Karen Carpenter and the Rise and Recognition of Eating Disorders (9/10)

Josie L. Tenore, M.D. has found that “Eating disorders …During the past three decades…[have] increased dramatically [and] currently, the overall incidence is approximately 5 percent.” According to the National Eating Disorder Awareness Society, “In the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life.” This may be anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified). While initially eating disorders were believed to affect only socioeconomically advantaged white women, the trend has evolved during the past decade and now includes a wider range of age groups, including a significant amount of elderly people. While this problem does occur among men, it continues to be much more prevalent among women. Psychologists, medical professionals, and others who study these disorders agree that “the media, the fashion industry and changing societal norms” are partly “responsible” for the historic increase in these trends. Eating Disorders are now more recognized and dealt with, as well.

While women were definitely body-conscious before, the significant rise in eating disorders is mainly thought to have occurred during the second-half of the twentieth century. The image of “Twiggy” in 1967 at 92 pounds became an iconic and idealized body that other women and girls would strive to replicate. It was not until the 1970s and 1980s that eating disorders received media attention, much of it brought on by the disturbing death of Karen Carpenter, a singer in her thirties who died of cardiac complications of anorexia nervosa. “This was the first time the media focused on the fact that eating disorders can have life-threatening consequences and are not simply a group of ‘benign’ psychiatric illnesses.” Carpenter’s death opened up space for the media to recognize the growing problem not only among celebrities and athletes, but among American women.

The reporting of Karen Carpenter’s death and subsequent “investigations” and admissions of eating disorders show how new and seemingly “hidden” this illness had been. In trying to understand and perhaps cope with her death, America and the media went in-depth into examining her eating disorder. Documentaries (1989) were made to help people understand the pressures she felt to “be perfect” and how pressure to have a perfect body ended up being fatal. This and this shows some of the initial news reports about Carpenter’s death and thisthis and this show attempts to understand and bring awareness to her death later. As the reporter says, “Karen Carpenter’s life was a symbol of the American dream and her death was the symbol of the disease anorexia nervosa.” Celebrities and public figures were beginning to talk about this issue and bring recognition to the detrimental influence of societal trends on women’s heath. Princess Diana was thought to have been bulimic. Here she does not address her own experience, but talks about the issue to a group who are gathered to also discuss the problem and potential treatment. 

During the 1990s, increasing attempts were made to bring eating disorders out into the open. Books like Marya Hornbacher’s “Wasted” talked about her own experience with anorexia and bulimia and the contextual factors of family and societal influence that she attributed to her developing the illness. At the same time, society questioned whether sharing such experiences was “healthy,” as many feared that doing so would “romanticize” the illness and encourage other women to follow such examples.

Popular culture has portrayed eating disorders in a variety of ways. Some portrayal have been positive in helping to rid the illness of the stigma that one must be “skinny” to have an eating disorder, and show it as an illness that affects all people. Some point to family stresses as causes of disorders such as in The Best Little Girl in the World (1981) and Hunger Point (2003). Others focused on pressures faced by female athletes such as Perfect Body (1997) and Dying to Dance (2011)Katie’s Secret (1986) was groundbreaking in making people more aware of bulimia, which was previously less understood than anorexia. Some of these films, which may or may not show the reality of eating disorders, are shown to young women, especially in health classes. I remember watching A Secret Between Friends: When Friendship Kills (1996) when I was in about eighth grade. This was the first time I learned about eating disorders in a formal way and I do not think it offers a very complete perspective of the dangers of eating disorders. Even though this film was sad and disturbing, it seemed to glamorize some aspects of eating disorders.

These illnesses have gained more recognition in the recent past, but it is still considered an “epidemic” among American women. One of the greatest contemporary challenges is diagnosing and properly-treating those with an eating disorder. It seems that eating disorders are still not taken totally seriously as a life-threatening illness, as most health care facilities and insurance companies only offer limited care for patients with eating disorders. “By stressing the medical complications of eating disorders, the focus may shift from the psychiatric to the medical, possibly altering how these illnesses are viewed by the insurance industry and, ultimately, how treatment services are offered.”

What about prevention? While America’s multibillion-dollar “diet food industry” has produced numerous nutritionally empty low-fat foods, these are obviously not the solution and, in fact, growing evidence suggests that “dieting itself may be the initiating factor in the development of eating disorders.” The media and the fashion industry play a significant role in establishing society’s body image norms. As discussed in earlier posts, advertising has presented and continues to present some of the strongest messages about women’s bodies.

Secondary Source:

Josie L. Tenore, “Challenges in Eating Disorders: Past and Present,” American Family Physician, 367-369.


