The Collegian
Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Marketing, fashion and the media large part of eating disorders, speaker says

The final event during the WILL/WGSS/Quest Speaker Series took place on Tuesday April 14 in the Alice Haynes Room.

Susan Bordo, renowned author and scholar of feminist, cultural and gender studies, spoke to a predominantly female audience on the subject, "Beyond 'Eating Disorders:' Why We Need to Rethink Everything We Thought We Knew."

Historical conceptions of eating disorders, she said, are a result of a combination of fashions in the medical world.

In the old days, anorexia was conceptualized as a form of hysteria, she said. Often it was seen as a case of young bourgeoisie girls rebelling against their parents, of which people in the medical field were skeptical, Bordo said.

During the mid-20th century, the dominant paradigm became psychoanalytic and focused on the rejection of the female body, Bordo said. Young woman didn't want the "voluptuous, domestically inclined body," and didn't want to assume the roles of their mothers, she said.

During the '70s, stars such as Karen Carpenter began to emerge with cases of eating disorders and the paradigm switched to the notion that girls should be the best little girls in the world, Bordo said.

By the time the '80s came around, the conceptualization of eating disorders was being seen in two new ways, she said. Anorexics were said to be suffering from disillusionment and a person suffering from anorexia was seen as an anomaly, she said.

The other direction of understanding during the '80s was from the feminist perspective that anorexia was a continuum. It was not just about a handful of girls, but had more to do with being a cultural disorder, she said.

The culture of the '80s had society surrounded by body images, and a perception that anorexia was still a disorder for white girls, she said. Theorists during the '90s denied this misconception and categorized the disorder as having no boundaries of color or race, she said.

Bordo said that around the same time that these cultural lines were being drawn, there had been an upsurge in the belief of the medical field: Eating disorders were biochemical disorders that could and should be treated with drugs.

Focusing on the idea of the image of the body, Bordo said that body images in magazines and on television should not just be seen as pictures.

"They are crystallizations of fantasies of our vulnerabilities," she said.

Enjoy what you're reading?
Signup for our newsletter

Bordo emphasized how the media played with the feelings of young girls.

"They are clever merchandisers who understand the psychology of young women and what they want," she said

Magazines and television advertisements and the hysteria surrounding celebrity role models set the precedent for girls about what body image is acceptable, she said.

Bordo used model and television show host Tyra Banks as an example of a powerful cultural icon who is in the position to mentor young people, but instead sends out mixed messages about what an acceptable image is.

Banks was photographed after having gaining some weight, and she reacted to the media attention by stating to the public that she was perfectly happy with her weight. But soon after, she lost the weight. Bordo said these actions sent the message that "it's ok to be 161 pounds and then it's not okay to be 161 pounds."

Shifting her focus, Bordo said that we should analyze eating disorders as multidimensional problems that take many different forms. It is important, she said, to think about the forces that constantly act on our lives.

Bordo specifically referred to consumerism and fashion. Both of these aspects of modern American culture constantly confront society with pedagogy of revenge, she said.

Advertisers lure consumers with seductive and irresistible marketing strategies aimed at assuring the consumers that their desires will be satisfied if they purchase a product, she said.

"Actually, we are being set up for binge consumerism," she said.

Not only is the urge to consume being intensified, but the ability exercise self-control is diminishing, she said.

Many doctors are diagnosing eating disorders as people's failure to control compulsions, but they are ignoring the power of the cultural context, Bordo said.

An ideal of moderation is never presented, but instead there is a constant push for more, making consumerism out of control, she said.

"The failure of consumers to control impulse is only half of the problem," she said.

Bordo referred to the ongoing economic crisis as a prime example of the sudden realization that there was a need for a serious cap on excess.

"We have had no models of self-regulation," she said.

Those who are theorizing about impulsive/compulsive behaviors and continue to talk about disorders as biochemical problems are not paying enough attention to the role of culture in eating disorders, she said.

Anorexia needs to be seen as a failure of self-regulation in a culture that fails to provide the environment for this to occur, she said.

Contact reporter Sarah Blythe-Wood at

Support independent student media

You can make a tax-deductible donation by clicking the button below, which takes you to our secure PayPal account. The page is set up to receive contributions in whatever amount you designate. We look forward to using the money we raise to further our mission of providing honest and accurate information to students, faculty, staff, alumni and others in the general public.

Donate Now