Open Thread: is anorexia actually not all about the menz?

I’ve just read my 88 billionth article about how anorexia is on the rise. In the comments, I just read my 11 million billionth comment from guys saying, “But ladies, we like you at a healthy weight/little bit of padding/don’t want to see your ribs”, etc.

Are these guys trying to offer support? Maybe. But I think the reason it just doesn’t work is that it’s making women’s disordered eating habits all about the menz. And it’s not. I’ve rarely experienced fat shaming from males, and get equal amounts of dating offers at pretty much any weight, and yet I still feel like I am being looked down on, shunted to one side, not taken seriously and being judged because I’m not skinny. I feel like people assume I lack discipline because I’m not skinny, which is interesting because I get constant feedback about how I’m much too disciplined and need to relax more.

My feeling is that there’s just a sense that no matter what you’ve got going on in your brain, your heart or whatever, it does not count unless you’re also skinny. And what constitutes “skinny” is determined by a media which shrinks emaciated models just that special little bit more – and feels someone like Julia Roberts needs significant help from Photoshop. Heaven help us all.

What do you think causes women to feel such pressure to lose weight? Do men factor into your own feelings about your body some, a lot, not at all? How does it make you feel when men jump into these conversations to “reassure” you that they like curves? Also, do you feel it’s true they like curves? I don’t doubt that’s how they feel privately, but I’ve seen the teasing boys get from other boys if they date a “fat chick”, and it’s merciless. Talk about any aspect of this topic you want to talk about!

Comments

  1. sbg says

    I’m reminded of this commercial for diet bars. Instantly. Because while they’re trying to switch up the message all diet products are about (weight loss, fat woman!) to something about health, the bottom line is the product is being touted as a replacement or a preventative measure for you to keep from eating too much other food.

    If you want the cat calls from the construction workers to be “you’re lookin’ healthy!” instead of “nice boobs!”, well – pinch yourself, because that’s never going to happen.

    That whole commercial creeps me out, because every single person that woman encounters feels entitled to comment on HER body.

    Also, I suspect a bunch of vegetables and fruits instead of a diet bar with unpronounceable ingredients is healthier, so if health is what you want I’d suggest starting there. I’m no nutritionist, though.

    ETA: Er, sorry for the tangent. I’m with you, Jenn. I’ve never felt pressure from individual men to lose weight. My mother, yes, but that’s a whole nother kettle of fish. I work hard to maintain satisfaction with being fit and healthy, if carrying a few extra pounds, but it’s still difficult not to feel like I’m some sort of failure for not weighing 110 pounds. It could be because 99% of ads for diet products are geared toward women. It’s an expectation that we not only want but have to lose weight, where men – if they feel such desire to lose their guts – aren’t being bombarded with supporting documentation to fuel this desire into an actual, perceived need.

  2. says

    sbg,

    That commercial is just bizarre. It might be nice to live on that planet where it takes place, but yeah, that ain’t Earth. Also, those diet bars? Loaded with soy, refined sugar and corn syrup. Three things I know are neither healthy nor helpful with weight loss in my body.

    That whole commercial creeps me out, because every single person that woman encounters feels entitled to comment on HER body.

    No kidding! And she likes it, because what they’re saying isn’t sexualized. But the fact that they’re saying it IS! Forest; trees.

  3. says

    The thing that annoys me about the “like a bit of padding / don’t want to see your ribs” comments from men is that THAT kind of comment came close to driving me into an eating disorder – and DID in fact drive me into a sugar addiction. There are those of us out there (especially teenagers) who don’t have “padding” and do have visible ribs; and these comments come across as reminding us how horrible our bodies look and how we really need to keep eating more so that we stop being as flat-chested and start getting curves…

    Those comments are body-shaming – no matter what type of body you have.

