heads!).

Among of the most popular TV shows recently have been Extreme Makeover and The Biggest Loser, which averaged more than a million viewers in Australia for the "elimination" and "weigh in" episodes.

Why does so much energy go into creating an image of womanhood that causes so much suffering? Because it creates billions of dollars in profits for big business as women spend their hard-earned money on diet products, cosmetics and cosmetic surgery in an attempt to overcome feelings of inadequacy about the way they look.

These billion-dollar industries are mutually reinforcing. Where would the weight-loss industry be without shows like The Biggest Loser? And Extreme Makeover is little more than an extended advertisement for the cosmetic surgery industry. The "beauty myth" is so all-pervasive in popular culture that it is a wonder that not more young women have eating disorders.

The best antidote is to be a feminist. Resistance in Melbourne recently produced a zine on feminism called Fuck Yeah Feminism: Because Women's Liberation is an Unfinished Struggle. To get a copy, email <melbourne@resistance.org.au>.

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