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Many Great Women Have Been Plagued by Depression and Body Image Disorders

Daughters of Ambition

Let us now praise famous women. And consider the high cost of their achievements.

Take chemist Marie Curie. Or poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Emily Dickinson. Or world leaders, from Queen Elizabeth I to Catherine the Great to Indira Gandhi. Or feminists from Susan B. Anthony to Simone de Beauvoir. Or the female issue of eminent men, from Alice James to the daughters of Freud, Marx, Darwin, and Einstein.

The great women of history had a few things very much in common with many young women today, finds Brett Silverstein, Ph.D.--namely, a high incidence of disordered eating, depression, and physical ills such as headache and insomnia. In short, body-image problems.

After scouring medical-history texts and the biographies of 36 women who achieved greatness, Silverstein has come to some startling conclusions:

Body-image problems have been around at least since Hippocrates.

They have to do with breaking out of traditional gender roles in a personal or cultural climate that so discourages female achievement as to make ambitious women feel conflicted about being female.

Many great women have been plagued by depression and body image disorders, with a high incidence of eating disorders."Women who attempt to achieve academically, and probably professionally, are more likely than other women to develop the syndrome," Silverstein reports. His research shows it is a disorder that is most likely to hit during periods of changing gender roles, such as the 1920s and now.

This disorder has always been here, whether it was called chlorosis, neurasthenia, hysteria, or "the disease of virgins" by Hippocrates, says the City College of New York associate professor of psychology. The historical connection was lost when modern diagnostic manuals dropped outdated terminology, he insists.

Writers Emily Bronte, Elizabeth Browning, and Virginia Woolf, for example, were deemed by their biographers to have been anorexic. Charlotte Bronte and Emily Dickinson exhibited disordered eating. Caught between their own personal powers and mothers who led very limited lives, these women, says Silverstein, all expressed regret about being born female.

"To me it seems a very terrible thing to be a woman," wrote pioneering social scientist Ruth Benedict, one of Silverstein's notables, who suffered from an eating disorder during adolescence. Elizabeth I was reported by her physician to be so thin "that her bones could be counted." In addition, Silverstein has also found that the symptoms afflict daughters of extremely eminent men whose wives are virtually invisible. "Just when their bodies are turning into their mothers', they find it hard to identify with the mother."

At this point in history, it's a disorder of epidemic proportions, he says, because there are many more women who, afforded new educational and professional opportunities, are not identifying with their mothers' lives. Unquestionably, our generation's formidable challenge is to reverse a trend that is apparently as old as civilization itself.

next: Eating Disorders: Nutrition Education And Therapy
~ eating disorders library
~ all articles on eating disorders

Last Updated: 14 January 2014
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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