Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Real and the Ideal Self: Let’s Drop The Act

This week, inspired by the This I believed Media Project, I decided to write about a core belief that helps to explain why I have chosen to go into the field of psychology. I have always been a very shy, intrinsic person. I do much more observing than I do speaking and sharing my own feelings and experiences. It is due to this, my biggest flaw that I began to see that the mind is truly a powerful mechanism. That people act in ways they think are appropriate, expected and acceptable without realizing that in doing so, they often times create a false persona. It is due to this that great mental turmoil lurks in our society. The fixation people seem to have on creating a perfect image in the eyes of others disables many to pursue a life of happiness and draws some to commit malevolent acts towards themselves and/or others. Yet, I believe that the majority of people are inherently good and that if surroundings, peers and society did not play such a significant role in shaping a persons behavior, there would be less crime and less mentally unstable people.

I believe that people can avoid stressful situations and mental dispositions like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and other psychological problems if they were to let go of their ideal self and focus on their real self. Psychologists Carl Roger’s theory of personality states that there is incongruity when a gap between the “I am” and the “I should” exists in a person’s mind. He introduced what he called, conditions of worth, which are social influences that affect ones self-concept. Rogers writes, “We begin to like ourselves only if we meet up with the standards others have applied to us, rather than if we are truly actualizing our potentials.” Analyzing the theory closely reveals that were it not for the influence other individuals impose on a person, the world would be a different place. If people would realize that merely being themselves is a beautiful thing and that no other being should have any influence on their life decisions, there would be more blissful and fulfilled people with reduced levels of stress. Satisfying others would no longer be a top priority.

As an early teen I witnessed one of my closest friends loose herself in a dangerous battle between the real and the ideal. I was her neighbor, her companion, her “best friend forever”. However, the beautiful innocence of childhood quickly passed us by. The bubble that was our world soon burst into a reality that is all too known by most but that is often impossible to avoid. High school brought about more peers and external influences to what seemed to be an unbreakable friendship. She began a quest for popularity, which in turn meant meeting up to the expectations of the in-crowd by engaging in deviant behavior. Our decision making lead us to completely different paths and interests and drove us to loose touch. Yet, it is hard to believe that a person you have known for years can from one instant to the next completely change. Hence, there was always a sense of connection between us upon encounter.

At the time, I did not know I was dealing with what could have been an Oscar winning performance. On the outside she looked so healthy, cheerful, full of poise and esteem. I never realizing the truth was the complete opposite, it was all an act, a farce. My beloved friend was hurting on the inside. The behavior that others applauded and reinforced was not at all something to be proud of. She was ashamed and filled with guilt for breaking morals she greatly valued. Her screams and cries for help were disguised with a smile. How could I ever have known that she needed my help? I could have talked to her, knocked some sense into her, made her realize that life is a lot more than gaining the acceptance of others. You must first accept and be comfortable with yourself. Maybe I could have prevented her from cutting herself, from undergoing repetitive self-mutilation, like the one seen on the picture to the right, which almost took her life.

I am an observer, I look at people and wonder what their true intentions are. I continuously find myself questioning whether it is all a performance and if so, why? What ideal is to be reached? In the case of my friend, who in trying to please others found herself lost in a web of behaviors that went against everything she believed, approval becomes an obsession. I have applied this example to theorize about many other areas in the realm of psychology and the human psyche as it relates to criminals and controllable mental disorders. It exemplifies the extent to which people are willing to go to reach an ideal sense of self, to the extent that ones own life becomes expendable.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Starving for Perfection: Anorexia Nervosa has a Strong Genetic Component

The problem surrounding teenage eating disorders as a direct result of the media’s portrayal of thinness and beauty is an issue that is gaining great attention. However, while many feel mainstream media (such as ad pictured on left) is to blame for mental health problems related to eating, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, some researchers argue that the etiology of these afflictions may be primarily genetic. The ongoing, decade long study, The Genetics of Anorexia Nervosa Collaboration, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has revealed that the disorder may be biological and inherited. One of the principal investigators of the study, Craig Johnson, states that it is 12 times more likely that a person will develop anorexia if someone in the family suffered from the disease. Although researchers have found strong genetic components, they also emphasize that the environment plays an influential role. In Dr. Johnson’s words, “Genetics loads the gun, the environment pulls the trigger.”

