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September 8, 2014

Social Perceptions of Weight and Binge Eating Disorder

lady laughing about trying to lose weight

Contributed by: Allison Carter, MFA, MSW @  Reasons Eating Disorder Center

Mainstream media culture in the US relentlessly accosts viewers with the message that the ideal body is thin. We receive messages each day about new diets, ideal bodies, thigh gaps, power foods, burning belly fat… the list goes on.

Furthermore, media culture endorses casual judgmental commentary on other peoples’ bodies – an entire industry is founded on weight-related teasing.

Is she pregnant? Who looks better in that dress? All of these questions, articles, top 5 lists etc. reinforce the notion that beauty is related to thinness, and that thinness is a necessary component of worth.

Behind this cultural valuation of thinness is a more insidious proposal: you can lose weight if you try, and if you don’t lose weight it means you aren’t trying.

Our Cultural Messages to Lose Weight Saturate Our Lives

We have all lived with this message if we grew up in the US because it is simply not possible to ignore a discourse that so saturates the media landscape that in turn so saturates our lives. We can’t escape it, but maybe we can reframe it: this belief system enables a diet and fashion market that thrives on the cultural belief that nothing is enough – that beauty is about thinness, and thinness is about willpower, about purchasing products… and that if the products don’t work, it’s just because we’re not trying hard enough… so try a different product… try a little harder… until what?

And what does that mean for individuals suffering binge eating disorder?

It is important to remember that individuals with BED often suffer from high levels of social anxiety, self-consciousness and body dysphoria, making them more likely to be impacted by weight-related teasing. It is also crucial to note that for many people, binging is a behavior that reduces negative affect.

It makes us feel better either by inciting a soothing sensation or by creating a narrowing of focus that expels unwanted thoughts and feelings – all there is right now is the food (not the pain, not the rejection, not the fear, not the worry, not the crisis). In other words, we binge in order to feel better when we’ve been hurt, and the thing that hurts most for many individuals may be weight-related teasing.

The Teasing Does Lead to Dieting

Additionally, what does weight-related teasing make us do? Lots of things, but sometimes it makes us diet. Research has shown that dieting is a risk factor for the development of eating disorder pathology. The body is smart – and when we restrict our food intake, the body looks for ways to compensate, including bingeing.

And for some people, this may reinforce the message: I have no will-power, I have no control. And so we restrict, and then we binge, and then step further and further away from the natural cycles of hunger and fullness, food preference and satiety.

The Social Perceptions Need to Change

There is no single pathway to the development of BED. However, the impact of negative social perceptions of weight and resultant weight-related teasing should not be underestimated. As providers, loved ones, and individuals struggling with BED, we need to practice challenging our own judgments regarding dietary restraint – really seeing these judgments for what they are: internalized marketing strategies.

Furthermore we need to remember that ultimately it isn’t restraint that leads to health, it’s an integrated relationship with (and trust in) the body’s needs. And while we can’t blame the media for eating disorders, we can certainly challenge ourselves to become more aware of the factors that trigger and perpetuate them.

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