There are many factors that can contribute to the development of an eating disorder. Anxiety, bullying, abuse, genetics, behavioral issues—these are just some of the contributing factors, but sometimes job qualification criteria can play a role as well. Take the case of Jennifer Baeudean, who developed bulimia as a third-year cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. Outside pressure to “make the uniform look good”, routine weigh-ins accompanied by body measurements, and the overall pressure to “attain and maintain peak physical condition” are some of the struggles she faced that may have played a role in her development of bulimia (Salahi). Employer-enforced weight standards, particularly those utilized by the United States military branches, may play a part in the development of eating disorders among service members.
Eating disorders can range from anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, exercise-based focus, and uncategorized behaviors that can blend aspects of all of these (Abraham 19, 38). Although the common causes of eating disorders are relatively unknown, it is widely accepted that certain personality traits such as perfectionist tendencies and the suppression of one’s emotions (traits common within the military), society’s expectations, as well as excessive praise or ridicule of weight gain or loss can pose a detrimental effect to one’s body image (Maj 1; Kramer and Kittleson 43, 48, 59). Service members are submitted to semi-annual weigh-ins twice a year, and are expected to maintain a tidy and trim physical appearance in uniform out of respect for their service and country. Around the time of these weigh-ins, there is a tendency for members to take drastic measures to ensure compliance (i.e., taking appetite suppressants and laxatives, fasting, and crash dieting), and those who do not comply are placed in a remedial fitness program that “are plagued with an unfavorable stigma that can lead to those enrolled being ostracized”, considered “non-promotable”, and “ineligible for certain training programs” (Antczak and Brininger 365, 373). Also, non-compliance can be grounds for discharge from service, such as the Coast Guard’s “three strike rule”, which essentially guarantees a member will be discharged upon three failed, consecutive weigh-ins. With all the pressure on service men and women to maintain focus on their personal appearance and weight in order to keep their jobs, it is no wonder that eating disorders are more prevalent than ever in the military, even more so than those reported within the civilian world (Salahi).
Those in favor of these standards may argue that medical conditions can be grounds for weight waivers, and that service members should certainly be expected to be in top physical condition as defenders of the nation and representatives of America. While it is true that pregnancies, thyroid disorders, injuries, etc. can warrant a waiver to be granted for weight restrictions for a period of time, there still remain those who are capable of completing their day to day job tasks and but are not within weight standards. For example, one member might be able to pass their branch’s physical fitness assessment (timed run, pushups and sit-ups), but still be considered “overweight” by the service. In addition, the criteria for weight and body fat imposed by the military is not an effective indicator of overall fitness. A soldier or sailor may “look good in uniform” and be within standards, yet lack the strength and stamina to complete all or some of the physical fitness tests or perform as well in their daily job tasks. As a representative of the United States of America, it is important for members to “look the part” by demonstrating a sharp, professional appearance. However, the service member is faced with a dilemma: Is it more important for them to be healthy, fit, and comfortable with themselves and their abilities, or to make sure the scale reads below a certain number or that their body fat percentage is within a certain range?
Some may consider a balanced amount of awareness of one’s weight and appearance to be acceptable for overall health. However, there is a fine line between being conscious of one’s personal fitness and being overly preoccupied with body size and shape. Following this, if one’s livelihood is partially based on this preoccupation, the odds are very much against them. Also, if a service member were to develop an eating disorder or tendencies leading towards one, most likely it would go unnoticed. Many service men and women suffering from such a disorder will strive to keep it a secret, as such medical conditions are grounds for discharge (Antczak and Brininger 373, 374). In addition, these disorders are underreported and sometimes difficult to detect (as they are easier to conceal than say, an alcohol or drug problem), and medical professionals may hesitate to form a diagnosis out of awareness of the permanence of such information in the member’s medical record and the negative repercussions that would result for the member (Salahi; Antczak and Brininger 374). In turn, the member will suffer in silence, and experience such side effects as fertility issues, social adjustment difficulties, malnutrition, heart problems, depression, and even death (Maj 391, 392; Salahi).
While the armed services may be fighting battles against drugs, terrorism, and international crimes and violence, its members may be battling some inner demons, as well. In a profession categorized by high stress environments, a massive amount of responsibility delegated to members at a young age, and the expectations that said members be categorized by their weight, body size, and appearance in uniform, the possibilities of developing an eating disorder are not entirely out of reach. Perhaps the government can address this issue by measuring fitness rather than weight. Perhaps a more effective method of measuring individual body composition can be utilized. There are a variety of ways in which the military services can choose to address the rising numbers of men and women in their organization who are fighting a losing battle of their own. However, if it continues to be ignored or underestimated, it would be a doing a massive disservice to the brave men and women who tirelessly and selflessly support and defend us every day.
Abraham, Suzanne. Eating Disorders (The Facts). 6th Edition. Oxford, GBR: Oxford University Press, 2008. American Public University System Online Library. Web. 16 Oct. 2013.
Antczak, Amanda J. and Teresa L. Brininger. “Diagnosed Eating Disorders in the U.S. Military: A Nine Year Review.” Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. Fort Belvoir, VA: Defense Technical Information Center, 2008. Web. 16 Oct. 2013.
Kramer, Gerri Freid and Mark J. Kittleson. The Truth About Eating Disorders. New York, NY: Facts on File, 2005. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. Accessed 16 Oct. 2013.
Maj, Mario. Eating Disorders. New York: J. Wiley, 2003. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 16 Oct. 2013.
Salahi, Lara. “West Point Grad Battles Eating Disorder.” ABCNews.com. ABC News Network, 2012. Web. 16 Oct. 2013.