  4. Dani says

    Ew, that commercial was weird. I’d actually like no cat-calls from construction workers and would like someone who lets me go ahead of them to NOT comment on my body, thanks :/

    I don’t think that guys who try to offer support in the manner mentioned in the post understand at all how EVERY message presented to women from the media from the time we are infants places our value in how we look. In my case, for example, that’s over 25 YEARS of messages that the only thing that matters about me is if I’m pretty. I also think that guys can inadvertantly reinforce those messages, like the time one of my guy friends described Felicia Day as “real-world cute” (and not in a “‘real world’ is so much better!” kind of way). Likewise, guys who say those things to or about someone with an eating disorder have absolutely NO idea what they are talking about. Sometimes the best way to support someone is to listen and learn and not to talk.

    Guys that still hold the belief that men are visual while women are emotional (*barf*) also reinforce these messages, because, in their minds, it’s at least a little bit important for women to “take care of themselves” (i.e. make sure they look nice) because that’s primarily what turns men on. These guys never question why women “need” stores like Victoria’s Secret (while men buy their underwear at Walmart), and they never figure out that a woman playing a hot damsel in distress in a movie or being cat-called in a commercial is not healthy and not encouraging. To them, these things are just natural projections of women being “pretty” for visually oriented men.

    The cynic in me thinks that men who jump to “defend” women with ” a little bit of padding” (as opposed to men who offer real, actual support and don’t make it all about them) are just trying to make themselves feel better. If they actually felt like something was really wrong with the way women are being portrayed (because every article I’ve read about how anorexia is on the rise inevitably mentions how that is due to how women are portrayed in the media), they would do something about it.

  5. Maria says

    The other thing those kinds of comments forget is that anorexia is often about control. When you are a bright, teenaged girl (I’m not going to go into race and class demographics, because books like A Hunger So Wide and So Deep suggest that eating disorders are underdiagnosed in working class and POC groups, not non-existent like the media suggests) in a patriarchal society, one of the few things you MAY have control over is your body.

    Look at some of the quotes from pro-ana websites:

    Like prisoners everywhere, all i have left is the power to refuse
    http://www.freewebs.com/free-the-bfly/quotes.htm

    Starving is control, we like control!
    Starving is an excellent example of will power
    Fat is a lazy person, Ana is control!
    http://proanalifestyle.blogspot.com/2007/07/70-reasons-not-to-eat.html

  6. Maartje says

    It’s broader than anorexia though, it is most mental disorders once people find out or you tell them.
    I’m having a hard time even writing this because it makes me think about all the times I had to smile through the ‘helpful’ or ‘caring’ comments others have made to and about me. Comments that erased me, convinced me that I must somehow be a wrong person, comments that made me shut up.

    No one wants to see a problem they don’t know the answer to, it makes ‘em uncomfortable. They appease their discomfort by erasing the problem, and the person with it, so they can say they tried to help.

    I don’t even know what my point was. I just know it hurts.

  7. Casey says

    The “Hey, I like my women with some meat on their bones” empty sentiments just remind me of the other side of the coin, “HEY FAT BITCH, I LIKE CURVES, NOT ROLLS!” Even when they think they’re offering support it just goes back to enforcing an arbitrary beauty standard that not everyone can be. All for the sake of boners, of course.

  8. salla says

    I always find it super annoying when I see or hear guys say that, it sounds so condescending because it really does make it all about them. When they say stuff like that it’s not supportive, they’re still looking at women as if we’re objects whose only value is in relation to our sexual attractiveness.

    As if all of the complex issues associated with eating disorders can be made to go away with a pat on the head from a man and the knowledge that our fat asses can still give them a boner.

  9. JT says

    Hmm, while I’ve never been outright fat-shamed by a man (I have pretty good douche-dar and stay far away from them!), it’s more that you become completely invisible. Sometimes nicer guys will reassure you and say that insides are what counts or they like “meat” on a woman, but only if they are 100% sure you will never consider coming onto them. The ones who fear that you might like them just avoid you and the meaner ones might blatantly hit on hotter girls in front of you. I have actually seen this happen when I was NOT interested at all but this guy wanted to make extra sure I knew he’d never go for a chubby geek. Sigh.

