The Sociocultural History of Eating Disorders

An Increased Recognition of Eating Disorders

In 1983, the death of singer Karen Carpenter from anorexia stunned Americans. People began to blame our cultural ideals of extreme thinness on eating disorders.

In the 2000s, organizations such as the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) recognized that there was a serious problem with how our culture worships the skinny ideal and how this is harmful to our mental and physical health. NEDA sought to change the dialogue about how we talk about our bodies. Their efforts, thus far, has resulted in the modeling industry embracing plus size models and banning any model with a BMI below 18.5.

Sadly, there is an underground pro-ana/mia movement on the Internet working against organizations like NEDA. This movement seeks to promote eating disorders as a lifestyle choice rather than a disease.

Eating Disorders and Symbolic Interactionism

It is useful to view eating disorders through the paradigm of symbolic interactionism. Quite simply, people struggle with food and body image because they attach meaning to it. For those in Biblical times, restriction of food meant closer attainment to God. Today, restriction of food largely symbolizes self-control. It has nothing to do with food or dieting.

Many people who develop eating disorders also struggle with issues of control, obsessive compulsiveness, and rigidity. By restricting their food intake, they gain an illusionary sense of control of their life. People further reinforce this concept by making statements such as, “I’ve been good today” when referring to their diet. The frequency of eating disorders appears to be directly linked to rates of dieting.

Sociocultural indoctrination for thinness begins in childhood. From a young age, girls are groomed with dolls such as Barbie to illustrate how you must be thin to be successful, beautiful, loved, and worthy. It sends the message that if you aren’t thin, you are ugly, you fail at life, and nobody loves you because you aren’t worth it. This is further reinforced through our interactions with each other and the media.

Hence, the reason why people starve themselves to achieve these thin ideals relates back to the positive meanings that we as a society have attached to them. In other words, our distorted cultural values of thinness positively reinforces unhealthy eating habits.

In addition, there is a common belief in the United States that “you are what you eat.” Cultural role-stereotyping of thin and overweight people is a huge problem in our society. Weight stigma happens occurs in schools, the workforce, and within interpersonal relationships. Even in the healthcare system, medical doctors have been found guilty of bias toward their overweight patients, by stereotyping them as lazy, unintelligent, and non-compliant (Puhl R. Best Pract & Res Clin Endocrin & Metabolis 2013; 27(2);117-127).

Thinness can also be symbolically related to one’s socioeconomic status. Up until the 20th century, well-off people demonstrated their wealth by showing off how much food they could afford to eat. Henry VIII, for example, prided himself in how overweight he was.

Now, wealth is displayed by eating smaller portions, exercising, and staying slim. There is a subtle association between one’s weight and one’s socioeconomic status. This may explain why the upper and middle class have higher rates of eating disorders compared to the working or lower class.

Eating Disorders in Feminist and Psychological Theory

Feminist theories have emerged in an effort to explain why nine out of 10 people with eating disorders are statistically women. One theory is that, “Anorexic behavior may represent the negotiation of personal and bodily control in a social context that otherwise relatively restricts opportunities for autonomy among young women” (Thompson JK. Sociocultural Aspects of Eating Disorders. Handbook of eating disorders and obesity. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons; 2004).

This makes sense insofar as women have historically been marginalized and have struggled for their independence. However, in recent decades, women’s opportunities have expanded such that they have become increasingly autonomous.

If this premise is correct, then we would expect to see a decrease in women developing eating disorders. To the contrary, we have seen a significant increase.

The reason why women develop eating disorders disproportionately compared to men can better be explained by psychology and other sociological paradigms.

Psychology postulates that a woman’s attempt to androgenize her appearance by starving herself is perhaps a subconscious way to avoid the mature demands of womanhood. This then explains why most women who develop eating disorders show initial symptoms in adolescence. It is a stressful reaction to puberty and the demands of adulthood. Anorexics and bulimics consistently report a fear of growing up, even those who are chronologically adults in their 20s and 30s.

We live in a society where we are constantly brainwashed with this thin ideal. However, it would be foolish to blame the prevalence of eating disorders on just the media and skinny models. Eating disorders encompass a variety of sociocultural factors, as well as psychological dynamics and biological determinants.

Since beauty ideals are culturally bound and changeable, we have the power to help eliminate eating disorders. Organizations like NEDA can help raise the awareness of eating disorders, change the dialogue about beauty, and shift the conversation about nutrition and exercise to health and wellness instead of weight loss.

Photo courtesy of Graham on flickr 


The Sociocultural History of Eating Disorders

Jenna Line

Jenna Line is an eating disorder activist and prospective MSW student with a undergraduate background in Social Psychology from the University of Maryland (College Park). You can find her on LinkedIn


APA Reference
Line, J. (2015). The Sociocultural History of Eating Disorders. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2019, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 26 Feb 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 26 Feb 2015
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