In recent history, the idea of feminine beauty has been shifting toward a less healthy, overly thin model. More than 25,000 years ago when humans first evolved, women exaggerated their reproductive organs, like breasts and hips, using fertility symbols. Slim women were not considered beautiful because they did not seem healthy enough to nourish and raise a family, or make it through the winter. Slim women were also considered to be poor, because they could not afford enough food to keep their body full and healthy.
During the Renaissance era, beautiful paintings from world famous artists, including Michelangelo, featured full-figured women. Full figures continued to be popular throughout the Mannerism and Baroque periods, which continued up through the 1730’s. In the mid-1700’s, women’s figures started to change. The women began to wear girdles, cinching up their waist to exaggerate their “curves”. The girdles were painful but women wanted to get their waist as small as they could. In the 1900’s, waists became even smaller.
The Roaring 20’s brought radical changes to women and their bodies. Young girls called “flappers” became popular. They wore their hair short and boyish, wore rolled down stockings and short, baggy dresses exposing their arms and legs. They were defined as “rebels”, and embarrassed the older generation by the way they dressed and acted. They refused to be “lady-like”, and they were wild. “Twiggy” was the most popular fashion model in the 1960’s, named for her ultra-thin body. She exposed more and more of her stick-like body to the camera, and inspired other girls to become like her, because she was popular, different, and wild. The super-skinny image is still portrayed today, even though it is not healthy.
In the early 1990’s a magazine headline read, “You Can Never Be Too Thin”. Some women literally believed this, and died of starvation and suffered from anorexia nervosa. Teenagers are directly targeted because they always conform to high fashion. “We live in a society where it’s the standard for a teenager to worry excessively about her body and gaining weight…this aberrant behavior has become the norm” (Bell 67). Women now are so worried with their figure that they develop life-threatening psychological habits, get plastic surgery, go on crash diets, and even starve themselves. Women’s obsession with their weight is causing them serious health problems.
Anorexia nervosa has the highest death rate of any psychologically based disorder. “It is not a new disease, but one which has recently become more widely recognized” (84-88). The reason anorexia nervosa has the highest death rate is because it can be kept a secret, until it is almost too late. When victims start to become anorexic the public might compliment them because they’ve “lost a little weight and look good”. When they start to become too thin, concerned comments like “are you losing weight?” may actually be taken as a compliment by anorexic victims because they have brainwashed themselves and now have the mindset to be as thin as they can. “Victims of anorexia nervosa develop a warped view of optimal thinness. Even when their bodies become dangerously thin, they feel that they are too fat and this drives them to even more drastic food reduction” (89). In the process of starvation, when women lose too much weight they have trouble regulating their internal body temperature resulting in cold blue hands and feet. A layer of hair called lungo grows on the skin as a coping mechanism to help keep the body warm due to a loss of insulating fat (Nikles 1). Anorexia nervosa victims can not stop dieting, and sometimes they die because they are too thin (Ahrens 70). In order to die from starvation, one must not eat anything for over 2 months, and their own body eats itself. This is very painful and weakening for the woman, she may need to stay in bed or be hospitalized. That kind of self-discipline proves how obsessed women are with becoming thin.
“Many anorexic women also indulge in occasional eating binges, and half of them make the transition to bulimia. About 40% of the most severely bulimic patients have a history of anorexia. It’s not clear whether the combination of anorexia with bingeing and purging is more debilitating, physically or emotionally, than anorexia alone” (Grinspoon and Batalar 1). Both anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are psychological disorders that also cause physical harm. Brittle bones are common from a lack of calcium; muscles dissolve and begin eating themselves because there is not enough caloric intake. Some anorexic victims exercise profusely without eating, which causes their body to self-destruct. Anorexic victims also have problems with their heart and blood from the lack of iron in their diet.
Bulimia Nervosa is defined as “two or more episodes of binge eating (rapid consumption of a large amount of food, up to 5,000 calories) every week for at least three months. The binges are sometimes followed by vomiting or purging (use of laxatives) and may alternate with compulsive exercise and fasting” (1). The consumption of high-calorie junk food, even though they throw it up, may cause the victim to gain fat cells. The victim gains some weight, goes on a diet, and the cycle repeats itself (Nardo 97). Though bulimia is not as dangerous as anorexia because the victims almost always maintain a healthy weight, bulimia has far more side effects. These include fatigue, weakness, bloating, and dehydration from overuse of laxatives. The cause of bulimia is unclear, although it is thought to be a combination of many different physical, emotional, and environmental issues (Grinspoon and Batalar 1). Dentists can actually tell if a woman is bulimic from the shape of her teeth. They are more rounded, with the erosion of dental enamel because when they throw up, they are causing stomach acids to enter back through their mouths. Stomach acid is very powerful; it eats away all of the protective enamel on their teeth. These side effects may not seem life threatening, but they are very unpleasant. Aside from the fact that bulimia victims are depriving their bodies of essential vitamins when they purge, bulimic victims are less stable emotionally and are more likely to commit suicide (1).
Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) is another mental disorder where women are overly obsessed with their body. Approximately 5 million Americans have BDD (Brody 79). BDD victims usually obsess over something very slight, or imaginary. “Whatever the imagined defect – and often there are several – living with BDD is a pretty dismal existence, especially for teens. Some drop out of school. One-third are unable to leave the house for a week or more. One-quarter attempt suicide…it causes a tremendous amount of suffering” (80).
The desire for a woman to change her body still exists even if she doesn’t develop a mental condition or obsession. Cosmetic surgery has become known as a “quick fix” for weight problems but the combination of side effects during surgery and the treatments after surgery can be very unpleasant, painful, and even life-threatening. The fastest growing form of cosmetic surgery is liposuction. In 1986, 100,000 operations were performed. By 1989, 200,000 pounds of body tissue was sucked out of 130,000 women. Even though liposuction is dangerous and can cause death, women continue to enjoy it (Davis 26-27). All surgery from a heart transplant to cosmetic surgery is dangerous and has the same risks because any time someone is put under anesthesia it can be life threatening. “Negative reactions to anesthesia are so common that they are called routine complications, although in some cases they can be fatal…most operations have side effects, many of which are serious and even permanent. Although statistics are not kept, the list of complications accompanying cosmetic operations is long” (27). Doctors are required to let women know of all the possible side effects that can happen during and after surgery, but that doesn’t hold them back at all. Their desire for the “perfect figure” is so strong they will willingly risk their lives. There is no guarantee that after surgery the fat won’t come back (Guerra 112). There is no way of knowing how one’s body is going to heal after cosmetic surgery, and the surgery often ends in disappointment, depression, or even more cosmetic surgery to fix the scars and unexpected flaws that the first surgery has left. Swelling can also occur for up to six weeks. The possibility of bleeding, bruising, infection and scarring are also some of the risks of liposuction (Ashton 121). “Infections, wound disruptions, and erosion of overlying skin are a routine byproduct of any operation. Scar tissue can harden and darken. There is no way to prevent this kind of disfigurement and it is estimated that over twenty percent of all cosmetic surgery involves repairing scar tissue left over from previous operations” (Davis 27).
Apparatus that must be worn after surgery may cause women to stay at home for a long period of time. Apparatus are very uncomfortable. They are elastic wraps that are tightly bound around the legs, stomach, or wherever the surgery was performed, to keep the remaining tissue “in place.” They must be worn for ten days and up to three weeks. The combination of the apparatus and swelling may keep patients secluded from their friends, family, and the public for up to six months, which can be a source of depression. It may take up to a year for all of the remaining traces of surgery to disappear.
The fastest and the most unhealthy kind of dieting is crash dieting. Crash dieting causes a woman to lose weight quickly for a short period of time but can quickly reverse itself. Long term crash dieting will cause weight gain because during self-starvation. When a small amount of food is entered into the body it is consumed as fat instead of energy because the body is preparing for starvation. The body is saving all of the consumed energy as fat to be able to survive longer. When dieters burn calories they are burning muscle because their body refuses to burn the fat because the fat is more important. Fat will help a body survive (98). These crash diets are unhealthy because they are restricting proper vitamin and mineral intake into a body and can cause vitamin deficiency. “Under women’s self-imposed condition of starvation, they may suffer from many of the same vitamin and deficiency conditions common in impoverished countries with high rates of malnutrition” (Nardo 98). Crash dieters go on strict diets, 300 – 600 calories a day, which is one-quarter less than average calorie consumption (98).
