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Eating Disorders: A Feminist Issue

Tara Eastland

What is a feminist approach to understanding eating disorders? Not all feminists have the same understanding of eating disorders. There are many different theories that are prevalent in feminist literature today. This web page will explore some of the different feminist perspectives about the cause of eating disorders in our culture.

Power Control and obedience



Cultural Ideal

Empirical Literature

Critique & Summary


Power Control and obedience

In her book Unbearable Weight, Susan Bordo (1993) makes the argument that the fear of women's fat is actually a fear of women's power. Thus, as women gain power in society, their bodies dwindle and suffer. She states that "female hunger--for public power, for independence, for sexual gratification-- [must] be contained, and the public space that women be allowed to take up be circumscribed, limited... On the body of the anorexic woman such rules are grimly and deeply etched" (Bordo, 171).

Naomi Wolf (1991) has a similar explanation of the origin of eating disorders in her bestseller The Beauty Myth. She states: "a cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty but an obsession about female obedience" (Wolf, 187). Women who remain thin are being obedient; it is another way for patriarchy to control women. "If women cannot eat the same food as men, we cannot experience equal status in the community" (Wolf, 189).


Sexuality is another issue that feminist Naomi Wolf explores in an effort to understand the prevalence of eating disorders among women. "Fat is sexual in women. . . to ask women to become unnaturally thin is to ask them to relinquish their sexuality" (Wolf, 193). Women who develop eating disorders, especially anorexia, are denying their sexuality and natural female body.

Bordo (1993) explains this phenomena as a rejection of the patriarchal mold for females. "Disidentification with the maternal body, far form symbolizing reduced power, may symbolize freedom from a reproductive destiny and a construction of femininity seen as constraining and suffocating" (209).

However, Wolf explains that "the anorexic may begin her journey defiant, but from the point of view of a male dominated society, she ends up as the perfect woman. She is weak, sexless, and voiceless, and can only with difficulty focus on a world beyond her plate" (Wolf, 197). overall, most feminists agree that the female ideal of beauty and sexuality has a detrimental effect on many women that can result in body image distortion and eating disorders.


Mary Briody Mahowald recognizes that many feminists believe that eating disorders among women stems from a "rebellion against patriarchy through rejection of one's own sexuality" ( Mahowald, 299). However, she also points out theories that focus more on sexism and class discrimination.

Some liberal feminists believe that sexism causes anorexia and other eating disorders. In other words, gender stereotyping creates an "unequal burden on women" to maintain an ideal feminine appearance or behavior. The fitness and diet industry makes millions of dollars a year selling such an ideal to women. Radical feminists believe that women are being exploited because men profit from the thin ideal. Thus, feminists want to resist the thin ideal. As Susie Orbach mentions in her book Fat is a Feminist Issue, a new ideal of women is needed that embraces all shapes and sizes. Mahowild's solution is a bit more radical. She believes that just as physicians have spoken out against cigarette ads, there should be a cry against "gender socialization as a cause of anorexia nervosa... Therapeutic effectiveness calls for efforts to limit the health threatening effects of gender stereotypes" (Mahowild, 302).

Cultural Ideal

Feminist Bonnie Morris has an another explanation for the development of eating disorders among women. In her article, she explains that women develop strict eating regimens that turn into eating disorders because "that behavior pattern is regarded as an achievement not only by the anorexic but by her peer group" (Morris, 90). Why is such behavior regarded as an achievement? Morris believes that once a woman achieves the cultural ideal of beauty she gains a certain status. "The association of a woman's status and character with her thinness sets up an underweight physique as an ideal, producing perpetual discontent in the eyes and minds of millions of young women" (Morris, 95).

Who decides the ideal? The media and fashion industry dictate the cultural ideal by posing anorexic looking models on the covers of magazines and in prime time television shows. As Ellen Goodman states, "'Fashion takes an editorial stand on the proper body size as if it were their domestic policy platform" (Tennessean; 6(11[96). Morris reaffirms this understanding and believes the problem will not disappear unless the cultural ideal is changed.

