By Margaret Taylor
The mental health field is routinely silent towards cultural factors that contribute to eating disorders in the United States. The field that sees the dire effects and consequences that eating disorders have on women and men every year has yet to weigh in on the continued flawed and dangerous body and beauty standards in American media. While eating disorders effect both men and women, the effects are seen largely in women as approximately 5 to 15 % of those suffering are male (The National Institute of Mental Health: “Eating Disorders: Facts About Eating Disorders and the Search for Solutions.” Pub No. 01-4901). The ripples of cultural standards of beauty and body image are seen in eating disorders among women, particularly those between the ages of 16-25.
Here is what’s at stake as the mental health field continues to remain silent.
Eating disorders continue to have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness (American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 152 (7), July 1995, p. 1073-1074, Sullivan, Patrick F.) It is surveyed that 25% of college aged women reported binging and purging as a weight loss or management strategy. (The Renfrew Center Foundation for Eating Disorders, “Eating Disorders 101 Guide: A Summary of Issues, Statistics and Resources,” 2003).
Also, 20% of people with anorexia will die prematurely from complications related to their eating disorder (The Renfrew Center Foundation for Eating Disorders, “Eating Disorders 101 Guide: A Summary of Issues, Statistics and Resources,” published September 2002, revised October 2003). These are startling statistics, and unfortunately they are not new. Alternative and powerful tactics must be taken to provide a new approach within treatment and also outside of treatment in the discourse on media and depictions of body.
Within treatment centers, the focus is highly individualized to the client focusing on personal stories and trauma. This is helpful and necessary to recovery but the field itself has failed to address larger conversations that infiltrate one’s mind from the moment they open up their mother’s beauty magazine or turn on the television. It’s the stories of mothers finding their nine year old daughter’s list of a diet in purple crayon scribble, the group of 6 grade girls exchanging laxatives in the bathroom during lunch, or the obsession with the “thigh gap.” These incidents are not uncommon and have yet to be addressed. They are the results of the ever-present yet unrealistic bar for beauty in this country. These are the conversations that need to be addressed from the field of people who deal with them on the front line. I want to hear from the professionals who see the sick individual walk through their doors everyday on the edge of heart failure gripped with an illness that’s fueled by misconceptions and misrepresentations of the body and health in American media. The missing voice in eating disorder treatment is the professional who sees the violent consequences of a world who won’t champion healthy body image or even take part in the conversation.