Unattainable ideal ... Teri Hatcher.
Australian women are succumbing to "Desperate Housewives Syndrome," an eating disorder in middle-age, driven by the desire to look as thin as the celebrity stars of shows such as Desperate Housewives.
Everywhere we look, from the fictional character of Bree Van De Kamp, the perfectionist homemaker in Desperate Housewives and the identikit women of the Real Housewives series to Hollywood celebrities, the message seems to be thin is successful. Experts agree that the way celebrities portray themselves on our screens is piling on the pressure for ordinary older women to look just as good.
There's been an increase in the number of women experiencing eating disorders in middle age according to Professor Phillipa Hay, Foundation Chair of Mental Health at the University of Western Sydney. Hay says a rise in body image and weight and shape concerns is to blame. "There may be more pressures on older women to retain the appearance of youth," she says and "there may be more pressures to be a 'super woman' – successful in the workplace and at home and 'looking good' as well."
Celebrities, such as Angelina Jolie, "appear to 'prove' that thinness in midlife bestows many real-life benefits, for example, sexual desirability, happiness, and wealth that may be particularly persuasive," said a recent study in Psychology of Women Quarterly co-authored by Professor Marika Tiggemann, a psychologist and body image expert at Flinders University. The research, which looked at the influence of television shows such as Desperate Housewives on women aged between 35 and 55 concluded that "exposure to thin idealised images in media content may have an adverse impact on body image and eating practices in midlife."
"It used to be that older women were not depicted in the media," says Tiggemann. "Real older women were able to get off the body image and appearance treadmill. But now this depiction of beautiful older women make it seem like everyone should look like that, and that women should keep up their appearance no matter what their age."
Dr Chris Basten, a clinical psychologist at Basten & Associates in Sydney, who treats women with eating disorders agrees. "I do think that television shows and movies have an impact on how women see themselves," he says. "There's nothing quite like Desperate Housewives." Basten believes that the pressure to look good is no longer just for those in their teens or twenties. "There is greater pressure than ever for women in their thirties to fifties to confirm to certain body ideals. This pressure has always been there but most would agree that it is increasing."
But while the majority of women diet at some stage in their lives and many women may feel dissatisfied by seeing images of slim and attractive women on television only a minority will go on to develop a serious eating disorder. "Generally, eating disorders develop when external triggers coincide with internal vulnerability factors says Basten. "An external trigger could be a comment from someone about weight or seeing oneself in a photo and judging that badly. The internal vulnerabilities are anything that makes the person more likely to focus excessively on weight, shape and physical appearance. Classic examples include a person having a low opinion of themselves or having profound doubts that anyone will like them as they are. Women who internalise strong beliefs about the special importance of attractiveness also find it harder. Finally, we also know that personality traits like perfectionism and competitiveness are a part of the vulnerability state for many people who end up with an eating disorder."
Of the women Basten sees who are over 35, he says nearly all developed an eating disorder in early adulthood and either still have the problems or are experiencing a relapse after years of being well. An eating disorder usually develops because of a series of very reinforcing feedback loops, says Basten. He says the story of Jude, a 40 year old mother of three, is typical of someone with an eating disorder who developed the illness as a teenager.
Jude became depressed when she was about 17 to 19 but never got treatment. Instead, she started to jog every morning and restricted her dinner. She became fitter and dropped about five kilograms. She got comments from others about how much better she looked. She lost more weight and then had a few years of never feeling quite thin enough and obsessing about calorie-counting. This gradually subsided as she got into her career and met the man she would later marry. She relearned how to feel strong and content from other sources. Now, though, her third child has recently started school, she has moved suburbs and knows nobody there, and is thinking about returning to the workforce after eight years. Jude is feeling unhappy and lost. She suddenly feels dissatisfied about her body shape and a desperate desire to lose weight quickly. Her mind tells her that she will be accepted by other women in the area if she looks slimmer. She also craves the sense of certainty and progress that comes from seeing the kilograms coming down on the scales each week. She has started running each morning again and eating only salad at dinner and getting irritable and anxious if she can't stick to this routine.
Thankfully, says Basten, "most women get wise to the ploys and techniques of the media, as they get older." They know that the celebrities we see on television have hours of make-up, hair and special lighting to look as good as they do but "what they don't always realise is that the actors on television who seem thin are probably unable to enjoy themselves day-to-day socialising with friends because of their unhealthy dieting. Who knows how unhappy and osteoporotic most female actors are in Hollywood these days?"
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