Gender & Disordered Eating
Guest Authored Article by Jennifer Tabler, PhD
Jenni Tabler, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Jenni studies the life course consequences of behavioral health conditions. In particular, she examines eating disorders and their effects on family formation and socioeconomic attainment. Her research on eating disorders has been featured on multiple online platforms, including Jezebel and the Washington Post.
If I had a dollar for every time someone rolled his/her/their eyes at me for pointing out that eating is gendered, I would have quite a few dollars. Maybe I receive so many eye rolls because most people know gendered eating is a thing. Just turn on the TV for a few minutes and you’d figure out—from the constant stream of food advertisement—that men like meat. Women, on the other hand, really really, like really, love yogurt. Women also love all foods that don’t have calories, which actually aren’t foods if you really think about it. In fact, eating is gendered in the sense that women are encouraged and applauded for eating as little as possible, whilst men are encouraged and applauded for eating as much as possible.
Most people realize that food advertising is gendered, but may think this form of gendering of our reality is largely harmless. While gendered food advertisement may seem like a mere ploy to sell yogurt to women, the gendered aspect of our world that advertising is actually tapping into—that women should eat less, weigh less, and look a certain way—is harmful. The fact that the objectification of women (i.e., that a women’s major asset and worth is based on her body) perpetuated in yogurt commercials is, quite frankly, dangerous. An estimated 20-30 million American women alive today have or will suffer from an eating disorder. The drive for, or preoccupation with, thinness—the primary motivation of an eating disorder—begins in childhood and evolves across the life course. Over 40% of 1st-3rd grade girls express a desire to be thinner, and between 30-50% of adolescent girls report engaging in disordered eating behaviors, including crash dieting, fasting, vomiting, taking diet pills, or abusing laxatives to lose weight. Of all major risk factors for eating disorders (race/ethnicity, socio-demographic resources in childhood, social support, genetics, BMI in childhood, bullying to name a few) gender is the most important. This is because women are more prone to societal pressures to achieve and maintain thinness. So yes, yogurt commercials are part of a much bigger problem. The problem is the objectification of the female body that is culturally disseminated through gender norms, including gendered eating.
Although eating is gendered, there is a nagging, pervasive belief within our society that eating disorders are an individual’s lifestyle choice. Stigmatizing attitudes toward eating disorders may result in additional social and psychological burdens to individuals who suffer from them, and ultimately restrict opportunities for their treatment; while upwards of 24 million individuals in the US suffer from an eating disorder, only 1 in 10 women are estimated to receive treatment. This is a bummer, given the fact that eating disorders have one of the highest estimated mortality rates (4-6%) of any mental disorder, are predictive of suicide, and are associated with additional mental health conditions including depression, and substance abuse. To top it off, adolescent and young adult women with eating disorders earn less money, and achieve lower levels of education in adulthood.
It is important to note here, however, that gender norms surrounding weight and appearance are not only harmful for heterosexual women; sexual minorities of any gender are often at greater risk of eating disorders relative to their heterosexual peers. And males with eating disorders are even less likely to receive screening or intervention due to the perceptions that eating disorders are a “woman’s illness.” Eating disorders are hard on anyone who suffers from them, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. However, the fact that more than 40% of 6 to 8-year-old girls express a desire to be thinner should make all of us pause. The case of eating disorders provides evidence to conclude that socially constructed, gendered notions of beauty and worth make identifying as a woman/girl particularly risky for one’s mental, physical, and social wellbeing.