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A New Pandemic: Fat Phobia?

Our culture's distorted body image and the disorders it engenders

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

More than 70 million people worldwide suffer from an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. And that number is rapidly increasing in most parts of the world. While genetics, upbringing, and cultural ideals all contribute to the risk of developing an eating disorder, only cultural ideals concerning the perfect body can explain why eating disorders are on the rise in most parts of the world. But how does the distorted body image that is prevalent in our culture lead to clinical eating disorders?

When we are constantly bombarded with images showcasing the ideal body shape and size, it is no surprise that we come to believe our bodies are oversized or have the wrong shape. These widespread negative attitudes towards the body are delusional. And like most other delusional beliefs, they foster negative thoughts, such as self-hatred and self-contempt.

It's tempting to think that our unhealthy obsession with the ideal body image is a kind of eating disorder. Consider what is required for a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa:

(A) a restriction of calories that leads to a significantly low body weight, (B) a distorted perception or delusional belief that one is not thin enough, and (C) associated self-hatred or self-contempt, and (D) fear of not being thin enough.

It is striking that if you are not underweight and you mistakenly believe you are not thin enough, then you satisfy nearly all the criteria for anorexia nervosa—with the exception of (A). Let's call this fear of body fat (even healthy body fat) "fat phobia."

Fat phobia is a risk factor for anorexia nervosa. One key difference between the delusional beliefs underlying fat phobia and those underlying anorexia is that anorexics believe that they are oversized, or not skinny enough, even though they skinnier than dictated by the cultural ideal.

But if anorexics have already exceeded the cultural ideal regarding body size, why do they continue to deny that they are thin (or thin enough)?

The answer lies in the way they perform body checks. In anorexia, excessive attention is devoted to 'problem parts' of the body during frequent body checks. Body check behaviors include pinching skin folds on arms, thighs or abdomen, searching for bones under the skin and focusing on specific body parts when watching themselves in the mirror. If all of their attention is devoted to “problem areas” rather than to the body as a whole, they will inevitably begin to perceive themselves as larger than the cultural ideal. In their mind, the only way to reach the ideal is to lose more weight.

If only we could overcome the pandemic of fat phobia, we might be able to decrease the prevalence of at least some eating disorders. This, however, would require radically changing the preference for a certain body shape and size inherent in our culture. This is a tall order. However, by putting an end to our obsessive body check behaviors, like our constant weigh-ins and fat grabbings, we can each do a lot to keep our fat phobia from running amok.