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Expo Features Eating Disorders

Panelists Discuss Societal Pressures to be Thin

By E.k. Anagnostopoulos

Women's eating disorders stem from a lack of confidence in themselves, said speakers at a Boylston Hall panel discussion on women and eating disorders.

People with eating disorders are often burying "intense and complicated" feelings, said Dr. Margaret McKenna '70, a psychiatrist at University Health Services (UHS) who counsels patients with eating disorders.

"Over 99 percent of people with anorexia nervosa or bulimia are women--many of them intelligent, creative, and driven to succeed," said Cope Cumpston '72, a former bulimic.

Part of Women's Expo, a week-long examination of women's issues, the panel focused on the forces that create what media specialist Pamela Waite called "the mania for thinness."

Some women are propelled into either starving themselves, anorexia, or engaging in cycles of binging and gorging, bulimia, panelists told the audience of more than 80 people.

A complex set of factors combine to cause this problem, said McKenna, speaking at the discussion, co-sponsored by the Women's Center and Eating Concerns Hotline and Outreach (ECHO) and the Radcliffe dean's office.

Personal identity struggles, genetic predisposition, family problems and women's image in the media are all contributing factors in causing eating disorders, panelists said.

For many women, the need to present an absolutely flawless exterior stems from a fear of societal rejection, uncertainty about who they are and fear of admitting to confusion and problems, McKenna said.

"Binging is being unconscious--it's an escape from reality," said Cumpston, whose battle with bulimia lasted nine years. She said eating was a way of curbing inner loneliness and dealing with problems of self-hate.

"In our society, the definition of success is male-tough, in control, not needing anything-and this is associated with a thin, virile body," said McKenna. "I find many of the women I counsel trying harder than most men to be men."

Society rewards thinness and punishes obesity, Waite said. "Being fat often means not getting a second job interview" or not getting a date for the prom or being ridiculed.

Traditional feminine values of gentleness and nurturing, often indentified with a more ample figure, "are being trashed" in society, and part of the challenge for women is to learn how to value their feminine qualities, McKenna said.

Recent twin studies show a genetic vulnerability to eating disorders, said McKenna. However, this genetic predisposition is not enough to cause these disorders; other factors, such as the powerful societal message that women must be thin, greatly contributes to their development.

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