Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating Through the Lens of Gender & Sexuality

East Bay Intimacy & Sex Therapy Center supports healthy relationships to all body sizes, shapes, genders and abilities. The article below was written by  Dr. Nelsen for the The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies.

CN, C. 2016. Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating. The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies. 1–3. Published Online: 21 APR 2016

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Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating Through the Lens of Gender & Sexuality

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Although the direct etiology of eating disorders is not entirely clear, it can be confirmed that gender role stereotypes do influence the problem, as is supported by the fact that 90 percent of eating disorder cases are found in women (Morris 1985). Martz-Ludwig (1995) found that women who identify with feminine gender roles are at a significantly higher risk for acquiring disordered eating habits and body image problems. This study also supports the evidence that women who strive to achieve the cultural ideals of feminine beauty are more susceptible to developing an eating disorder.

Women are bombarded with pressures from media to adhere to an unrealistic standard of beauty in which thinness is revered. Bonnie Morris (1985), a prominent secondwave feminist, offers an explanation of social status for the women who experience body dissatisfaction and eating disorders. In her article, she postulates that adhering to a strict eating regimen often escalates to the development of full-blown eating disorders because “that behavior pattern is regarded as an achievement, not only by the anorexic but by her peer group” (Morris 1985, 90). By associating a woman’s status, character, and, ultimately, her worth, with low weight, the emaciated physique is set as an ideal and prompts unhealthy expectations for women (Morris 1985). Some empirical studies look through a feminist lens at the origins of eating disorders. Snyder and Hasbrouk (1996) found The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies, First Edition. Edited by Nancy A. Naples. © 2016 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Published 2016 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. DOI: 10.1002/9781118663219.wbegss679 that disordered eating habits were more widespread among college-aged women who identified with traditional sexist roles. Conversely, women who were connected to feminist tenets were less likely to develop eating disorders and body image issues.

This finding supports the feminist assertion that sexist gender roles in patriarchal society contribute to many women’s low self-esteem, distorted body issues, and disordered eating. The media and fashion industry dictate the cultural ideal of the thin body with images of emaciated models displayed across the spectrum of media avenues. The fitness and diet industries generate millions of dollars annually by marketing the concept of the ideal body to women. There has been recent criticism of the media for portraying digitally enhanced images of unrealistically thin women as reasonable and achievable standards against which women should measure themselves (Grogan 2008).

Critiques from feminists have suggested that a wide array of body types and sizes needs to be accepted. Women in Western society are under great social pressure to be deemed “beautiful” by being thin (Grogan 2008). However, such beauty standards are often unrealistic for women to achieve (Tiggemann 2002). Furthermore, women’s experiences of such pressure to attain the ideal body is correlated to dissatisfaction with their body and with eating disorders. It is, however, unclear why only some women who are exposed to these pressures and ideals develop eating disorders, while others do not. Given that women are particularly vulnerable to negative body image, comprehensive social change will be required to shift the relationship between a woman’s inherent value and her physical 2 EATING DISORDERS AND DISORDERED EATING appearance and weight (Paquette and Raine 2004). According to objectification theory repetitive experiences of sexual objectification socialize women to treat themselves as objects to be seen and evaluated by outside critiques; in viewing their bodies as objects for others, they then adopt the objectification as valid (de Beauvoir 1949; Bartky, Diamond, and Quinby 1988). Self-objectification is cultivated in a culture where women experience persistent body surveillance. These chronic negative experiences lead to the sequelae of symptoms such as depression, low self-esteem, and disordered eating. It is well documented that heterosexual women experience unhealthy body image and disordered eating due to high levels of social pressures to be thin. Moradi and colleagues’ (2005) data posits that more than half of college women skip meals (59%); approximately one third restricted caloric consumption (37%), eliminated carbohydrates and fats (27% and 30%); and about one fourth fasted for more than 24 hours at a time (26%) in order to manipulate their body weight.

There has been a paucity of research in examining the experience of non-heterosexual women in terms of body satisfaction and social pressures. However, some recent studies (Huxley 2010; Koff et al. 2010) have suggested that the pressure to be thin is ubiquitous, regardless of sexual orientation. In one recent study, Koff and colleagues (2010) found that heterosexual and nonheterosexual women evidenced similar perceptions of their own bodies as well as that of the cultural ideal of the thin, feminine body. They also were found to have similar rates of body dissatisfaction, waist-to-hip ratio, breast size, and overall body fat. These results indicate that all women, regardless of sexual orientation and identity, are at risk of experiencing poor body image.

