I probably couldn’t count the number of eating disorder guides floating around on Tumblr. This is meant to be a further explanation of one type of mentality that can lead to an increase in unhealthy eating habits. This is not the only reasoning behind them, just one that I find really interesting to study from a sociocultural aspect. It’s basically the idea that we all have to have the same body type in order to be deemed attractive, and therefore successful. Men, women, cats, whatever. This is the thin ideal.
Let’s start of with the most basic question. What is the thin ideal? It’s the idea that a thin body is absolutely necessary in order to be attractive, happy, successful, and loved. Often, it is this mentality that supports and cements unhealthy behaviors. The thin ideal is thinking that gaining ten pounds completely destroys your chances of being happy or successful, and this idea is everywhere. Magazine covers, offhand comments by your family, the entertainment industry, and pretty much everything else in the world promotes this idea that you need to be skinny to be relevant. This isn’t just for women either. Many men feel the pressure to be fit and muscled in order to be looked at twice. If anyone tells you that they are completely blind to body type, they’re lying. Not out of any malicious intent, but appearance has been and will always will be a very important part of social interaction. This has a purpose evolutionarily, because for thousands of years, the idea was that certain people tend to survive better and produce better offspring. There have been studies that show that attractiveness can be picked up on solely by scent. People will make snap judgments on what a person is like based on appearances. It’s been going on for centuries, and it probably won’t stop any time soon.
Then what is the point of this guide, you ask? If no one’s going to stop judging people on their appearance, why should we care? Maybe because people are being shamed for what they can’t control. Maybe because people are killing themselves every day to achieve something that they may physically not be able to do. People have different body types because genetics is a magical thing. Who knew? Once upon a time, people knew that. History will show you trends on what is deemed attractive. Guess what? Skinny wasn’t always hot. Back when you couldn’t walk down the street to the store and grab a bag of mass-produced whatever, skinny wasn’t attractive. Skinny was weak and sickly. Fat showed off wealth, the fact that you had the money to eat without having to worry about breaking the bank, and it was larger women who caught the biggest fish. Even in present times, there are certain places in the world where brides will spend the month or week before their wedding stuffing themselves with food in order to gain weight. In contrast, many women in industrialized countries will starve themselves or exercise excessively in order to fit into the wedding gown that they had ordered a half size too small. Thus, it is no surprise that the thin ideal tends to pervade more industrialized countries, where food is readily accessible and abundant for most of the population. It goes hand in hand with this idea of greed and gluttony that seems to be frowned upon, the inability to control one’s physical impulses and desires.
Up to fifty years ago, curvy was considered the norm for attractive. Look at the figure of Marilyn Monroe compared to women now. Then came the arrival Twiggy and things spiraled. Kate Moss and her infamous quote “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” Yes, yes, okay. There’s nothing wrong with being a little chubby. Celebrities get photoshopped on magazines so they look skinnier and they go on crash diets before big awards ceremonies. We get told this every day, so why are you harping on the same thing? Get to the good stuff. No. Stop. You’re missing the point. Eating disorders go way beyond wanting to be skinny. One of the most important criteria for being diagnosed with an eating disorder is a cognitive distortion of your body. This means that no matter how much weight someone loses, they’ll still see themselves as capable of losing more weight, even if they’re literally skin and bones. So when people who think like this see a magazine cover with their favorite model or actor displayed on the front, their thoughts aren’t about how someone was hired to airbrush and shave off a bit of their stomach or thighs, but rather a disgust and guilt with themselves and their bodies for not looking the same way. We are constantly bombarded with images and ideas and even language that skinny is attractive and successful and anything but means failure. When coupled in a world where failure is the ultimate doom, it’s no wonder that eating disorders have exponentially increased. What’s worse is that society glamorizes it and strives for bodies that for most women, only unhealthy eating habits can achieve.
Where am I going with this? There is more to eating disorders than wanting to lose weight. Now read that sentence over again because it’s very important. Eating-disordered people have distorted cognitions, and the thin ideal exacerbates that. When someone makes a comment to the effect of “if only you just lost a couple more pounds” or “are you going to finish eating that?”, it just keeps pounding into our heads that thin is the only way to be, even if the comment was meant to be helpful. Internalizing the thin ideal becomes a parasite, where a person is consumed with this idea of societal pressure to look a certain way in order to succeed and be loved.
Okay, so this became less of a guide and instead got a little ranty, but I have a lot of feelings on this particular topic because I spent a lot of my teenage years dealing with this kind of bullshit and it’s only recently that I have been able to feel confident in myself. I’m not model skinny, nor will I ever be model skinny, but I’m healthy and happy and for the first time in a long time, I’m content with that. I still have good and bad days, but I never really understood why I felt the way I did about my body until I studied the sociocultural patterns that can lead to unhealthy eating habits and lifestyle changes. Keep in mind that this is not a guide on eating disorders, but rather a certain type of mentality that can make it easier for one to develop. There are people without eating-disordered behavior who have internalized this idea, myself included. It’s ingrained in our society in many ways, but for a lot of people, acknowledging that happiness is not contingent on the size of our jeans is the first step towards a fresh start.