Rejecting notions of body perfection to avoid harm

Body image issues and eating disorders  affect everyone, so those who are concerned should help change society’s mentality. It may not happen as often for some as it does for others, but body image issues

Body image issues and eating disorders  affect everyone, so those who are concerned should help change society’s mentality.

It may not happen as often for some as it does for others, but body image issues and eating disorders are unfortunate realities.

The Renfrew Center Foundation, a national nonprofit that educates, prevents, researches and treats eating disorders, reports one in five women suffer with an eating disorder, and 10 percent to 15 percent of people with anorexia or bulimia are men.
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RCF also reports as many as 24 million people in the United States and as many as 70 million people worldwide suffer from eating disorders.

To understand and address this as a female-specific issue, the theme of RCF’s 20th annual Conference for Professionals was “Feminist Perspectives and Beyond: Honoring the Past, Embracing the Future.”

The keynote speaker at the Nov. 12 event in Philadelphia was feminist icon and founder of Ms. Magazine, Gloria Steinem.

“Everyone suffers from the idea that, ‘You are your body,’” Steinem said at the conference. “Body shame and [negative] body image feed body loathing.”

Although widely loved by women who attended this conference and many others, Steinem is often criticized inside and outside feminism for a range of reasons, such as her Catherine MacKinnon-like anti-pornography views or misinformed and misconstrued statements made about transsexuality.

It would seem hypocritical for Steinem to make a statement like this, seeing as how her pants aren’t exactly suffocating her to the extent that she has to leave them unbuttoned.

“If we’re going to change the ethic where a Size 0 and plastic surgery is the admirable norm, then the rest of us who aren’t part of the admirable norm have to say so,” she said.

What’s poignant about this quote is her reminder that body image issues are universal. Steinem herself highlights this by admitting she often gets self-conscious about the appearance of her hands.

Not all of the millions of people who are struggling to lose weight – some are struggling with the fear of gaining weight, that they will not be able to maintain society’s definition of acceptable body weight.

This issue doesn’t discriminate – people across all minorities suffer from body image issues.

A 1994 study of 2,000 women by Essence magazine found black women were “at risk and suffer from eating disorders in at least the same proportion as white women.”

RCF reports 74 percent of Indian-American girls were dieting extremely and purging with diet pills. It also reports high numbers of individuals with body-image issues and eating disorders among the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.

According to RCF, lesbians are a greater risk for binge eating disorder than heterosexual women. It also reports that 10 percent to 42 percent of men suffering from eating disorders have identified as gay or bisexual. Transgender people, the RCF reports, are at risk for developing eating disorders because of gender role obsession or “intense discordance with the body and anatomical sex.”

Steinem said external forces from “bullies and mean girls” could be causing this issue in the GLBT community, especially among youth.

“Bullies and mean girls are the police of gender roles,” she said.

Steinem said bullies enforce masculinity through dominance over males who do not conform to gender roles and mean girls who do the same in terms of femininity.

It’s not just bullies and mean girls who cause body image issues. Magazines, movies and television programs show these incredibly attractive, “perfect” people who define beauty within our culture.When we cannot live up to these notions of perfection, we go to extreme measures of self-hate, resulting in eating disorders and body image issues.

It may take a while to develop a solution to this problem, to accept that every individual is uniquely beautiful. Tons of research on this topic needs to be done and implemented in our society in some way, but until then, we need to mentally affirm ourselves.

“We need to give ourselves the permission to be imperfect,” Steinem said. “Perfect is boring.”

Josh Fernandez can be reached at

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