    And yes, a LOT of guys seem to really care what their girlfriends/wives look like. It stops some of the weaker-willed ones from going for gals they might actually like or be compatible with (and I’ve seen this not just with fat, but with things like geeky interests or just being offbeat).

    That being said, there are a lot of honest guys out there who admit they don’t need made-up Barbiedolls. I married one!

  10. says

    Maria,

    That’s a really good point, Maria, because I think what these sorts of comments do is take, or attempt to take, control away from the skinny/anorexic woman. What they’re saying is, “The goal you have for your body is not the goal I have for your body, so hurry up and change course.” They might think they’re being helpful because their standard is “healthier” (as if health could be determined by appearance) but they’re still telling the woman that she doesn’t deserve to have control of even her own body.

  11. Maria says

    Sylvia Sybil,

    Yeah… and that’s one of the reasons I kinda wish more of those kinds of articles would link to what girls suffering from ED are saying about themselves and to each other. Patriarchy and heterosexism are huge factors, imo, but being sexy? It’s there, but it’s not the first thing you’ll hear mentioned.

    Plus, there’s how the Western world exports its mental health paradigm across the world, as well as its cultural institutions.

  12. says

    Maria: Patriarchy and heterosexism are huge factors, imo, but being sexy? It’s there, but it’s not the first thing you’ll hear mentioned.

    That’s very well put. From what I can tell from listening to women with eating disorders talk in person or online, it’s not so much that they hope men will like them better if they’re skinny, it’s more that they hope some magic number on the scales will fix problems in their lives. And the patriarchy and rape culture and heterosexism are at the root of many of those problems for any woman. So men are in there, but less in the “hoping to date them” form and more in the “hoping this society created by men for men will let me flourish just a little bit if I get skinny enough.”

    I personally have this unconscious idea that if I was skinny enough – whatever that is – I would become invulnerable to unfounded criticisms. WTF is that shit? Like, people would be all, “There she goes again, daring to suggest women are people too, BUT SHE IS SKINNY SO I GUESS IT’S TRUE”? My conscious mind disagrees, LOL, but the unconscious still insists I ought to give it a try. It’s like the message to lose weight is so insidious that your mind finds ways to rationalize it as its own.

    I also can’t help but notice that losing weight makes you smaller. I really do believe the idea that men are superior in any way is based on their typically larger, stronger physicality, so any cultural trend toward making women even smaller calls for serious scrutiny. When men say, “We don’t mind a little padding”, the message* that comes through from this rape culture society is “Hmm, we can still beat the shit out of you at a ‘healthy’ weight – no need to get skinnier than that, ladies.”

    *Just for clarity, I’m fully willing to believe at least some guys have good intentions when they say these things. We are discussing the larger social messages, and how they get filtered through things EVEN the best-intentioned people say.

  13. manatee says

    During puberty I got weight-related comments both from my mother and my father which is probably neither here nor there. While I didn’t develop a full-blown ED in response to them I struggled (and still struggle sometimes) with disordered eating.
    The first bf made some uncalled-for remarks about how I could stand to gain some weight (even though he was totes cool with the weight I was at then!!11!). This insistence felt just as weird to me then as it does now. It’s like – I’m not really there as a separate (equal) human being with my own goals and ideas, because honestly? I’d rather skip both types of “helpful” comments – the ones asking me to lose and the ones asking me to gain.
    I also understand the point you’re getting at, Jennifer. It’s fucking scary to contemplate, but these thoughts crop up now and then when I think about the way I act/exist in the public sphere and how my actions are perceived b/c of my presumed gender.

