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The Vanity Myth: Eating Disorders and Beauty

A young woman looks at herself, critically, in the mirror.

One of the most prevalent and harmful misconceptions about eating disorders is that they are all about vanity. Many people believe that sufferers are vain, beauty-obsessed brats that could easily recover if they’d simply stop looking in the mirror and get over their need to be pretty. This isn’t even close to the truth. As someone who has been personally offended by this belief, I wanted to share my story and my thoughts to hopefully shed some light on the vanity myth.

Before anorexia took hold of my life, I believe I had a pretty unusual level of self-esteem when it came to my body and looks. Sure, I had my days when I scowled at my reflection. They often occurred in dance class when I pranced around in my leotard amidst a room of mirrors. With a naturally lean frame and a fast metabolism, I was used to eating what I wanted and easily keeping in shape with my hobbies and lifestyle. I had been called skinny my entire life, and I actually hated it because it was usually said with a derogatory tone. In fact, there were times were I actually felt guilty about being thin and liking the way I looked. How messed up is that? It was so rare among my peers for someone to be satisfied with their looks and to truly love their body that I felt completely awkward and tried my best to always avoid the subject.

In college, after a series of unfortunate, traumatic events, everything changed. Within a few months I went from having good self-esteem and body image to completely loathing my entire being. How did this happen? Nobody had called me fat, I was never teased about my looks, and I didn’t get the sudden urge to pursue a runway career either. No, this wasn’t about beauty. This wasn’t about being thin. It was about becoming trapped in a “perfect storm.”

Eating disorders are about control, fear, anger, punishment, avoidance, rebellion, needs, security; I could go on and on. They don’t instantly develop over night. The circumstances have to be just right, just like the circumstances of nature that contribute to the development of a “perfect storm,” where all the elements of  location, air temperature, wind speed, and direction, levels of condensation, and evaporation. For an eating disorder to develop, it usually takes a vulnerable personality, usually one with heightened emotional sensitivity and perfectionist tendencies. It often involves one or several difficult life changes, like abuse, the death of a loved one, or the start of a new school. Finally, the beauty-obsessed society we live in, the one that values physical appearance more than anything else, creates the recipe for disaster.

To the person with an eating disorder, many of these factors are not apparent. That’s why, when you ask them what they’re feeling, most often the answer is,”Fat.” When you explain to them that fat isn’t a feeling, the next answer is most likely, “I don’t know what I’m feeling.” This discrepancy is where the vanity-myth is born.  The person with the eating disorder focuses on their body in order to avoid focusing on all the deep, dark, seemingly uncontrollable and overwhelming feelings and circumstances that lie beneath the surface. The endless pursuit of beauty becomes the scapegoat for dealing with society.

What is beauty to you? Can you even put it into words? The first definition that appears in my dictionary states that beauty, as a noun, is “a combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses.” Following this is the definition for the adjective version: “denoting something intended to make a woman more attractive.” Hmm. More attractive than what? More attractive than she already is?  More like the air-brushed celebrities that you see in magazines?  It is no coincidence that the number of eating disorders is rising drastically. The idea of the perfect body is being forced upon us earlier and earlier in life. While capitalizing on the beauty within, instilling body-appreciation at any size, and drastically altering the size-zero ideal won’t eliminate eating disorders, it is certainly a step in the right direction.

© Copyright 2011 by Josie Tuttle, MA, therapist in Beverly Hills, California. All Rights Reserved.

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  • jacqui October 7th, 2011 at 4:47 PM #1

    Thank you so much for this very enlightening article.
    I too have always thought that girls with eating disorders were trying too hard to be something that they were not and that they are only concerned with how they look. I see now that I was wrong in that judgement and did not really understand where much of this disorder comes from for many who suffer. Thank you for opening my eyes to that.

  • adam October 7th, 2011 at 11:13 PM #2

    opposite for me…I tend to eat a lot when I’m depressed and everybody speaks about how I should resolve to diet and get lean and fit…nobody even thinks of there possibly being a different reason to it..I feel so alienated because nobody really knows about why I tend to go on those eating sprees.

  • Jaynie October 8th, 2011 at 1:54 PM #3

    Really eating disorders are not about feeling beautiful, but about feeling ugly.

    It is about trying to regain some truth and control in your life when everything else feels completely out of control.

    I know that is hard for some to understand, but I have been there. And when you are going through this I can almost bet you that we are not looking in the mirror thinking about how pretty this makes us feel.

  • L.W October 9th, 2011 at 11:33 PM #4

    Im having eating problems here and want to fix them, and you’re saying I’m doing it on purpose to remain slim? That is just so frustrating!

    Put yourself in the shoes of those of us that have a problem and others treat you like you’re responsible for harming yourself! Not a nice feeling at all!

  • Josie Tuttle, MA October 10th, 2011 at 1:31 PM #5

    @Jacqui – Thanks so much for the comment. The best part about writing for this site is when I hear that I’ve successfully reached people :)

    @adam – I understand how alienating that can feel for you. It is true. So many people do not understand the deeper connection that food and feelings have. I wish you hope and strength through your struggles.

    @Jaynie – That’s a great way to put it. Feeling ugly on the inside, at that. I remember people telling me how unattractive I was when underweight and I would think, “Like that makes a difference to me? I don’t do this to be pretty!”

    @L.W. – Not sure who this comment is for, but if to me, just wanted to let you know that the whole purpose of this article was to clarify that very misconception – that eating issues such as restricting, binging, etc are only about changing one’s physical image. I don’t believe this is true. Eating disorders are diseases that deserve real understanding and treatment. Best wishes to you in your struggles.

  • Laura January 30th, 2012 at 4:37 PM #6

    Very good article

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