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Psychologist: Bulimia, Feminism Pressure Related

October 8, 1986

CHICAGO (AP) _ Bulimia occurs most often among young, upper middle-class women partly because of the growing pressure for them to achieve since the feminist movement took shape, a psychologist says.

Most of those suffering from bulimia - an eating disorder characterized by binge eating and purging - were born in the 1960s and grew up in a time of shifting cultural norms caused by the movement, said Craig Johnson, co-author of a recent article in the Annals of Adolescent Psychiatry.

″Accompanying the shifting norms was growing pressure on women to achieve, and yet there was no clear way for them to live up to these expectations for achievement,″ said Johnson, director of the eating disorders program at the Institute of Psychiatry of Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

The study’s co-author was Karen Maddi, a research associate at the institute.

In an interview Tuesday, Johnson said an estimated 95 percent of bulimia patients are between ages 15 and 30, with 24 being the average.

And although an estimated 5 percent to 8 percent of high school and college females in the United States have significant problems with bulimia, the figure is less than 1 percent for high school and college men, he said.

The incidence of bulimia, Johnson said, began to increase dramatically in the mid- to late 1970s, when the girls were adolescents.

″When we looked in the 1960s, we know there were some things that were happening that were selectively happening to women,″ Johnson said. ″The two things that we draw attention to are the feminist movement and the emphasis on thinness.

″The feminist movement again really created expectations for young women to achieve to very high levels,″ he said. ″The vehicles for them to accomplish this achievement were fairly limited. ... There weren’t good, competitive avenues. ... So, the pursuit of thinness became a way for women to achieve and to compete among themselves.″

The disorder is more common among middle-class women, he said, because feminism been a preoccupation of the upper and middle classes more than the lower class.

Previous research, he added, ″indicates that many women suffering from bulimia appear to have a biological vulnerability to mood disorder and in general come from volatile and disorganized families.″

But these factors alone, he said, don’t explain why the symptoms of bulimia selectively occur among young, upper middle-class women. So, he concluded, the cultural factors may determine whether a disorder is manifested in the form of bulimia.

If a woman has self-esteem and is managing her life well, Johnson said, she probably won’t develop bulimia.

But, he added: ″What we see among a lot of the people we work with is that they are fairly successful in their careers. But part of their sort of overachieving personality style is that they also have to be thin.″

Furthermore, he said, binge eating can become ″a very attractive tension regulator just as some executives turn to alcoholism.″

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