The NIH used this information to file an article countering the recent statement made by Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen (pictured on right) claiming that unsupportive families cause anorexia nervosa, not the fashion industry. This statement is unaware and misinforming because it “only perpetuates misconceptions and further stigmatizes eating disorders,” says the NIH press release. Yet, after the research was published, a skeptical Bundchen declared: “Everybody knows that the norm in fashion is thin, but excuse me, there are people born with the right genes for this profession.” Gisele is 5’11 and weighs 125 pounds, yet she emphasizes she has never suffered from anorexia because she “had a very strong family base.” Nevertheless, statistics show that most fashion models are thinner than 98% of American women. This makes one wonder how it is they manage to stay so thin, and amidst such denial, how prevalent eating disorders truly are in the fashion industry.

If weight related problems were not an issue in the world of modeling, as Bundchen seems to think, Spain, Italy and London would not have, in the past year, created a minimum Body Mass Index, BMI, of no less than 18 for models. Spain was the first country to ban size zero models from the catwalk. “They are concentrating their efforts on promoting a healthier body image,” declare regional official Concha Guerra. This action was taken following the death of Luisel Ramos who after suggestions from her agency to “lose a couple of pounds,” acquired the much desired size zero and died of heart failure after stepping off the catwalk. Ramos’s tragic death shows that although research is concluding that anorexia has biological origins, societal pressures can too lead women to take their dieting and exercising regimens far beyond healthy limits to reach the “ideal” body type.

Although the principal investigators of The Genetics of Anorexia Nervosa Collaboration feel their research can aid the development of prevention methods for those who have the genetic predisposition, what can be done to help individuals who develop the disorder due to cultural pressures? Walter H. Kaye, professor of psychiatry in the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine says, “Many individuals in our culture, for a number of reasons, are concerned with their weight and diet. Yet less than half of 1 percent of all women develop anorexia nervosa, which indicates to us that societal pressure alone isn’t enough to cause someone to develop this disease.” However, a teen (like young girl pictured on left) looking for information about eating disorders on the Internet can easily be misguided. There are websites that consider the disease a “lifestyle,” they have come to be known as “pro-ana” sites. These web pages contain links to tricks and tips about fasting, food listed into calorie and carbohydrate categories, and excuses, broken down by parent strictness (i.e., casual family, moderately strict family), for avoiding meal times. With outrageously disturbing advice like “hunger hurts, but starving works” and a list of 10 commandments for not eating, the first one reads: “Thou shall not eat because you ARE a big fat cow. No one wants to tell you. But you know.” How strong mentally does a person have to be so that information like this does not affect them? Especially since teenaged girls are often vulnerable during such a critical period of development. The images and statements made in “pro-ana” websites can be very traumatizing to an already confused mind.

Thankfully most search engines have removed links to these webpages and many have been shut down. Nonetheless, they can still be accessed and do present serious danger. Anyone with availability to a computer with Internet connection can maneuver around the restrictions and find a "pro-ana" site. Which brings back the question of what extent genetic influence has on eating disorders when there are so many societal pressures and norms to be followed. “Pro-ana” sites make it clear that not eating, for some, is a consciously made decision. So it appears the linkage to biological factors is minimal. However, if there really is a connection to genetics, overall, does the environment play a bigger role? Psychologist Bulik of Virginia Commonwealth University, is of the opinion that, "Sociocultural factors are only important in that they might elicit an expression of someone's pre-existing genetic predisposition." Hence, the debate is on-going, scientists attribute a greater link to genetics, while society focuses more on apparent cultural factors. Fortunately, the issue is now exposed and preventive measures can now be developed to avoid an increase in the number of those affected.

no food untill im this skinny