As part of my research into male disordered eating, at the end of last year I read an article: ‘Perceptions of the causes of eating disorders: a comparison of individuals with and without eating disorders‘. It is an empirical study that I anticipated injecting into my thesis, somewhat at the last minute. It uses self-reporting to explore the perceptions of both disordered and non-disordered people on what causes eating disorders to occur. Key findings included the need for better education about eating disorders, in order to reduce stigma. Contrary to what I would have assumed, the researchers found few endorsements of the familial and genetic causes of ED, in spite of the research that is proliferating within these areas.
In a balanced critique of research, we would expect to find both strengths and weaknesses at hand (Hart 1998; Ridley 2008). However, my reflections here may read as distinctly unbalanced because I’m concerned with a specific observation from my reading. My analysis takes little issue with their findings; the research reported upon is fascinating and valuable. Rather, it is some of the basic premises on which the study relies that I wish to examine.
In backgrounding their study, Blodgett Salafia et al. provide factors that they perceive contribute to eating disorders. These are given as ‘Individual factors’ and ‘Sociocultural factors’. Their framing of each of these requires closer scrutiny. Within the former, they suggest elements such as biology (genetics), body dissatisfaction, personality traits (perfectionism) and abuse. For the latter, they offer family attitudes about food and weight, the influence of peers and partners, the media and a minor mention of athletics.
And here’s the problem: our framing of these things is flawed. Listing individual factors creates an illusion that, somehow, the individual operates independently of the society and culture in which he or she lives. Body dissatisfaction may well be a psychological construct, for instance, but it arises relationally from the interactions that build our selfhood from the day we become bodily aware of ourselves. Genetics does not operate in isolation from an organism’s environment, hence the study of epigenetics (Guthman, 2012). Abuse is not a purely psychological experience, it is a physical or sexual outpouring of myriad societal and cultural discourses of power, violence, transgression and cruelty. Until eating disorders research is able to embrace and articulate the complex web of sociological elements that initiate, impact upon, and maintain disordered eating, the field is doomed to narrow-minded, repetitive nomothetics.
We must resist the further funnelling of ED research into what can be medicalised. Feminism has given the lives of women (and our understanding of the pressures they face) so much. We now need the same for men – or generations of male ED sufferers will be little more than a set of faceless facts and figures in the annals of psychiatry.
Blodgett Salafia, E. B., Haugen, E. and Erickson, S. (2015) Perceptions of the causes of eating disorders: a comparison of individuals with and without eating disorders. Journal of eating disorders, 3 (32), pp.1-10.
Guthman, J. (2014) Doing justice to bodies? Reflections on food justice, race, and biology. Antipode, 46 (5), pp.1153-1171.
Hart, C. (1998) Doing a Literature Review. London: Open University Press.
Ridley, D. (2008) The Literature Review: a Step-by-step Guide for Students. London: Sage Publications Ltd.