  14. The Other Anne says

    I have DEFINITELY felt pressure from men to lose weight. In fact, I tend to only get roundabout pressure from women. From women, typically friends and family, I feel pressure when they–always skinnier than I am–comment on how fat they are. And they’re entitled to feel however they want about themselves, or to the feelings they have that aren’t wanted, without me telling them not to feel that way. However, often it’s talked about as a bad thing, or friends wll comment on a “fatass” who was comparable to me or heavier, and it would make me wonder if they talk about me like that, and I’d feel the need to change myself.

    I have lost weight in the past year, about 20 pounds and entirely unintentionally (it just happened, gradually, after I changed my eating habits to better suit myself and my digestion).

    But the only people who have come right up and said to me, “you’re fat” or “you need to lose weight” or “you need to be healthier” have been my brother and my dad. Not even any romantic interests. My dad’s a big health guy who runs like 4-6 miles a day and bikes, and growing up he was always after me to be more active, which was fine, but I didn’t WANT to be on a team. I swam, because I love swimming, but as soon as they made the rule that you HAD to go to at least one meet to continue I quit (this wasn’t a school team, it was a club team). And, well, my brother’s always been an ass. When I was skinny he’d call me fat, and when I told him that hurt he told me he only called me fat because I wasn’t and that if he ever stopped that’s when I’d know I was fat. Well, he stopped calling me fat a few years after that. I wonder if he thought I’d notice.

    I didn’t used to think this effected me so much, but body acceptance can be pretty intense for me. I don’t feel like I should have to accept my body, it shouldn’t be about me feeling good, because I do already. It’s when it seems like no one else is okay with me that it feels awful.

    Thanks for this post!

  15. says

    Jennifer Kesler: I also can’t help but notice that losing weight makes you smaller. I really do believe the idea that men are superior in any way is based on their typically larger, stronger physicality, so any cultural trend toward making women even smaller calls for serious scrutiny.

    I think I disagree with you on cause and effect (are you saying larger size -> more power, or more power -> justifications based on size?) but I agree with you on the end result: power and size are linked in public consciousness. Women are strongly encouraged to lose weight. Photoshop and drawn art show men as larger and more buff, but women as smaller and softer. Ladylike behavior minimizes the personal space you dominate: men can sit with knees apart, elbows on the desk, etc., but “ladies” tuck themselves together.

    All through my childhood, I was praised for being tall. I was constantly told how this was more attractive and encouraged to see the value in being able to reach things (high shelves, adult furniture) before my peers could. When puberty started filling out my frame and I started getting comments from my parents/relatives about “big” and “putting on some weight”, I initially interpreted those as positive remarks, because bigger is better. Then I realized size wasn’t correlated with function in their minds – using my height to reach a shelf was good, but using my weight to win a wrestling game was horrible and I should have been ashamed of myself. It sort of screwed with my head to realize aesthetics had been the basis of my praise the whole time.

  16. Amy McCabe says

    Kinda?

    I’m skinny. In my early 20s I was 115 pounds and I stand a 5’7″. If you calculate my BMI I was officially underweight. Eventually I started putting on a light more weight. I remember that as soon as I hit 125 pounds (finally hit “normal” weight, though I was still very much on the low end of that) the two most important men in my life (fiance and father) had two separate serious talks to me about my “weight problem.”

    Truth is the same media that tells women they are way, way, way too fat-if you want to look sexy look like this-is also telling men what sexy women look like.

  17. says

    To me it’s all about a feeling of control. (Being on welfare really does things to your ability to eat properly, in my experience.)

    When it comes to men, I have three types of experiences. In general, I find that if a man likes me, he likes what I look like because it’s part of the package. But I had one boyfriend who itemized my body piecemeal as he told me what he liked about it, and I found *that* dehumanizing. It made me insecure in a way I hadn’t been before. And on the really negative side, my parents never really liked each other, and as a result my father was quite negative about my mother’s body type (instead of, say, being positive about how strong and sturdy she is – I grew up watching her chop wood and haul water with the best of them). He also fat shamed my sister one day – she told me about it years later.