The combination of losing weight to their body’s absolute minimum and nutritional imbalance can cause serious harm to a woman’s reproductive system. Crash dieting women may not be able to get pregnant because their reproductive system may shut itself down. Most anorexic women have this problem and if proper amounts of protein and calories are not taken into their body they could lose the chance to have a baby forever. “Anorexia causes a cessation of menstruation in women, which can be permanent depending on how severe the disorder is and how long it continues…preadolescent females fail to menstruate all together” (Nikles 1). Women’s bodies stop ovulating so they won’t be able to become pregnant because their body has a hard time storing enough energy to keep themselves alive, let alone keep a baby alive. Strict vegetarian diets may also cause a woman’s body to stop ovulating because of the lack of protein (Perloe and Christie 91).
If a woman with an eating disorder does become pregnant she may have trouble carrying her baby to term. The closer her weight is to normal and the healthier her diet the better chance of a successful pregnancy. Women with eating disorders have higher rates of miscarriages than healthy normal women. “A woman’s fertility is not only jeopardized, but her chances of supporting a fetus are seriously impaired due to a drop in hormone levels” (Nikles 1).
A premature baby can also be a sign of an eating disorder during pregnancy. Lower birth weight babies are at risk of many medical problems, and some are life threatening. Babies born to eating disordered mothers may be retarded or slow to develop. They can be smaller in size, weaker, and slower growing than other children of the same age. Intellectually they lag behind their classmates. They are not quite as fully developed socially and have a hard time developing relationships with other people (“ANRED” 1).
If a woman obsessed with being thin becomes pregnant she may be torn apart emotionally because of her weight gain. Women who are anorexic are usually very controlling and self-disciplined and when they find that they can’t control their weight gain may try and hurt themselves, or their baby.
When a woman doesn’t have enough nourishment for herself and becomes pregnant, the baby’s needs come first and may starve the mother of important nutrients, such as protein and calcium. Protein is one of the most important nutrients for pregnant women because it develops the tissue of the fetus and increases the mother’s blood volume as well as the amniotic fluid (Eating for two 1). Starvation of calcium in the mother will make her teeth and bones very fragile. Stress fractures and broken bones may appear later in years because of the lack of calcium. Once calcium is lost from a woman’s bones it is very difficult if not impossible to regain (“ANRED” 1).
A woman with an eating disorder and pregnant is at high risk for serious health problems. Her liver can be affected, as well as her kidneys. Cardiac damage may also occur during pregnancy (“ANRED” 1).
When women were big and voluptuous they were recognized for their health and potential to raise a big family. Since women now are so obsessed with becoming thin, they give up everything including a chance to have a baby. A woman’s body knows when she is not healthy and doesn’t have enough body fat and reacts in certain ways to tell her to eat. She ignores her body’s signals because she is afraid of becoming fat. Women’s obsession with their weight causes major psychological problems such as anorexia and bulimia. Some women get fat surgically removed and become depressed with the results. By crash dieting a woman’s body begins to eat it’s muscle. All of these health problems are caused by a woman’s conscious attempt to become slim. Most if not all of these problems could be avoided if women were not obsessed about their weight. There are many ways to help women with eating disorders. It takes a lot of time to be “cured”, but it is well worth the wait. Counselors and psychiatrists are a good source for information, along with support groups. If women don’t get the help that they need fast enough, their life could be lost. Too many women have lost their lives already. Too many women are dying to be thin.
“Anorexia Nervosa and other Related Eating Disorders, Inc. (ANRED)” http://www.anred.com (February 21, 1999).
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Ashton, Maria. “The Pain of Plastic Surgery.” Marie Claire, August 1998: 118- 121
Bell, Alison. “Disordered Eating – Are You One of the Silent Majority?” Teen, February 1999: 66-71.
Brody, Liz. “When Looks Could Kill.” Jump, June 1998.
Davis, Kathy. Reshaping the Female Body – The Dilemma of Cosmetic Surgery. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Eating for Two: Nutrition During Pregnancy. http://www.parenthoodweb.com/parent_cfmfiles/pros.cfm/371 (February 19, 1999).
Grinspoon, Lester, M.D., James B. Batalar, J.D. “The Harvard Mental Health Letter.” http://www.mentalhealth.com/mag1.1997.h97-eat1.html (February 15, 1999).
Guerra, Gigi. “The Exploding Plastic Inevitable.” Jane, August 1998: 108 – 113.
Nardo, Don. Vitamins and Minerals. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1994.
Nikles, Nina. “The Risks in the Quest for Thinness.” http://web87a.bbnplanet.com/belmont/entertainment/health/029688_2_the 031197_8bc052904c.html (February 19, 1999).
Perloe, Mark M.D. and Linda Gail Christie. Miracle Babies and Other Happy Endings. New York, Rawson Associates, 1986.
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