Obesity Moral Panics and the Gendered Presentation of Disordered Eating

The news here recently reported on a new study suggesting that eating disorder rates in Australia have more than doubled in the last decade, and the rates of “regular disordered eating” (that doesn’t necessarily coincide with a diagnosable eating disorder) have nearly tripled.

One of the researchers indicates that the issue spreading to ‘groups not typically affected by weight issues’. Whilst I think it is a problem that the sort of weight-and-food-obsession that drives disordered eating is spreading, what Professor Hay’s comment suggests is that disordered eating and eating disorders aren’t a problem if it only affects those we believe to be ‘typically’ affected – that is, women. Of course, this presentation isn’t only about the researcher’s comments, but how they’re framed in reporting.

Women were five times more likely to have a disorder than men, but the study found a sharp rise in males with the problems, particularly bingeing.

“It’s a clear problem when it’s spreading into groups that weren’t typically affected by weight issues,” Prof Hay said.

Eating disorders double, The Courier-Mail, 29 April 2007

Of course, when you frame ‘groups typically affected’ as women (which, incidentally, obscures the class and race issues that also tend to shape the notion of which women are affected), the idea that “it’s a clear problem when it’s spreading” suggests that it wasn’t a problem before. Which of course is perfect fodder for the idea that eating disorders and disordered eating patterns are just about women being weak and silly.

That said, the study isn’t all bad news. Despite my issues with how it frames the issue in terms of gender, the study does do some good things. I’m not sure precisely how it distinguishes between ‘full blown eating disorders’ and ‘regular disordered eating’, but I suspect that’s largely because I’m not trained in psychology or psychiatric research. And despite my lack of knowledge, my intuition is that the distinction is important (if problematic), because whilst eating disorders are obviously quite serious, I think the prevalence of ‘regular disordered eating’, and the very naming of the phenomenon that way, says a lot about how warped our relationships with food can be, and how normalised that problem can (and has) become.

The researchers also, albeit cautiously, suggest that the rise in eating disorders and disordered eating is at least in part related to the public moral panic about obesity. I’m not going to get into a discussion of whether the obesity epidemic is real or not, because that discussion gets old really quickly, but this research goes some way to pointing out just why panicking about obesity isn’t the way to go about combating the problem if you believe there is one. Making people feel bad about themselves tends to reinforce the bad relationships with food and undermine any solutions to ‘the obesity epidemic’. Those who don’t take heed of these warnings run the risk of looking like they’re more interested in making fat people feel bad about themselves.

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This entry was posted in Australia, Gender issues, Studies, The Beauty Myth. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Obesity Moral Panics and the Gendered Presentation of Disordered Eating

  1. Fire Fly says:

    I was thinking about the link between the obesity panic today, when I looked at the paper and almost everything staring at me was panic about obesity (huuuge school uniforms!, and the ridiculously sexist, and heterosexist, fathers parenting decides whether children are obese or not)… it really is getting a bit OTT.

  2. arielladrake says:

    Fire Fly: I must admit, I’m fascinated by that second article you linked to. I can’t find anything online about the study directly to confirm, but the article implies that the research involved parents self-assessing their parenting styles, without any confirmation of that data. Which seems really strange, to me.

    Of course, I like how the first article conveniently glosses over the fact that kids have also gotten taller, as though that’s totally unrelated to size.

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