Women are significantly more affected by eating disorders, according to a new study which found that cultural expectations surrounding femininity are not taken into account during treatments. Although there is now extensive evidence on how eating disorders are bound up with cultural ideas surrounding gender, the contemporary focus on evidence-based treatment, and particularly the rise of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), has all but forced these issues off the agenda. If cultural elements are addressed, it is through a limited focus on 'body image' work, which often invokes the significance of the media in perpetuating unattainable images of the body. Although eaing disorders affect people across different genders, ethnicities and ages, women and girls are disproportionately affected by eating problems. However, this quite obvious connection between eating disorders and cultural expectations surrounding femininity is woefully neglected in much treatment, said Su Holmes, from the University of East Anglia (UEA) in the UK. More culturally-focused perspectives on eating problems have argued that 'disordered eating may not necessarily be motivated by the drive for pursuit of thinness or any distortion of body image, but rather by wider experiences' of gender expectations and pressures.' Previous research showed that even when a patient specifically asks to talk about questions of gender, their request may be ignored - either because such issues are seen as a low priority, or because health professionals have little training in this sphere. Researchers ran a new treatment intervention at a clinic that specialises in the treatment of EDs.
The group called 'Cultural Approaches to Eating Disorders' was run over 10 weeks. It included all the patients who were resident in the clinic at the time. These were all female, with a diagnosis of anorexia, and their ages ranged from 19-51. Each week, the programme examined what role culture might play in EDs, including gendered constructions of appetite, cultural expectations surrounding female emotion and anger, and 'reading' the starved body in relation to cultural prescriptions of femininity. According to a study puclished in the journal Eating Disorders, found that people living with EDs find that the tendency to portray women with anorexia as the passive victims of media influence is often seen as patronising and simplistic by those living with the illness. One patient said that suggesting seeing "a skinny model in a magazine" influenced the development of EDs "completely trivialises" the many reasons people develop body- and eating distress.
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