Tuesday, 15 July 2014


Notes and quotes taken from the essay noted below --

"The thin ideal, depression and eating disorders in women" - Mandy McCarthy, 1989
Dept. of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, 3815 Walnut Street, PA 19140, U.S.A.



It is proposed that a cultural ideal of thinness for women causes depression at a higher rate among women than among men. This model accounts for five currently unintergrated trends in the epidemiology of depression. It explains why: (1) twice as many women as men are likely to be depressed; (2) this sex difference emerges at puberty; (3) this sex difference is only found in western countries; (4) there is more depression today; (5) the average age of onset depression is younger now than in the past. Four parallel trends in eating disorders can also be accounted for by the same factor. 
- The ideal causes a higher rate of depression in women, than in men.


This paper proposes that a cultural ideal of thinness for women, which is well below the average weight of women in that culture, directly causes body dissatisfaction at a higher rate among women than men. In turn, body dissatisfaction, coupled with the importance women attach to their weight (Rozin and Fallon. 1988), leads to depression among women.

The Model - Women, having a very finely tuned idea about what is an acceptable body, rapidly internalize the current standard of female beauty. In western cultures women, especially those in the higher socioeconomic classes, try to emulate the standard of beauty presented in the fashion media (Streigel-Moore et al., 1986). This standard, which has become increasingly thin recently (Silverstein et al., 1986) I will call the 'thin ideal'.
In a culture that idealises a standard of thinness that is well below the weight of the average women (Garner et al., 1986) it is not surprising that women typically believe that they are heavier than the ideal and heavier than what is most attractive to the opposite sex (Fallon and Rozin, 1985). Middle-aged men and young women see discrepancies between their own weight and the ideal but only women deem this important (Rozin and Fallon, 1988).


- Suggests that women's self-esteem is more closely tied to their appearance than is that of men (Davies and Furnham, 1986) and that women have more negative consequences than men (Stake and Lauer, 1987).

A negative view of one's body, coupled with the view that a thin body is crucial to one's present and future is a recipe for depression.

There are many more dieting articles written for women than for men and there are many more women than men dieting at any one time (Fallon and Rozin, 1985; Herman and Polivy, 1975; Nylander, 1971; Rodin et al,. 1984; Streigel-Moore et al., 1986).

In western culture we believe that weight is controllable (Polivy and Herman, 1983).


Depression in women may set the scene for the onset of eating disorders. This unrealistically thin ideal may make it more likely that a small minority of depressed women will develop an eating disorder as a result of, and in an attempt to combat, their depression.

- Anorexics are scared of failure which can lead to depression. 

How would the development of an eating disorder combat depression? If we accept that a negative view of the self and low self esteem lead to depression then depression should be alleviated once the person feels better about myself. Anorexia does at least provide weight loss. Initially this may be sufficient to make the anorexic like her appearance to increase her self-esteem (Slade, 1982).


Exerting control [in an area, i.e. eating disorders] should help break up the helplessness and lack of control experienced. It also should thereby remove the depression.

One major theory of anorexia and bulimia can be interrupted along these lines and can be extended to incorporate the thin ideal as a casual factor (Slade, 1982). In brief, this theory argues that there are a number of risk factors for eating pathology. One risk factor is a "general dissatisfaction with life and the self" (Slade, 1982, p.169). This factor resembles depression. I suggest that it may arise because the pre-anorexic has more strongly internalized the thin ideal and has therefore a greater dissatisfaction with her own body. 

Bodily changes during puberty influence self perception and it is at this time that sex differences in children's body satisfaction appear (Polivy and Herman, 1983; Rierdan and Koff, 1985). These sex differences intensify throughout adolescence as girls become less and less satisfied with their bodies (Rierdan et al,. 1987). At every age they are less satisfied than boys (Girgus et al., 1989).

P. 209

Girls want to be increasingly thin. This is not the case for boys (Girgus et al., 1989).

Some evidence suggests that cultures that have the thin ideal also have more depression in women than in men. They also have eating disorders.


It has been suggested that anorexia and bulimia are limited to western culture (Garner and Garfunkel, 1980). 

Depression is seen as a more common illness [in western culture] (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1987).

Studies of women who have changed cultures provide additional evidence of the effect of the thin ideal on the presence of eating pathology. Non-western women, when placed in a western culture, soon lose the ideal of feminine beauty held in their own culture and internalise the thin ideal held in the west. These women are then more likely to develop an eating disorder than are other women who remained in their own culture. It appears that exposure to middle-class values in the west, which include the idealisation of thinness in women, increases the risk of eating disorders (Buchan and Gregory, 1984; Furnham and Alibhau, 1983; Hooper and Garner, 1986; Naser, 1986, Thomas and Szmukler, 1985).