Controlling the Body

by Jordan

The most profound course I have taken thus far in my academic experience is Nutrition. Not only did this class teach me the essentials of nutrition like proteins and carbohydrates, but even sub-related topics such as eating disorders. The main reason our professor delved into such a sensitive subject, though, was to make the distinction that—contrary to popular beliefs—eating disorders are not about the actual food at all, but about some sort of inner-emotional conflict the individual is undergoing. Because this person has lost control over some aspect of his or her life, they are only left to control what goes in and out of their bodies. While this is a complicated and confusing idea, it occurs to me that this phenomenon can sufficiently be explained through an anthropological analysis.

Through the lens of symbolic anthropology, there is somewhat of an explanation of why the popular misconception about eating disorders exist[1]. People associate eating disorders with modern American culture’s stress on being thin and having body types similar to those seen in the media. Having a thin or fit body is not only a symbol of beauty in our culture, but may also symbolize wealth, or status. Carrie Arnold combats this in her article Is Anorexia a Cultural Disease? She admits, “Anorexia may have looked like a disorder brought about by the fashion industry, by a desire to be thin and model-perfect . . . Except that it wasn’t.”[2] She reports that according to a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry, only 5 percent of a person’s risk for developing anorexia came from shared environmental factors like models and magazine culture. Society continues to address the issue of eating disorders by targeting cultural phenomenon, especially in the media. It is increasingly evident, however, that this is not the true issue at hand.

She notes that a far greater environmental risk came from what researchers dub, ‘non-shared environmental factors,’ such as being bullied or abused. This follows a Culture and Personality perspective.[3] How are these personality traits that serve as the causation for eating disorders—bully vs person getting bullied, abuser vs the abused—acquired via culture? Can these personality traits be linked to environmental factors? It is no surprise that eating disorders appear in younger, more naïve age demographics. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “Eating disorders frequently appear during the teen years or young adulthood but may also develop during childhood.”[4] If bullying be the case, the dichotomy of normal versus abnormal or undesirable traits that is particular to this theory can be identified. Unfortunately, our society is very much so defined by a normative structure, so such feelings of being ‘undesirable’ or abnormal can weigh heavily on an individual’s personality and thus, will cause eating disorders as a last resort.

Although society has benevolent intentions to address a growing concern over eating disorders, it will never achieve this goal if it does not redirect its efforts towards culture-personality interactions rather than modern society.


[1] Lecture, Professor Carole McGranahan, ANTH 1105 Method and Theory in Cultural Anthropology, 31 August 2015.

[2] Carrie Arnold, “Is Anorexia a Cultural Disease,” in Medical Examiner, Sept. 27 2012, p.1.

[3] Lecture, Professor Carole McGranahan, ANTH 1105 The Individual and Society-Part 1, 14 September 2015.

[4], accessed 16 September 2014

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25 Responses to Controlling the Body

  1. Sarah says:

    I find this subject very interesting, especially being a girl in college today. I think that culture-personality interactions are directly influenced by modern society. Our society has been socialized to favor tall, slender, and light complexioned women and that preference trickles down through the ages to the even some of the youngest members in our society. This influence, so ingrained in our society and has existed for decades, compels people and some children to do whatever is necessary to fit that standard of desirability. Much of the time, the only thing they can easily fix about their image is their weight via an eating disorder. This is an unfortunate reality in our society today but insecurity is what drives bullies to bully and their victims to feel inadequate and this insecurity or inadequacy can develop into an eating disorder.

  2. Jack Seaton says:

    As humans we all tend to alter ourselves by appearance in many different ways. The culture you are raised in affects how people view each other. Statistics point out that young teens are the majority of people with eating disorders but what about everyone else? People act differently to certain situations. If a bully causes a teen to feel the need to starve themselves, then what about the kids who don’t fall into a eating disorder. What repercussions do they face?

  3. beel9934 says:

    While the whole easy was very well written and insightful, I particularly liked the point you brought up in your last body paragraph. I think defining on our culture as one that is, as you say, ” defined by normative structure”, is the best way to analysis eating disorders. Your point about normal verses abnormal as the root of one’s insecurities and sense of undesirableness seems valid, however I don’t think it can be divorced from the portrayal of bodies in the media. It seems to me that normality, as a standard by which undesirableness can be contrasted, is essentially a product of what the media promotes as an appealing physique.

