There are many. Briefly, the story often goes something like this:
In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf (1991) cites a survey indicating that a whopping 90% of American
women are dissatisfied with their bodies. When this attitude is passed from mother to daughter, which is understandably
almost inevitable, a vicious cycle begins. Mothers, according to Susie Orbach (2001), generally experience some
level of difficulty in accommodating the needs of their daughters. They wish to feed and provide for them, but
fear giving them too much lest they become greedy or demanding. From a very young age, girls are encouraged by
their mothers to deny their own needs in favor of those around them. In an attempt to cope with the disappointment
of their caretaker’s thwarting of their needs, young girls learn to accept them as inappropriate because they are still
too dependent upon their mothers to condemn their actions. They see their own unmet needs as the problem and begin
to force them underground.
Later, as their daughters mature, mothers are often the first to actively encourage them
to diet by the age of 12 or 13 to lose their baby fat. Orbach writes,
This unconscious thwarting of the daughter’s hunger and satisfaction mechanism comes
to play an important part in later life in a girl’s receptivity to looking outside herself for information about food,
hunger and satisfaction as well as for a sense of well-being in her body. The misdirecting of these internal physical
cues does not aid the development of a secure body image. Rather, it opens up the possibility that a girl will
feel insecure in and with her body and become a target for the hugely profitable enterprises of the diet/fashion/cosmetics/body
beautiful industry (62-3). *
A girl’s poor body image, when combined with her thwarted and denied needs, effectively
prevents her from forming an authentic sense of self. She grows up always looking outside of herself for approval,
lacking both confidence and any feeling of entitlement to her physical and emotional needs. When she realizes
her body does not measure up to the standards she is bombarded with every day on television and in magazines, she is crushed.
The media’s commodification of women’s bodies engulfs her, teaching her to commodify her own and view it from
the outside as a separate entity. Orbach explains that young women learn to view their bodies as gardens- as objects
in need of constant cultivation and attention.
Complex social processes are at work in the vast majority of cases of eating disorders.
After being taught to deny their own needs, to nurture others with food , and to tirelessly strive to achieve what are essentially
unattainable ideals of beauty, anorexia begins as a powerful and even sane response to the pressures young women are faced
with. As Wolf explains in The Beauty Myth, the disease often starts as an attempt to take control over the ideology with which
society is trying to control them- and what better way to do it than by rejecting food with its ties to femininity? Many women
enter anorexia by vowing to wrest control of their own bodies- by any means necessary- away from the outside forces of their
parents, the media, and society at large. They accept the challenge presented to them by the waif-like models and actresses
and one-up them by becoming so thin they are no longer sexually attractive. This does, in a sense, free them from the demands
that they be beautiful and that they be responsible for the care and nurturing of others because they have made themselves
much too frail for either.
In addition to the need these young women have to control their bodies, their eating disorders
may also be understood as manifestations of the struggle to control their own emotions. A significant number of these young
women refer to having to deal with difficult family or personal problems during at least one point in their lives. These problems
range from controlling husbands to teenage pregnancies to clinical depression to sexual abuse.