    On the plus side, though, one day last year I found I was able to hop up a flight of stairs over and over, and I was so thrilled at how strong my legs were getting that I stopped thinking I was fat, even though I was a bit overweight at the time. Now *that’s* a feeling of control.

    And yesterday in the St Patrick’s day parade there was a team of female tackle football players who were amazing to look at. Strength training beats dieting any day.

  18. says

    Sylvia Sybil: are you saying larger size -> more power, or more power -> justifications based on size?

    It was a reference to the article I wrote the other day, in which I stated that when I try to guess at any reason ever that would make a logical person think men are superior to women, all I get is “Because they’re typically bigger and stronger (and if we don’t recognize this as special, they might beat us up to reinforce the point).” So it’s more that instinctive animal instincts get rationalized into unfounded ideas that everyone treats as reasoned and supported because it “feels” right (i.e., fits in with our instinctive fears and perceptions).

  19. The Other Anne says

    Anemone,

    I’ve had the same feeling before: I hiked up Halfdome, and later in life down and out of the Grand Canyon in a single day. I was sore for days after the canyon, but hell, if I could do THAT it doesn’t matter if I have some pudge! I felt AWESOME!

  20. M.C. says

    There was a time when I was desperately trying to loose weight in order to shrink my boobs because I dislike the way men are staring at my C/D cups. So I guess you could say that my dieting was about the menz…

    It didn’t really work though, my boobs were still larger-than-average, and I hated being thin because it made me feel weak. That’s when I switched to strength training, which made me feel good and helped ease the headaches I get from the big boobs.

    I’m still getting stared at, but I guess that means we need to change society – not my body.

  21. Ara says

    I always found the “I don’t like stick figures; I like women with padding” to translate in my mind as “I don’t like those awful media either! They should stop doing that to women!” but I think I’m an alien in that I actually *like* my body and I can’t remember ever thinking much about the way it looks. (The way it *functions* is another matter; I have way too many hereditary health problems.) Also, I hang around with a group of unusually enlightened men and had an extremely sheltered childhood– even though I was bullied, it was for being unspecifiedly “weird” and had way more to do with being a then-undiagnosed Aspie than how I looked.

    Full disclosure on my body comfort, though: I am conventionally American-pretty body type, so this might just be thin privilege. (Given the number of women I know who are similar body type who do fuss about it, though, I think some of it is just sheer obliviousness to marketing.)

    My boyfriend keeps an eye on my eating, but that’s not about weight; it’s because if I don’t have someone watching me I’ll wind up completely forgetting to eat. Not in the eating-disorder sense, either; I’m just *that* easily distracted, and I have sufficient problems digesting my food that I really do need to remember to eat it. But it’s sufficiently common for him to ask me at 4PM “Have you eaten?” and get an answer of “No, why?” for neither of us to consider it an unjustified question.

  22. Radish says

    JT: it’s more that you become completely invisible.

    I agree with this sentiment. Though I have certainly experienced the odd fat-shaming remark or condescending glance, this is far from the most common experience. As the fat girl in the room I’ve usually found myself ignored and rendered invisible. Interestingly, as soon as I appeared as a couple with my boyfriend, I’d suddenly be noticed. I find it disturbing and disheartening to feel that I need validation/legitimization from at least one man to get the attention and recognition for existing from other men.

  23. Alex says

    Scientific research about anorexia shows that it’s largely a physical and mental health issue rather than a social one. There’s a very definite hereditary factor and the condition usually manifests alongside other mental health issues such as depression and autism. Most anorexics aren’t aiming to become attractive or live up to the standards of people that buy into the airbrushed mass media (many are genderless and asexual), but instead become obsessed over controlling a set of numbers that they believe quantify their lives.

    The idea that anorexia is caused solely by mass media promoting unrealistic body image is not only a myth, but one that keeps people with genuine medical conditions from getting proper treatment. The imagery can trigger anorexia within those predisposed to it, but it can’t convert a healthy individual to an anorexic any more than violent video games can turn people into serial criminals. While it’s socially responsible to educate people about mass media’s unrealistic imagery and promote health over unrealistic beauty, somebody with a sickness needs a doctor.

