What is anorexia?
Anorexia - also referred to as anorexia nervosa, is an eating disorder and a metabolic condition that makes a person obsess over their body weight, and what they are eating. Self-starvation is the method used to achieve “excessive weight loss and excessive thinness.” Within this disorder, thinness is equated to self-worth, where “the thinner you are, the more value you have, so you can never be thin enough,” and this mindset creates psychological problems on top of physical complications. Anorexia is more commonly seen among women than among men, but both can develop this disorder. Genetics has also proved to be a part of the disorder, but it isn’t fully clear how anorexia starts. However, certain factors can contribute to the development of this disorder. For example, having a close relative with an eating disorder could lead to an increased risk of obtaining anorexia. It is also seen in a lot of people who work in industries that emphasize a certain physique such as athletes, dancers, models, etc.
How does anorexia affect the body?
Physical, psychological, and emotional problems can stem from this disorder. Some physical symptoms resulting from starvation include but are not limited to:
● An unusually slow heart rate
● Stomach cramps
● Problems falling asleep and staying asleep
● A drop in blood pressure (which can cause fainting or dizziness)
● An abnormal blood count
● The risk of heart failure increasing
● The risk of osteopenia and osteoporosis (bone loss)
● Irregular periods in women
● Dry hair and skin
● Tiredness and dizziness (as well as fainting)
These physical problems can prove deadly when left untreated. On top of these problems, there are also psychological and emotional complications that may arise. Some of them include:
● Developing a habit of lying about eating patterns
● Being more irritable/annoyed
● Keeping away from social events and activities
● Decreased libido (sexual desire)
● Obsessive thoughts about gaining and losing weight
● Insecurities about body image
● Anxiety and depression
● Becoming apathetic (lack of interest, enthusiasm, and concern)
● Suicidal thoughts
Young children may also get diagnosed with eating disorders such as anorexia. Eating disorders in young children have increased in recent years, so it is important to look out for any warning signs in order to tackle the problem earlier on. Eating disorders among young children are dangerous due to them having a lack of nutrition when they are still going through a major growth spurt. It’s important to know the warning signs for children, which may be stomach aches as well as tantrums or a strong dislike toward certain textures and tastes. If your child is experiencing extreme weight loss, a delay in puberty, digestion problems, or hair loss, they might be showing later symptoms of the disorder. It is always better to go to a doctor sooner than later.
Proper diagnosis and treatment are needed in order to combat the health problems that may come with anorexia. Getting diagnosed by a licensed mental health professional is always recommended, and they may or may not prescribe medication for depression and anxious thoughts. Therapy is a form of treatment that can help to cope with stress and any other concerns/conflicts that may arise. Stress levels can also be improved through activities such as yoga, meditation, and mindfulness. These forms of therapy and healing will not take a few sessions, however. An eating disorder is lifelong, and the treatments should be utilized for as long as possible to maintain both physical and mental health.
The most important thing to do in order to combat the symptoms of anorexia is to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. This also goes for children, as their physical and nutritional health is in a vital stage. Parents can try different foods and set a healthy eating regimen for young children to help them get back on track. It is also recommended to remain confident and empower the child going through anorexia in order to help them feel that they are in a safe space.
If self-starvation was allowed to run its course, the body would slow down its processes in order to conserve energy, which can lead to intense health problems such as the physical, mental, and psychological complications listed above.
What are the Western ideas of beauty?
The Western idea of beauty has significantly changed as time has passed. Attractiveness, in all forms of media, has always meant holding a certain weight and maintaining a certain figure for both men and women. The “thin ideal” is a newer concept in Western culture that praises women who are below their average weight, as they are seen as “more appealing to the opposite sex.” As physical appearance is mostly seen affecting women’s self-esteem rather than men’s, women are more prone to associate being average or overweight with negativity. Most people with anorexia are not aware when they are a healthy weight, focusing more on the way they look in the mirror. This can also lead to psychological problems when being average or overweight is associated with attractiveness. This concept of thinness has been pushed on women, leading to an increased rate of dissatisfaction with body image, and a pressure to meet the needs of society rather than the self. Men are less likely to develop anorexia because they are taught to become muscular and strong in order to be attractive. This includes bulking up and eating more to help muscle growth.