  4. Anna Bockhaus says:

    I really enjoyed your essay! It was very well written and obviously well researched, as well a topic you seem to care a lot about. It was interesting, the approach you took, putting the responsibility of what contributes to eating disorders on interactions within society rather than society itself. It is a common misconception that eating disorders are purely girls that want to be skinny, in actuality they are closer to an anxiety disorder, with relief from the anxiety coming from the control one has over their food. I liked how you took the attention away from this misconception and produced an alternate explanation, backed up with research and then explained through an anthropological lens. Nicely done!

  5. Martha Wheeler says:

    I really liked your essay and how you focused on the misconceptions of society. It would also be interesting if you had tied in something about the misconception of how women are usually the only people displayed with eating disorders, even though lots of men struggle with them as well. It’s most commonly seen from society as gendered disorder but self esteem is prevalent across populations, no matter culture, age, or gender.

  6. Antonio Gomez says:

    I think some of the points discussed in this essay were really interesting. It is a definite reality that eating disorders come from inner emotional conflicts. I have experienced first hand seeing some of my friends after ending a long relationship with their partners going into a total abuse of food. I have seen members of my family stop eating food at a normal and healthy rate just because of hazing amongst our family. Through symbolic anthropology we can understand that the fact that people want to take shortcuts into having an expectacular hollywood figure is undeniable . This is why others go under eating disorders, because this will make them think that they will obtain the perfect figure. When in reality, they’re actually harming themselves. The Culture and personality perspective is perfectly evident in the bullying explanation because we all tend to follow that normative structure required through our cultures. This means that if you are fat and everybody makes fun of you, you are clearly not following the normative structure, causing an eating disorder that might make you feel part of the normal because of a weight loss, when really your health is in danger.

  7. Izzy Reynolds says:

    When I think about what a nutrition class may entail, discussing eating disorders doesn’t initially come to mind. Eating disorders are still such a prevalent issue in our society, regardless of the new positive attention surrounding plus-size women. I believe that by endorsing the new “self-love movement” it will disable a lot of the environmental factors that play a contributing role in bullying. Eliminating the stress of being “undesirable” for any young member of society begins with positivity.

    • Reilly Kahat says:

      Izzy, I agree completely that endorsing the positive “self-love movement” will hinder some of the environmental factors that influence bullying because most bullying is rooted in insecurity wich becomes obsolete when one realizes their unconditional intrinsic value given at birth for simply existing. I also agree that eating disorders are still prevelant despite this movement, and would say that this will continue to be the case until their is a major shift in cuture which normalizes the acceptance and projection of positivity. Almost everything that people do for pleasure is external and all of these external outlets like sports, fashion, video games, television, music and more, contribute to the negative conditioning of worthlessness and ugliness that influnces us to buy products, act a certain way, and causes eating disorders. So there is an extremely negative cyle of people subliminally being told by their common sources of happiness that they should compete and are invaluable. This cycle needs to be broken and the “self-love” movement will drive the change but the average person will not embrace it unless media sources and external outlets for pleasure also embrace it which will certainly happen but only given enough time. The “abnormal” people in recent generations who loves themself unconditionally need time to work their way into the powerful infustructures behind mass media and government.

  8. Francesca DeCarlo says:

    Martha Wheeler, I think you bring up a very interesting point about how eating disorders are equally present in both men and women’s lives, contrary to what this essay may suggest. You also brought up a great point about how eating disorders are very prominent in certain careers such as modeling, acting, dancing, and any other sort of performance-based careers. Additionally, we see that many young athletes such as gymnasts or wrestlers struggle with various forms of eating disorders. I agree with another comment above that while eating disorders are most commonly born from mental strain, they cannot be ‘divorced’ from the idea of body image. This can perhaps be analyzed through a Functionalism Anthropological theory. If everything in a particular culture has a function, and theirs is to make a living through some aspect of their physical beings, then perhaps they will resort to eating disorders. Through Functionalism, the main goal is to meet human needs; through making a living via their bodies, they meet their material, mental, and comfort needs. This brings us to a more social framework to analyze the topic rather than a psychological one.

