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The Socialization of Eating Disorders

By Loretta F. Kasper, Ph.D.

From Interdisciplinary English, 2nd edition

©1998 McGraw-Hill

            Socialization is an important process in our development.  It enables us to fit into and to function within the society.  However, not everything we learn through socialization has positive results.  Consider eating disorders that result from the preoccupation many people, especially young women, have with body shape and weight.

            Body shape is a key concern for many women.  The culture touts thinness as the ideal, reflecting this ideal in underweight models as depicted in product advertisements.  Slim bodies are considered beautiful and worthy; overweight bodies are not only unhealthy, but are regarded as offensive and disgusting.  Thus, females’ self-concept is often based upon physical characteristics.  In contrast, males’ self-concept is more closely linked to skill and achievement.

            Because of their preoccupation with appearance, young females are much more likely than males to be affected by eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia.  Women account for approximately 90 to 95 percent of reported cases of these eating disorders. 

            While society tells women to maintain slim bodies, young men are encouraged to “bulk up” their bodies.  In fact, thin males bodies are devalued, and young men work to gain weight and/or size.  Thus, males in the American culture are socialized to be muscular and strong, while females are socialized to be skinny and weak.

            The desire to be slim is so deeply ingrained in women that even when they are not overweight, they often perceive themselves as overweight.  For example, research shows that over 60 percent of young women believe that they are overweight; however, only 2 percent actually are.  Further, the majority of young women report that they want to lose weight.

            Interestingly, the female perception of ideal weight is vastly inaccurate.  Women constantly desire and strive to achieve thinner bodies because they believe this will make them more attractive to men.  However, surveys show that young men prefer women who are heavier than the cultural “ideal” depicted in the American mass media.

Influence of the Mass Media

            Unfortunately, the female role models depicted in the mass media reinforce thinness as the norm for women.  The anorectic body type of models in major women’s fashion magazines sets an example of slimness that is unrealistic for most women.  Thus, the mass media provide women with a constant reminder of their inadequacy where weight is concerned, thereby keeping women in a state of insecurity about their appearance. 

            On the other hand, male role models in the mass media are generally portrayed as bigger and stronger.  A larger body is valued positively in males and is representative of males’ greater power and authority in the society at large.

            The mass media is greatly responsible for spreading the message of “thin is in” to women.  From television to magazines, media material directed at women is more concerned with weight and/or appearance than is media material directed at men.  An analysis of most popular women’s as well as men’s magazines indicates significant differences in the contents of articles and advertisements.  Advertisements and articles dealing with diet foods, body shape, or size appear significantly more often in women’s than in men’s magazines.  In fact, articles and advertisements on dieting and weight control appear ten times more often in women’s than in men’s magazines.  Because young women are eager consumers of these magazines and their messages, the strong focus on weight control may have serious consequences, as the late teens are a period of onset for both anorexia and bulimia.

            The mass media further complicates the issue by presenting women with conflicting messages.  While advertisements and articles advocating weight control send the powerful message that the ideal woman must be thin, at the same time, there is a vast amount of material that encourages the consumption and enjoyment of food.  Thus, everyday the media tells women that they should eat and stay slim at the same time.  These conflicting messages reinforce the female preoccupation with weight control and are especially damaging to anorexics and bulimics, for whom each day represents a struggle for perfection.

Cultural Influences

            Our culture socializes women to be concerned about the size of their bodies.  The role model for women is to be visually attractive, and this in turn means being thin.  Thus, the weight concerns and weight loss efforts of women have become the cultural norms. 

            Among females, learning to desire thinness begins at an early age.  In general, females of all ages have inaccurate perceptions of their body shapes, and their distorted body images are similar to those held by individuals with eating disorders.  In fact, dieting is such a strongly ingrained cultural preoccupation that even elderly women fall victim to it.  Unfortunately however, although they spend the better part of their lives striving to be thin, women’s efforts toward the thinness ideal are usually unsuccessful.

Why Diet?

            While diet and weight control are important considerations for maintaining good health, the majority of women who diet do so for cosmetic, rather than health, reasons.  Nowadays dieting is becoming common for even young girls, with 50 percent of nine-year olds and 80 percent of ten- and eleven-year olds reported that they have dieted.  As the preoccupation with weight affects younger and younger girls, it is no wonder that serious dieting is seen as normal behavior in females.

            Compared with young females, young males are much less likely to diet.  Only 10 percent of boys versus 80 percent of girls report having been on a diet before the age of 13.  Additionally, when males do diet, it is generally for health, rather than cosmetic, reasons.

Eating Disorders

            Women who place great emphasis on attractiveness and ideal body size are at greater risk for developing eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia.  Many anorexics and bulimics report a history of dieting which began in their teenage years.  As a result, dieting is considered to be a chief risk factor of eating disorders.

            Gender issues, then, clearly play a significant role in eating disorders.  Anorexia and bulimia are ten times more likely to occur in the female population than in the male population.  These eating disorders are generally the result of extreme preoccupation with achieving a cultural ideal of beauty represented by a thin body.

            Because our culture places such great emphasis on women’s appearance, women often assess their self-worth in terms of how they look.  When their bodies do not live up to the unrealistic ideal set by cultural role models and the mass media, women devalue themselves and redouble their efforts to achieve perfection, often falling victim to eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia.


Directions:  Using the context of the reading passage, and your own words, write a definition for the following vocabulary items.

            1.    touts

            2.    depicted

            3.    susceptible to

            4.    bulk up

            5.    devalued

            6.    ingrained

            7.    inadequacy

            8.    eager

            9.    striving to

            10.  cosmetic

            11.  assess

            12.  redouble


Comprehension Questions

Directions:  Using the information in the reading, and your own words, write an answer to each of the following questions.

            1.    The passage states that, “the culture touts thinness as the ideal.”  What does this mean?

            2.    What message regarding body shape do product advertisements send to women?      

            3.    How do women often respond to these messages?

            4.    Why are young women more likely than young men to develop eating disorders?

            5.    How is the message sent by the media to young men different?

            6.    How does the cultural “norm” affect women’s perceptions of their body weight?

            7.    How are male/female societal roles reflected in the cultural “ideals’ for body shape?

            8.    In what way(s) does the mass media reinforce women’s preoccupation with weight?

            9.    What is the conflicting message sent by the mass media to women?  What are the dangers of this conflicting message?

            10.  Why is dieting considered to be a chief risk factor for eating disorders?

            11. Although the reading focuses on the negative aspects of dieting, it implies that under certain circumstances dieting can also have positive effects.   When would dieting be a desirable thing to do?

            12.  What is the relationship between gender issues and eating disorders implied in the final paragraph of the reading?


Essay Question

Directions:  Using the information presented in the text, write a well-organized essay on the following topic:

            The reading states that cultural influences play a role in the development of eating disorders.  In this unit on sociology, you have learned about four critical agents of socialization: the family, the school, the peer group, and the mass media.  The reading discusses the influence of the mass media in encouraging women to pursue the cultural ideal of beauty.  What part do the family, the school, and the peer group play in this process?  How can any or all of these agents of socialization work to counteract or to reinforce the influences of the mass media?

            Write an essay in which you discuss how the family, the school, and/or the peer group can either reinforce or counteract the influences of the mass media with regard to weight and self-image.  Provide specific examples drawn from your personal experiences