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In whose image?

Kamaria Porter | Wednesday, April 12, 2006

When I investigated the following topic, I felt an 800-word piece would not do it justice. In this week’s piece, I will be drawing from research on eating and other related health and psychological disorders in women and men. In two weeks, through interviews and comments from you, I want to try to give a picture of how these issues manifest themselves here, what treatment is available and where we all can do better to address people struggling with eating disorders and body image issues.

Around last Easter season, the media was aflame with coverage of Terri Schiavo. The conversation surrounded whether her feeding tube should be removed in her comatose state. The situation was immediately swept in the dialogue of the “sanctity of life,” which it should have been – however not solely about euthanasia. The media and political focus on the decision of Schiavo’s passing, after being on life assistance since 1990, left out the reason she was in the coma. Schiavo had bulimia nervosa and collapsed and passed out during a purging of a meal.

Eating disorders and negative body image issues should be thought of as a life issue. We are taught we are all made in the image of God, yet people who suffer from eating disorders see themselves as distorted, unworthy and imperfect people. In the mirror they see negative – too fat or too thin. Their actions – eating, exercise, etc. – are taken in response to fear of being overweight, not muscular, not attractive and not the ideal weight. The images of others, media, toys, fashion and conceptions of the perfect body become internalized to drive destructive decisions.

The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders estimate the number afflicted at seven million women and one million men. People of all different backgrounds are affected. Anorexia nervosa involves, according to ANAD, a refusal by the patient to maintain a body weight proportional to height and age. Usually 15 percent below what physicians would consider appropriate, people suffering from anorexia nervosa employ different tactics to slim down out of “an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat.” The tactics, which ANAD list from forced starvation to becoming vegetarian, do not seem as crucial as the psychological motivation behind it – a desire to look different, fear of getting fat and distorted view of one’s weight. The death rate for anorexia is the highest out of all psychiatric illnesses.

Bulimia nervosa involves a cycle of uncontrolled binge eating, depressed feelings motivated by over-fixation on weight and purging food through a variety of methods. Bulimics may be under- or over- weight, yet to them their bodies are not good enough. Both diseases result in serious health and psychological problems that can seep through all areas of one’s life.

Binge eating disorder (BED) involves eating more than would or should in a short period of time. The patient feels out of control when they eat. Usually done in secret, BED sufferers may not delight in the taste of the food. The eating pattern and emotional stress in binging mirrors bulimia, yet BED sufferers do not purge.

An often forgotten disorder, mainly experienced by males, is muscular dysmorphia. Instead of shedding pounds, males with this illness over-exercise, lift weights, control diet and may use steroids to build muscle. Like in anorexia, muscular dysmorphia involves a distorted body image and desire to look a certain way. Men with this illness are obsessed with their body image, however they may not want themselves to be seen in public and hide their bodies in bulky clothes. Going to drastic measures of steroids, their goal is to build unrealistic muscles. Men also can suffer from the other conditions discussed. Men often go unnoticed or underrepresented in eating disorder conversations because these illnesses have been culturally tied to women. We assume men are not concerned with body image, or as a society things like building muscles are interpreted as a good thing. We hold up bulky action stars and consider strength as a neutral good. Yet, people with muscular dysmorphia often see themselves in a mirror as scrawny and weak – not masculine and unattractive.

The causes of these diseases are many – from upbringing to media. Particularly the media – from billboards, magazines, toys, movies and television – shapes how we see the ideal weight for men and women. Slim female celebrities are held as standards of beauty, while chiseled underwear models define how men should look. All these images come down to us and become internalized in the way we see each other and ourselves.

Concerning eating disorders and body image issues, the notion of our bodies as manifestations of the divine is absent in this mirror. We forget ourselves beyond shape, size and weight. Yet, the solution is beyond affirming human dignity. People suffer from these diseases need significant time and support to recover. Studies show even awareness may be unadvisable. Learning the tactics to changing body weight can fuel these disorders. So, I am hoping to hear from you on how we can better attack these issues here at Notre Dame. Your feedback will be the content for my next and final column.

Kamaria Porter is a senior history major and demands whomever stole Michael Rossmann’s scooter to return it. Please give her feedback at kporter@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.