Body image can also become more difficult with age. The pressure to look both thin and young plays into this. Older women can feel dissatisfaction with the way they look when they get older, due to natural signs of aging such as wrinkles. This can lead to a sense of denial. Women will normalize eating disorders in order to obtain a feeling and look of youth. Not only does this distort what’s normal from what is healthy, but it can also trigger a strong eating disorder when they are more prone to health problems.
Western culture vs other cultures
It is shown that outside of the United States, eating disorders are much rarer, but are now showing signs of increasing. This is actually due to different regions of the world adopting the Western culture, and with it the concept of thinness. In many other cultures, the opposite applies. The image of plumpness is considered most desirable, often “associated with prosperity, fertility, success, and economic security.” It is also stated that “non-western women, when placed in a Western culture, soon lose the ideal of feminine beauty held in their own culture and internalize the thin ideal.” Recently, Japan has been showing increases in eating disorders as they adopt more Western culture into their society. This shows that Western culture, specifically, supports thinness compared to other regions within the world.
The rise of social media and anorexia
As technology has risen, so have different social media platforms. Advertisements have always depicted a sexualized version of men and women to push products. In magazines, we see thin women holding up a product, often dressed in something to accentuate their feminine features. The same goes for men, where masculine features are accentuated to make them look more gruff and manly. Bodyweight and sexuality are highly promoted within Western media. In a study done with Playboy magazines over two decades, there was a drop in body weight and measurements, “with 70% of the women being underweight and greater than 75% of the women were less than 85% of their ideal body weight.”
Social media has become a much more accessible version of this, as magazines are not as common in the average household. We can easily get apps on our phones. Most people will carry their phones with them everywhere, and this means that there is constant exposure to pictures and text that promotes a certain body image or description. It is shown that young children and adolescents spent “an average of 6 to 7 h” viewing various forms of media, and this number is only growing. Social comparisons are much more common with the rise of social media, as well as personal body surveillance. This is the act of putting too much focus on one’s physical appearance, which can lead to unhappiness about weight.
Younger generations are becoming the main victims of this wave of body dissatisfaction due to their increased use of social media. It is shown that “for young and emerging adults, Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook are the most popular SNS in the United States,” with SNS standing for social networking sites. Studies have shown that exposure to media can often lead to a “drive for thinness, body dissatisfaction, and ineffectiveness in women, and endorsement of personal thinness and dieting in men”. Young girls want to weigh less while young boys want to become more muscular and bulkier. Young girls also want to look older than they are, practicing makeup and making alterations to their bodies in order to achieve a certain ‘adult’ look.
Now, most social media platforms also contain some kind of filter that changes how the body and face appear, which leads to users feeling a large sense of dissatisfaction once that filter is gone. The most vulnerable group of individuals for anorexia is young girls. They are more sensitive to low self-esteem during puberty when perfectionism and high achievement feel the most rewarding. There can be a feeling of control for these young teens when they refuse the normal demands their bodies make for food.
This begs the question: Is there any way to alter media in order to make the younger generation less vulnerable to the messages and images being showcased in mass media? More advertisements can be seen promoting natural beauty and health, but there is much more that can be done in order to lead children toward the path of developing healthy habits as they grow and become young adults. The most important thing to do would be to educate young children about the enhancements and photoshop altering methods used within advertisements. This can help children associate the excessive thinness that they are seeing with being unnatural. It is shown that not every young person is dissatisfied with their body after being exposed to certain images and media, but that is when they are taught to understand self-image. It is shown that there are classes in Canadian colleges that emphasize the importance of both “media activism and media advocacy.”. It is also stated that “parents can be powerful advocates for the promotion of health and healthy behaviours by way of the media,” which definitely holds some truth.
So what is the true answer?
Anorexic qualities have been pushed onto people, especially women, in Western culture. This can be seen in day-to-day life with social media and advertisements that emphasize the idea of thinness and how it equates to attractiveness and beauty. Anorexia is also much more prominent in Western culture than other cultures, driving home the point that our society focuses on body image much more than other regions. What is important is staying healthy and learning to love your figure even if it doesn’t look exactly like the models we see on the internet. Teaching children early on the effects that mass media can have is also important, as they are not yet in a stage to tell if what they are seeing is what’s real.
Author: Kayjah Taylor
Editor: Sophia Galvez
Health scientist: Mercedes M.
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