It is commonly assumed in popular culture that the “thin ideal” is responsible for causing Anorexia Nervosa (AN). In other words, girls develop AN by embarking on an extreme diet in attempt to look like their favorite celebrity, and if we just showed “real women” in the media, AN would become obsolete.
There is no doubt that the ideal female body is much too thin and unrealistic for the vast majority of people. And yes, the majority of girls and women, as well as many men, aspire to be thinner and attempt to diet in order to lose weight. But the thin ideal plays a different, and more peripheral, role in AN than most people think.
The thin ideal does not cause AN. Contrary to popular belief, AN has existed for centuries, long before television or internet or fashion magazines, long before thinness was associated with attractiveness or health. Girls do not “become anorexic” in order to look like supermodels. Many girls have tried to “become anorexic” and failed. You cannot choose to “become anorexic” any more than you can choose to become schizophrenic or autistic or epileptic. It is impossible to develop AN if you do not have the genes for it. Dieting, while ubiquitous in American society, does not cause AN. In fact, it’s quite the opposite – dieting reliably predicts weight gain. At least 95% of dieters regain all of the weight they lost within a few years, and research suggests that the rise in obesity in recent decades is at least in part the result of repeated dieting.
Although the thin ideal does not cause AN, it impacts AN in other very important ways:
• It delays diagnosis and treatment.
Since the population is so consumed with dieting and losing weight, children and adolescents in the early stages of AN are usually praised for their willpower around food, for their strenuous exercise regimens, for their avoidance of “fatty foods.” Parents, friends, and even pediatricians will commend kids for losing weight and compliment them on their slim appearance. In their own zest for thinness, adults seem to have forgotten that it is neither normal nor healthy for a child or teenager to lose weight. In this “thin is in” culture, a patient’s AN is often not recognized until he or she is emaciated and visibly ill. By that point, the illness is very entrenched and treatment is much more difficult. It would save so much time, energy, suffering, and money (yes, money) to diagnose and treat AN at its first manifestation, before it spirals into dramatic weight loss.
• It prevents full recovery.
Clinicians often set a target weight range that is much too low for full physical and mental recovery. Eating disorder thoughts and behaviors, as well as the associated anxiety and depression, begin to melt away only when a patient has reached and maintained his or her unique optimal weight range.
Clinicians themselves are often so afraid of weight gain that they settle for, or even worse, actively encourage patients to stop at, a “low normal” weight. We seem to have forgotten that there is a natural diversity of body sizes. Some people are genetically built to be thin; others to be average; some to be muscular; some to be stocky; some to be large-framed. Each individual is optimally healthy at his or her ideal weight range.
Recovering patients who have reached that magical BMI of 18.5 (at which they are no longer considered “underweight” on the charts) are often complimented for their thinness, which is considered desirable and attractive and healthy. The thin ideal feeds into patients’ disordered belief that they should maintain a “low normal” weight even if their own body is healthiest at a higher weight.
• It exacerbates patients’ suffering.
The ever-present chatter about diets and calories and weight loss and exercise programs creates an unhealthy environment for recovery. When the vast majority of the population is trying to eat less, exercise more, and lose weight, it exacerbates the suffering of a patient who has received doctor’s orders to eat more, exercise less, and gain weight despite her compulsive urges to do the opposite. Patients who do achieve their healthy weight goals tend to see themselves as colossal failures – unattractive, ugly, and disgusting – as they have moved away from the societal ideal that everyone else is striving to achieve.
• It trivializes the illness.
As a result of our society’s thin ideal, patients with anorexia are often viewed as vain, superficial, spoiled rich girls who starve themselves for the sake of beauty and fashion. Anyone who has witnessed AN up close will testify that nothing could be further from the truth.
• It creates an environment of fear and guilt around food and fat.
Most people these days make moral judgments of themselves and others based on dietary intake and body size. How many times have you heard people say things like: “I was so bad last night – I had 2 cookies” or “I was really good yesterday – I only had a salad for lunch.” Extreme fear of eating and gaining weight is a symptom of AN. So is extreme guilt after eating, or when not exercising. This societal moralizing around food and weight validates the symptoms of AN in its early stages and triggers their recurrence when a patient is trying to recover.
If our society’s ideal female body were a plump, voluptuous figure, would AN still exist? Absolutely. Would the incidence of AN be reduced? Probably not. But I believe that patients would be diagnosed sooner, treated earlier, restored to higher (and healthier) weights, and feel somewhat less triggered to restrict after remission. Perhaps the public would also be more apt to see AN for what it really is: an agonizing, life-threatening mental illness that destroys a person’s physical and emotional health. The broader context in which AN occurs would be less validating of the anorexic symptoms and more supportive of full recovery.