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While women are far more likely than men to develop eating disorders, due to the factors described above, men are not immune. Studies have found that gay and bisexual men in particular are prone to developing eating disorders as a result of the emphasis on physical attractiveness in gay male subcultures (Siever 1994). In addition, athletes seem to be more susceptible to eating disorders than the general public (see Picard 1999). One study found that male athletes had higher rates of disordered eating than the general population, while female athletes experienced rates similar to those of general college populations (Stoutjesdyk and Jevne 1993). Stoutjesdyk and Jevne (1993) also found differences among different types of athletic groups, but only among females, with women in weight-restricted sports such as rowing, judo, diving, and gymnastics more likely to suffer eating disorders than other female athletes. Picard (1999) found that, in general, athletes at higher levels of competition are more susceptible to eating disorders than lowerlevel athletes, and athletes in “lean sports” such as distance running were more prone to eating disorders than those in non-lean sports such as basketball and hockey. Differences between racial and ethnic groups have also been found, with Caucasian and Latina female high school athletes being at greater risk of developing eating disorders than their African American peers (Pernick et al. 2006).

Review of the literature on mass media, developmental psychology, and eating disorders suggests a profound need for additional etiological research based on an amalgamation of developmental social learning theory, social comparison theory, and vulnerability stressor models of disordered eating (Grogan 2008).

Further empirical testing needs to be done to explore possible ways to change the cultural ideal of the thin body and to minimize the stress related to binary gender role stereotypes.



Bartky, S. L., Irene Diamond, and Lee Quinby, eds. 1988. Feminism and Foucault: Reflections of Resistance. Boston: Northeastern University Press. Beauvoir, Simone de. (1949) 1997. The Second Sex. London: Vintage.

Grogan, Sarah. 2008. Body Image: Understanding Body Dissatisfaction in Men, Women and Children, 2nd ed. London:

Routledge. Huxley, Caroline J. 2010. “An Exploration of the Sociocultural Influences Affecting Lesbian and Bisexual Women’s Body Image.” Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of the West of England, UK.

Koff, Elissa, Margery Lucas, Robyn Migliorini, and Samantha Grossmith. 2010. “Women and Body Dissatisfaction: Does Sexual Orientation Make a Difference?” Body Image, 7(3): 255–258. DOI: 03.001.

Martz-Ludwig, Denise. 1995. Evaluation of a Peer Leader Eating Disorders Prevention Program for College Sororities (Order No. AAM9431472). Available from PsycINFO. (618740769; 1995- 95003-066). Retrieved from http://search. 25260.

Moradi, Bonnie, Danielle Dirks, and Alicia V. Matteson. 2005. “Roles of Sexual Objectification Experiences and Internalization of Standards of Beauty in Eating Disorder Symptomatology: A Test and Extension of Objectification Theory.” Journal of Counseling Psychology, 52(3): 420–428. DOI: 0167.52.3.420.

Morris, Bonnie J. 1985. “The Phenomena of Anorexia Nervosa: A Feminist Perspective.” Feminist Issues, 5(2): 89–99.

Paquette, Marie-Claude, and Kim Raine. 2004. “Sociocultural Context of Women’s Body Image.” Social Science & Medicine, 59: 1047–1058.

Pernick, Yael, Jeanne Nichols, Mitchell Rauh, Mark Kern, Ming Ji, Mandra Lawson, and Denise Wilfley. 2006. “Disordered Eating among a MultiRacial/Ethnic Sample of Female High School Athletes.” Journal of Adolescent Health, 38: 689–695.

Picard, Christy. 1999. “The Level of Competition as a Factor for the Development of Eating Disorders in Female Collegiate Athletes.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 28(5): 583–594.

Siever, Michael D. 1994. “Sexual Orientation and Gender as Factors in Socioculturally Acquired Vulnerability to Body Dissatisfaction and Eating Disorders.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62: 252–260.

Snyder, Rita, and Lynn Hasbrouck. 1996. “Feminist Identity, Gender Traits, and Symptoms of Disturbed Eating among College Women.” Psychology of Women Quarterly, 20(4): 593–598.

Stoutjesdyk, Dexa, and Ronna Jevne. 1993. “Eating Disorders among High Performance Athletes.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 22(3): 271–282.

Tiggemann, Marika. 2002. “Media Influences of Body Image Development.” In Body Image: A Handbook ofTheory, Research, and Clinical Practice, edited by Thomas F. Cash and Thomas

Pruzinsky, 91–98. New York: Guilford Press. FURTHER READING Pike, Kathleen M., Hans W. Hoek, and Patricia E. Dunne. 2014. “Cultural Trends and Eating Disorders.” Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 27(6): 436–442.

To Cite: C, C. 2016. Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating. The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies. 1–3.