"The development of specific clinics and therapies may suffice in a percentage of cases to cope with the results of the disease, but initiation by countless adolescents will continue to soar a long as Western society upholds the image of the underweight woman as glamorous and socially acceptable" (Morris, 9 7).

Empirical Literature

There are some empirical studies that try to test the validity of several of the claims made by feminists in reference to the origin of eating disorders. Snyder and Hasbrouk (1996) found that disturbed eating habits were more common among college women who were traditional or concerned with sexist roles. Women who identify with feminist values were not as likely to have a distorted body image. This finding confirms the feminist belief that sexist roles in patriarchal society cause women to have a lower self esteem and a loss of control resulting in eating disorders.

Martz et al. (1995) found that women with feminine gender role stress are at a higher risk for eating disorders and body image problems. Feminine gender role stress is regarded as "higher than usual levels of stress as a result of rigid adherence to the traditional feminine gender role" (Martz et al., 493). This study also confirms the feminist belief that women who try to achieve the cultural ideals, of feminine behavior and beauty are more susceptible to acquiring an eating disorder.

Frederick and Grow (1996) did a study which looked at how autonomy was related to self-esteem and the development of eating disorders. Autonomy can be understood as freedom or being in control. The study found that "underlying deficits in autonomy were associated with reduced self-esteem, which, in turn, was related to eating disordered attitudes and behaviors" (Frederick &Grow, 224).

Critique and Summary

Overall, many empirical studies confirm feminist theories on eating disorders. Although there are no definite direct causes for eating disorders, it can be confirmed the gender role stereotypes do have some influence on the problem considering the fact that 90% of the cases of eating disorders are women (Morris, 1985).

Although most feminist understanding of eating disorders is legitimate and profound, there is a little bit of a mystery as to why all women are exposed to similar pressures and ideals but only a few develop eating disorders. Many feminist theories are very general and vague ignoring alternative female experiences. Feminists should explore various experiences and socia I pressures based on race and class not just gender in order to strengthen many of the claims made. For example, do homosexual women develop eating disorders? If not, that might strengthen the feminine gender role stress argument for explaining eating disorders.?

More empirical tests need to be done to test claims made by feminists and to examine ways to change the cultural ideal or to reduce the stress related to gender role stereotypes. Currently, there are many theories and much speculation made by feminists on eating disorders but more hard evidence is needed. In order for the feminist movement to make a difference, the theories need to be tested and publicized to the mass media.

The feminist movement is threatened by eating disorders among women. Naomi Wolf articulates this point perfectly when she says:

"The ideology of semistarvation undoes feminism; what happens to women's bodies happens to our minds. If women's bodies are and have always been wrong whereas men's are right, then woman are wrong and men are right. Where feminism taught woman to put higher value on ourselves, hunger teaches us how to erode our self-esteem. If a woman can be made to say, 'I hate my fat thighs,' it is a way she has been made to hate femaleness" (Wolf, 19 7).

The feminist movement is doing a great thing by exploring the heart of the problem. However, feminist theories need to be tested and publicized more so that the cycle does not continue which may kill the feminist movement in the process.


Bordo, Susan. (1993). Unbearable Weight. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Frederick, C. M. ET Grow, V.M. (1996). A mediational model of autonomy, self-esteem, and eating disordered attitudes and behaviors. Psvchology of Women Quarteriv. 2-0, 2.

Goodman, Ellen. (1996). The skeleton look is in fashion. The Tennessean. June 1 1.

Mahowald., Mary Betody. (1995). To be or not to be a woman: anorexia nervosa, normative gender roles, and feminism. Nagging Questions. Ed. Dana E. Bushnell. Boston:

Rowman Er Littlefield. Martz, D. M., Handley, K. B. Er Eisler, R. M. (1995). The Relationship between feminine gender role stress, body image, and eating disorders. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 19, 4.

Morris, B. J. (1985). The phenomena of anorexia nervosa: a feminist perspective. Feminist Issues, 5, 2.

Orbach, Susie. (1978) Fat Is A Feminist Issue. New York: Berkeley Press.

Swartz, L. (1985). Is thin a feminist issue? Women's Studies International Forum, 8. 5.

Wolf, Naomi. (1991). The Beauty Myth. NewYork: Doubleday.



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