  9. Phoebe Holasek says:

    Your take on such a misunderstood topic was really refreshing! I think a lot of people confuse anorexia with binge dieting seen in many young people. People may stop eating for short periods of time or eat very little in order to lose some weight, but that is entirely different than people who suffer from life consuming eating disorders. I like how you took an (almost) anti-cultural approach to a subject that has been construed into being entirely culturally based. Eating disorders have been around a lot longer than the model industry and its important to understand exactly why that is and what effect it has on victims.

  10. I thought it was insightful how you mentioned that more people become anorexic because of people around them such as bullying and immediate social factors, rather than the fashion or modeling industry, which is contrary to popular believe. People try to conform to a societal norm and this view is often distorted due to those around you. If you were to make your own suggestions, how would you suggest society help deal with this issue?

  11. Evan Mastro says:

    Very interesting read! I totally agree that the main issue on hand is “non-shared environmental factors.” It makes sense that these disorders come from problems like bullying and abuse. I did keep thinking one thing as I was reading this article though, and that is the shared environmental factors (like fashion industry and celebrities and society) is what causes the stigma of being thin in the first place. I don’t think that eating disorders would be a result of bullying and abuse if the whole social stigma around being thin wasn’t prevalent in the media and society. Meaning if society didn’t shine a light on being thin, I don’t think there would be as much bullying or abuse over someone’s weight. Very well written and you brought up some very provoking arguments!

  12. Atlas Catlett says:

    If I didn’t want to take a course on Nutrition, I sure do now. I thought this essay was eloquently written and flowed smoothly from the first to the second theory. I was impressed with the consistency and fluidity of the writing and really enjoyed it as a whole. In your second body paragraph, I couldn’t help being reminded of my studies of Freud and human development – this would have been an interesting connection to make between disciplines. My biggest question after reading this is whether or not there is a connection between eating disorders and race. You mentioned the modeling industry, but never was it specifically stated whom this “cultural disease” affects. What population are you looking at? The United States? The modeling industry? Caucasian people? Women? Men? Since race has been defined as a social and culturally constructed phenomena, are eating disorders operating within that or completely separate from that?

  13. Your essay is really interesting, especially the part where you discuss how environmental factors such as being bullied can affect a person and possibly trigger and eating disorder. Its an issue that is all to overlooked in today’s media, everyone is so focused on how eating disorders happen by way of people wanting to be like their icons in TV and film. But many people develop eating disorders after being bullied about their body type, they can become so self-conscious that something like that seems like the only way to seem “equal” in the eyes of their peers. Overall the essay was very well written, Good work!

  14. sophiesquire says:

    I definetly agree with what you are trying to get across in your essay. An eating disorder may have many reasons to why they occur and many may occur from multiple reasons such as culture, society, previous experiences, depression, etc. Your essay is very well written and explained with reference to symbolic anthropological theory. Good job branching out from the normal “kids want to become like people on TV and modelsin magazines” aspect of eating disorders and analyzing other potential causes of this unfortunate epidemic.

  15. Noelle says:

    The symbol of the “perfect” model body in society is definitely very real in daily life. The projection of this image forced onto young people I argue may not be the entire cause of the problem, but perhaps a prevalent reason. I think Jordan made a good point bringing the emotional and mental connotations that also exist with this symbol into the conversation. The “ideal” of a thin, anorexic looking body might not be what a person is looking for, more so the wealth, happiness, acceptance and control that seemingly embodies media advertisements etc.

  16. Emma Schilling says:

    I really enjoyed reading your essay because this is a very real topic that I think most people tend to overlook. I am in nutrition class right now learning about this and it is crazy how powerful our bodies and minds are, and also scary. Stick thin models are portrayed everywhere we look and I think this gives girls the idea that “if i don’t look like that girl I am not beautiful” which is the absolute worst mindset you can have. The second you start to tell yourself you’re not beautiful, not worthy, is the second you start to believe it, but how can one not think like that when the “ideal” image is constantly forced upon us. Is there a way we can stop this before it worsens?

  17. I found myself very intrigued by your subject of choice – eating disorders, but more importantly the possibility that the causation of this phenomenon is not actually what most people think (models and famed individuals portrayed in the media). I do agree that our society is based around a normative structure, if you’re not like everyone else you are likely to be considered inferior to others and even bullied by them. I also acknowledge that studies have shown the small percentage of influence that models in the media have on the likelihood of someone developing an eating disorder, as you stated in your essay. However, I don’t think we need to completely abandon the idea that it has a substantial effect on the development of an eating disorder. I could definitely be interpreting your essay the wrong way, it just seems that you are saying that the only way to further succeed in the study of eating disorders is to only focus on the cultural-personal perspective that the psychological effects of being different from the normative standards of society cause eating disorders. In my opinion, it would be the most effective to study this cultural phenomenon from all perspectives. What would a functionalist say the purpose of eating disorders? What about a feminist?