12 thoughts on “Karen Carpenter and the Rise and Recognition of Eating Disorders (9/10)

  1. This highlights a really devastating problem and shows the power of media to impact people’s way of thinking and even actions. With the concern about romanticizing eating disorders, I watched a film that in a sense did that in high school. Although the objective of the film was to warn against eating disorders in health class, the frequent images of beauty icons and slim ballerinas left me feeling overweight and wishing for a change. To me it demonstrates how previously ingrained perceptions of what is good stand as barriers in health promoting media combating these issues.


  2. When I was in high school, I went through three eating disorders. I definitely think that the media has definitely glamorized eating disorder behaviors to the point where many women (and men) accept those behaviors as healthy and good for you. You can see this in dieting ads that come on TV, magazine covers about how celebrities lost weight fast with ridiculous diets, and by obsessively associating thin women with success/beauty. I think that because eating disorder behaviors have been normalized to the extent that they have is why eating disorders are often hard to diagnose until it’s too late. People are quick to applaud someone for losing weight and slow to question how/why that person is losing the weight.

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  3. I was just discussing Karen Carpenter at work today, we were listening to her Christmas soundtrack and discussing how sad it was that she died so young. She was so talented, and society criticized her because of her weight. One of my sister’s had a eating disorder, it grew pretty bad but with help she recovered. In a society that puts so much pressure on how we look, it’s hard not to feel fat, ugly, and uninteresting. I know I have struggled with weight issues, because society makes it seem if you are over 100 pounds you’re ugly. Which isn’t the case, everyone is different whether you weigh 90 pounds to 200 pounds, character is beauty not weight.


  4. It is interesting to think of a time when people did not really talk about girls and eating disorders. That must have been a really difficult time for those that were struggling because they must have felt so alone. It is great that society does talk about this now, but it is unfortunate that others had to for it to be talked about.


  5. I absolutely love Karen Carpenter, and wrote about her for my female body image ideals post. I think her life story is especially telling of the insurmountable pressure she faced to look a certain way because she had such a large audience, but women of all backgrounds, jobs, and experiences face eating disorders just like Karen did, and I think it was so important that she as an individual brought this eating disorder more prominently into the public discourse.


  6. At what point did the discussion of eating disorders define it as a disease (thus suggesting hopes of recovery)? Was it a problem that existed before media began to emphasize the importance of a thin figure? Ads featured in an earlier post of yours encouraged girls to gain weight. Is there evidence that that trend led to eating disorders as well?


  7. My best friend in high school suffered from an eating disorder for years before checking into a center to get help. Since then, she’s still struggled with it. All around us are triggers that people don’t even think about – complaining about weight, commenting on appearance of celebrities, even the calories listed in a menu are difficult for her to deal with. I definitely agree with the statement about dieting being one of the causes of eating disorders. Even if it doesn’t lead to a full disorder, it leads to disordered patterns of eating (such as removing certain foods from your diet), which can in turn lead to a diagnosable eating disorder. There’s an interesting book called Intuitive Eating that addresses this and talks about how we each have a set point of weight that our body naturally will try to stay near. Our bodies know what kind of food we want, so the whole point is to try and figure out what our bodies are telling us and listen. It’s definitely a challenge to accomplish, and I think the billion-dollar media and diet industry only harm people’s efforts to do so.


  8. My aunt was a huge fan of Karen Carpenter while in High School and College and also happened to have an eating disorder at that time. Karen Carpenter’s death was a wakeup call to my aunt that led her to seek treatment when knowledge about anorexia was uncommon and my family didn’t know what to do.


  9. The Movie Tommy Boy Introduced me to the Karen Carpenter when Chris Farley and David Spade sang along to one of her songs in the car. I had no idea that she died from anorexia. The diet food industry and fitness industry upset me because of their focus on weight rather than proper performance and maintenance of the machine that is the human body. They have vilified fats and carbohydrates even though they are one of the three main macro nutrients our bodies need to function properly. It is so sad.


  10. I wish we glamorized food more. That sounds silly, but we talk about dieting constantly and how about just talking about eating?! Our bodies need the nutrients, it is delicious, and we are blessed to have it. With the stresses that come along particularly for women in mental health (whether it stems from poverty, single motherhood, motherhood in general, school, etc.) the addition of societal norms of dieting are incredibly unhealthy. I think processed food also has had an impact on why society is so diet-centric. It breaks my heart that popular media and other social norms have impacted so many women’s vision of their bodies.


  11. Although according to the stats you mentioned, men are half as likely to have an eating disorder as women, why is it that women’s eating disorders are the only ones focused on? How has the focus on women’s eating disorders changed the way society views women? (Does it make women seem “weak” because they have more eating disorders than men?) I’ve known lots of people with anorexia, and something I’ve noticed is that almost nobody who has it willingly admits it. Almost all of them have denied it until someone intervened to get them medical help and a doctor gave them a diagnosis; before that they just said they were dieting. Do you think the percentage of women with eating disorders would go up if our knowledge about it wasn’t largely self-reported?


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