Anorexia nervosa is a social problem that affects many young people in the American culture due to the issues of body image and the perception of being too fat. Idealized beauty images of women who are portrayed in media representations as thin and attractive can be a contributing factor in the development of anorexia nervosa. These issues have wide psychological and social implications, which the Karen Carpenter story brings to light. Her losing battle with the most devastating effects of the disease, including heart failure and death at the early age of 32, was an example for the world in the 1980s to learn the underlying causes of anorexia. However, the issues of anorexia nervosa are still an important problem today which continues to take the lives of young girls in the prime of life.
There are three major forms of eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder (Maher, 2014). All three of these types of disorders are physiologically and psychologically harmful to the young people who are suffering. They are associated with various progressive diseases, up to and including death as the Karen Carpenter story clearly demonstrated. The statistics on anorexia nervosa are alarmingly high. 0.9% of American women suffer from anorexia in their lifetime (Hudson et al., 2007). The condition will cause a person to lose so much weight that they will appear emaciated and deathly ill to observers—which, in fact, they are—and yet they will refuse to eat any normal portions of food.
Of all the eating disorders, anorexia nervosa is the most prevalent disease that causes early death. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (http://www.anad.org) stated that between 5-10% of anorexics die within 10 years, either from suicide or actual death by starvation and its associated complications. Yet only 1-10 people with anorexia receive comprehensive treatment. They are frequently sent home without effective medical prescriptions or any type of help. A study by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders reported that 5 – 10% of anorexics die within 10 years after contracting the disease; 18-20% of anorexics will be dead after 20 years and only 30 – 40% ever fully recover (ANAD, 2016). These figures are even more shocking when taking into account that young girls between the ages of 18-24 are the most common victims. Anorexic girls may go to great lengths to hide the fact that they are not eating to their families; they may pretend to be eating at mealtimes and the family may not notice until they have lost so much weight that the condition is unmistakable. Meanwhile, in girls who are not receiving psychological treatment the rates of suicide also are likely to rise (Arcelus et al., 2011). This factor is an obvious circumstance of the necessity for both psychological and physical medical attention concurrently. “Standardized mortality ratio (SMR) is a ratio between the observed number of deaths in a study population and the number of deaths would be expected. SMR for anorexia nervosa is 5.86” (Arcelus et al., 2011). These high rates of suicide indicate that the social problems of anorexia nervosa go much deeper than the issues of beauty image and dieting for body awareness. For people who have anorexia nervosa, the importance of following a behavioral/cognitive psychological treatment plan may be the only program that can save their lives.
Yet in many cases the real physiological health issues associated with anorexia nervosa are not treated seriously within the psychological community, which has exacerbated these issues: “the focus of psychiatric epidemiology has shifted towards the community…assignment to a diagnostic category may stretch such categories to the point where they assume a tenuous relationship with what had been originally intended” (Szmukler, 2013, p. 143). What this essentially means is that a young woman who has an eating disorder will not be treated for her symptoms until it is actually too late to make a positive difference. By the time she has begun to fit into a diagnostic category, the harmful damage on her body will have gone too far.
Because these kinds of eating disorders are associated with feelings of shame and a poor body self-image in young women, these issues are frequently hidden from others so that really no one knows about it until it is too late. “Anorexia nervosa is a psychiatric illness affecting predominantly young women, characterized by self-induced starvation, endocrine dysregulation, and comorbid psychiatric disease” (Lawson et al., 2013, p. 451). For these reasons, it is hard to determine the exact numbers of people who have eating disorders. Also, most insurance companies do not provide coverage for eating disorders so that makes it even more difficult to provide exact statistics. In short, eating disorders are not classified as a disease until they have progressed to a point of crisis such as occurred with Karen Carpenter. Noone actually knew about her condition, as a celebrity singer in The Carpenters duo, where she and her brother sang together and earned Grammy awards and other important celebrity recognition.
As far as a solution to the major issues involved with anorexia nervosa, there are many organizations online which can point to increased awareness and support groups. Due to the high statistics on anorexia as an adolescent and young girls’ issue, beauty image factors and the explicit cultural role where the advertising media promotes thinness as an attainable and desirable goal seems central to the problem. It is highly unlikely that the advertising corporations will be changing their approach any time soon. Beauty and self-image in young girls will continue to have a prominent role in advertising and media culture. The psychological and social aspects of body image, therefore, must be an important concern within the family, the education system, and the cultural representation of women in American society.
- ANAD (2016). Your future is worth fighting for. National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. Retrieved from http://www.anad.org/
- Arcelus, J., Mitchell, A. J., Wales, J., & Nielsen, S. (2011). Mortality rates in patients with anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders: a meta-analysis of 36 studies. Archives of General Psychiatry, 68(7), 724-731.
- Hudson, J. I., Hiripi, E., Pope, H. G., & Kessler, R. C. (2007). The prevalence and correlates of eating disorders in the national comorbidity survey replication. Biological Psychiatry, 61(3), 348–358.
- Lawson, E. A., Holsen, L. M., Santin, M., DeSanti, R., Meenaghan, E., Eddy, K. T., … & Klibanski, A. (2013). Postprandial oxytocin secretion is associated with severity of anxiety and depressive symptoms in anorexia nervosa. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 74(5), 451-457.
- Maher, I. (2014, Oct. 2). What’s new in eating disorders treatment and research. Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved from http://www.tampabay.com/news/health/qa-whats-new-in-eating-disorders-treatment-and-research/2200489
- Szmukler, G. I. (2013). The epidemiology of anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 19, 143-153.