  18. Marissa Marino says:

    It’s always interesting to see the tipping point between being too thin or too fat. It would be intriguing to view this from a Functionalist perspective looking at this one point of time in history. Women’s weight changes through the decades just like how a pair of heels evolve from generations. What it seems to come down to is the ultimate goal of being desired. It never struck me that eating disorders had to do with a senses of control. You did a good job linking the culture & personality theory having to do with what influences these girls and makes them go through this nutrition deprivation in order to fit in with modern society.

  19. Laurel Bloszies says:

    The biggest problem I see with the eating disorder epidemic is how difficult it is to break the cycle of bully vs. victim. IT is entrenched in young society and it practically seems like human nature to poke fun at each other when we’re young. I completely agree when you pointed out that it seemed to be a question of what people perceive as being abnormal within themselves, sometimes having these fears and insecurities preyed upon by their peers. It seems like there is no easy solution to this problem because we can’t stop kids from being cruel (intentionally or not) and we can’t get rid of anxiety and insecurities in young people.

  20. I really enjoyed your way of connecting eating disorders to this subject with the help of another class you had taken. I also found it incredibly interesting to learn about how models and the magazine culture only account for 5% of anorexia. I feel as if they only way I learned about this subject growing up was to tell me it was the media giving me these false views on what women should look like. It’s now hard for me to believe it isn’t the media’s fault for making women feel that way because of the trend of when anorexia increased and how the models looked at that time. I think it is hard to say it is not the media’s fault because they are the ones portraying what is beautiful and when you never see a larger women on a cover of a magazine children grow up seeing what the media says is beautiful which fuels their bullying.

  21. The concept of need for control is a very thought provoking point. Transitioning from nomadic egalitarian hunter gatherers to sedentary hierarchies, the need for control of resources was crucial in order to support a growing population. I think as our social/survival culture has evolved we have much less faith in the unknown and chance, such as the nature of foraging/hunting, and that because we could cultivate/tame the environment we had the misconception that we could become “perfect” and civilized, removing us from nature almost entirely. I think this ties in to eating disorders because although the influence/reasons(s) for body dismorphia are unique to the individual, it’s a notion that resonates along similar lines in that someone has the power to break from what is natural/organic to them specifically through unhealthy body “modifications” ultimately leading to a status of perfection achieved by the individual. This misconception and illusion manifested through media, bullying, and low self-esteem/self love is a false sense of power to someone disempowered in that they project back onto themselves in much larger abundance of negativity and unrealistic/unhealthy sense of obligation. This link has a multitude of free 24/7 hotlines for those seeking help or wanting to connect about common, but un-talked about harmful daily realties for many others across the world. .–IJcmc02aPk4Up8A4EJkCJaIaAvTT8P8HAQ

  22. Kevin Kuptz says:

    This essay was the first time I heard an argument revolving around eating disorders that did not claim the media to be the number one cause. It would seem intuitive that eating disorders would be derived from some inner emotional conflict, but until reading this essay I had simplified the problem. Very well written and very insightful.

  23. Evan Nassano-Miller says:

    We all know bullying has negative effects on the person being bullied but that’s an interesting way to look at it. If I’m understanding right it’s almost like saying we’ve evolved to become mentally pressured by others to become more “desirable”, like our body tells us if we’re not maintaining what society believes desirable, we won’t go on to reproduce. So you’re mentally overloaded until you fix what society deems an issue. Seems like a really unhealthy bodily response, as we can now rationalize these things, but I can see how this may be an important evolutionary factor.

  24. Sandeep says:

    Bullying is defiantly a menace to our society and it has to stop. I never realized that a person who doesn’t feel in control of other parts of his/her life, would have more risk of developing a eating disorder. I absolutely agree with you that eating disorders are not what is shown in our media, it can take many shapes and forms, as well as affect different people differently. I like you essay highlighting one of the many causes of eating disorder, most people believe its the media or stress etc but it can happen for many reasons. Great read I enjoyed every word

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