A vast amount of research has been done on the subject of eating disorders and their causes. Many eating disorders have been proven to emerge during adolescence and often serve as the foundations to more serious problems like anorexia and bulimia. This essay will explore the development of eating disorders in adolescent girls. It will show that these disorders are closely connected to the biological and psychosocial changes that occur during the adolescent period.
Many teen girls suffer with anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder in which girls use starvation diets to try to lose weight. They starve themselves down to skeletal thinness yet still think that they are overweight. Bulimia, meanwhile, is a disorder in which young women binge on food and then force themselves to vomit. They also often use laxatives to get food out of their system. All of these young women who suffer from this problem are considered to suffer from a psychiatric disorder. While the causes are debatable, one thing that is clear is that these young women have a distorted body image. (Wolf, pp.214-216)
What is extremely alarming is that the current thin ideal for women in Western society, which is unattainable for all but a very small percentage of the population, is compounding this problem. It is a very serious issue when someone’s body shape is determined by genetic disposition and yet they try to alter it to fit some kind of imaginary ideal of how a person should look.
Thus, one of the most serious problems is that female nature is not what society says it should be. Some researchers theorize that anorexia is a young woman’s way of canceling puberty. Since they lack body fat, anorexics don’t get their periods and often lose their sexual characteristics such as public hair. They remain, in other words, little girls. There is also the complex issue of women feeling that by having an eating disorder they are finally in control of something in their life. This may sound strange, but much research has shown that women who have been abused or neglected in their childhoods develop these problems of control. (Attie and Brooks-Gun, pp.70-71).
Studies suggest that eating disorders often begin in early to mid-adolescence. They are directly connected to pubertal maturation and the increases in body fat that occurs during this phase. These biological changes are associated with increased dieting and unhealthy behaviours in early adolescence. This problem is aggravated by various problems, including negative body image, which has a close association with weight, perfectionism and depression. Family and socialization also play significant roles. It has been found, for instance, that mothers with girls with eating disorders are often critical of their daughters’ weight and physical appearance. Families with adolescents who have eating disorders are also often characterized by enmeshment, overprotectiveness, rigidity and lack of conflict resolution. This is connected to the “control” issue mentioned previously. Interestingly enough, girls who are more involved in mixed-sex social activities and dating boys are also more likely to exhibit disordered eating tendencies. (Attie and Brooks-Gun, pp.70-71).
Thus, eating disorders must be studied in the context of what certain individuals face during their developmental stage, or what they may have suffered in childhood. In general, a combination of the pubertal phase of the female body, the loosening of the individual’s ties to parents, and the development of a stable and cohesive personality structure play profound roles in this process. Psychologists Ilana Attie and J. Brooks-Gun have done some work on this issue. They considered eating disorders within the so-called “developmental” perspective, which examines the emergence of eating disorders in adolescent girls as a function of pubertal growth, body image, personality development, and family relationships. The two psychologists examined 193 white females and their mothers during the former’s middle-schooled years (13.93 years) and then two years later. They set out to see how much the development of eating problems represented a mode of accommodation to pubertal change. Taking a “developmental” approach, the authors studied the impact of the pubertal transition relative to other aspects of the female adolescent experience. (Attie and Brooks-Gun).
These researchers emphasized one very significant fact: that as girls mature sexually, they accumulate large quantities of fat. For adolescent girls, this growth in fat tissue is one of the most dramatic physical changes associated with puberty, adding an average of 11 kg of weight in the form of body fat. This increase in fat is, in turn, directly connected to desires to be thinner. (Attie and Brooks-Gun, p.7O) This reality is due to the fact that, as Attie and Brooks-Gun demonstrate, female body image is intimately bound up with subjective perceptions of weight. Prepubescent girls who perceive themselves as underweight are most satisfied while the opposite occurs for those who are overweight or perceive themselves to be such. Thus, Attie and Brooks-Gun found that dieting emerged as the female body developed, and that is was a function of the body image transformation occurring at puberty. (Attie and Brooks-Gun, p.71)
Aside from the pubertal changes that the authors found significant in this issue, family relationships were also detected to influence the emergence of eating disorders. Families that set high standards for achievement, gave little support for autonomy, and blurred interpersonal boundaries left adolescent girls with deficits in their self-esteem. (Attie and Brooks-Gun, p.71) Once again, as mentioned earlier, it makes sense in a very complex way that young girls who have been abused in this way end up “controlling” things that are ultimately not good for them. For instance, a young girl who was made to feel powerless in some ways in her family (i.e. sexual or physical abuse) may end up feeling a sense of individual identity if she can “control”, for example, when she vomits and when she does not. Now, at least, she can have control over something in her life.
Personality factors were also found to contribute to the development of eating disorders. Characteristics such as perfectionist strivings, feelings of ineffectiveness, depressive symptoms and self-regulatory deficits were seen frequently in patients with eating disorders. (Attie and Brooks-Gun, p.71)
The authors found, for instance, that girls who early in adolescence felt most negatively about their bodies were more likely to develop eating problems two years later. (Attie and Brooks-Gun, p.76).
Thus, overall, Attie and Brooks-Gun found that eating problems emerged in response to physical changes of the pubertal period. Personality variables entered this problem, but only at a later stage. Attie’s and Brooks-Gun’s findings suggest that body shape becomes a primary focus and that efforts to control weight intensify during the middle-school years. In other words, the rapid accumulation of body fat that is part of the female experience of puberty often functions as a triggering effect, in the sense that it starts the attempt of weight-loss diets.
Attie’s and Brooks-Gun’s study did, of course, have its limitations. The authors themselves admitted that their investigation focused only on a sample of white girls from upper-middle-class families. Yet most evidence has suggested that bulimia nervosa is more prevalent in middle-and-upper middle class white girls, although there is evidence suggesting that eating disorders are increasing in other ethnic and social class groups, especially for girls who experience more pressure to acculturate to white, middle-class standards. (Graber, Brooks-Gun, Paikoff and Warren, p.823) In other words, what we see here is that the values and ideals held by the dominant society