    So in this sense, anorexia really isn’t about the men.

  24. says

    Alex, can you provide links to research about the specifics of why they think it’s genes? Neuroscientists have a bad habit of assuming everything that “runs in families” has a physical component because they don’t know enough about psychiatry to recognize simple situational issues (like depression, which can “run in families” because of a abuse rather than biochemical disturbance – put any child into a family of neglect and torment, and depression is extremely likely).

    That said, you’re right that most people affected by media bullshit about appearance do not develop eating disorders, so there has to be something else going on for those individuals who do.

    However… that really wasn’t the point of the article. The point was that these guys are reducing anorexia to an obsession with male approval, and then saying, “It’s okay, ladies, we approve already! Have a candy bar!” and feeling really swell about themselves. Whatever factors trigger anorexia, just hearing what people who’ve experienced it say during and after therapy suggests it’s about a number of internal psychological factors rather than any external factors.

  25. Alex says

    Here, I’m going to have to admit I’m actually a fiction writer instead of a doctor or scientist and my research into anorexia was about where it intersects with women on the autism spectrum (I’m writing a female-centric dark fantasy/psychological horror series). Still, good old Wikipedia has several dozen sources about biochemistry factors and I’ve seen much of the same information repeated in both books on female autism and at least two starter books on anorexia. As a spectrum disorder stemming from an uncountable number of factors, I don’t think any researcher can really give anything but strong correlations.

    One has to admit there’s kind of a dark humor to clueless men approaching a condition about extreme self-control with the idea that they’re the arbiters of female behavior, but I don’t think that’s generally where it comes from. More likely, it’s not so much they think they’re the masters of women as it is just another form of slacktivism. They make these hollow statements so they can feel good about themselves for doing a perceived good deed without taking a genuine interest in the welfare of their fellow human beings (if anything, such a hollow statement probably worsens their condition) and I’m sure other women are often guilty of this as well. Someone saying little more than “you look fine, eat a hamburger” almost certainly isn’t a close friend, doesn’t have much emotional investment, and would find a way to turn the blame on the victim instead of accepting they’re part of a larger problem of social isolation causing depression and anxiety. As I’ve darkly thought many times before, society cuts off those with mental issues as if they’re cancer cells.

    Also, I wonder if there are any links between anorexia and muscle dysmorphia (aka bigorexia). The latter has almost zero professional research due to it being extremely rare and not nearly as debilitating (although it should be noted that extreme body-builders are incredibly unhealthy), but it has a similar “unrealistic muscle-bound action figures creating unattainable body figures” social underpinning. I think both probably have a similar trope of the clueless woman/man wishing they had anorexia/bigorexia as a solution to their personal issues, with similarly clueless media placing all the instigating social influence on Twiggy/Charles Atlas. That’s just me being fascinated with counterpartism, though.

  26. says

    Alex, thanks! The studies all seem to rely on self-reporting – I can’t get the entire abstracts without buying them, but I’m cautious about studies based on self-reporting. You might want to read Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, which debunks a lot of the research on female autism and I believe some on eating disorders as well. She has a psych background, which makes it pretty obvious to her where the studies have in fact failed to rule out “everything but genes”, which is usually the approach they take. (One interesting point she makes about neuroscience studies in general: genes define a brain’s potential, but environment literally decides which genes will get expressed or suppressed. So when we find that the brains of adult criminals who lack conscience all have a similar thing happening in the pre-frontal cortex, for example, that doesn’t mean conscience-free criminality is genetic, as most researchers would conclude. It could mean an environment of abuse or neglect impacts pre-frontal cortex development negatively. More research required.)

    I would expect any form of body dysmorphia to share some links, whether it’s ultimately genetic, psychological, social or a combination of the above.

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