What causes eating disorders?
There are many theories and no one simple
answer that covers everyone. For any particular person, some
or all of the following factors will be woven together to produce
starving, stuffing, and purging.
Temperament seems to be, at least in part,
Studies reported in the New England Journal
Also, once a person begins to starve, stuff,
A note about stress and overeating: New research suggests that there is a biological
People with eating disorders tend to be
Some people with eating disorders use the
People with eating disorders often lack
People with eating disorders often are
Some people with eating disorders say they
These families tend to be overprotective,
In addition, research suggests that daughters
According to a report published in the
Patterns are observable even in infancy.
Still to be determined is whether or not
Also, if mothers and fathers preach and
Sometimes appearance-obsessed friends or
People vulnerable to eating disorders also,
In Westernized countries characterized
Cultural expectations can be cruel and
Quote: Advertising has done more to cause the social unrest of the 20th century than any other single factor. –Clare Boothe Luce, American author and diplomat (1903-1987)
People in western countries are flooded by media words and images. An average U.S. child, for example, sees more than 30,000 TV commercial each year (TV-Turnoff Network, 2005). That child watches more than 21 hours of TV each week plus dozens of magazines and many movies every year. In those media, happy and successful people are almost always portrayed by actors and models who are young, toned, and thin. The vast majority are stylishly dressed and have spent much time on hair styles and makeup.
Factoid: According to Health magazine, April 2002, 32% of female TV network characters are underweight, while only 5% of females in the U.S. audience are underweight.
In contrast, evil, stupid, or buffoonish people are portrayed by actors who are older, frumpier, unkempt, perhaps physically challenged. Many are fat.
Factoid: Again according to Health magazine, only 3% of female TV network characters are obese, while 25% of U.S. women fall into that category.
Most people want to be happy and successful, states that require thought, personal development, and usually hard work. The media, especially ads and commercials for appearance-related items, suggest that we can avoid the hard character work by making our bodies into copies of the icons of success.
Reading between the lines of many ads reveals a not-so-subtle message — “You are not acceptable the way you are. The only way you can become acceptable is to buy our product and try to look like our model (who is six feet tall and wears size four jeans — and is probably anorexic). If you can’t quite manage it, better keep buying our product. It’s your only hope.”
The differences between media images of happy, successful men and women are interesting. The women, with few exceptions, are young and thin. Thin is desirable. The men are young or older, but the heroes and good guys are strong and powerful in all the areas that matter — physically, in the business world, and socially. For men in the media, thin is not desirable; power is desirable. Thin men are seen as skinny, and skinny men are often depicted as sick, weak, frail, or deviant.
These differences are reflected in male and female approaches to self-help. When a man wants to improve himself, he often begins by lifting weights to become bigger, stronger, and more powerful. When a woman want to improve herself, she usually begins with a diet, which will leave her smaller, weaker, and less powerful. Yet females have just as strong needs for power and control as do males.
Many people believe this media stereotyping helps explain why about ninety percent of people with eating disorders are women and only ten percent are men.
In recent years it has become politically correct for the media to make some effort to combat eating disorders. We have seen magazine articles and TV shows featuring the perils and heartbreak of anorexia and bulimia, but these efforts seem weak and ineffective when they are presented in the usual context. For example, how can one believe that a fashion magazine is truly motivated to combat anorexia when their articles about that subject are surrounded by advertisements featuring anorexic-looking models? How can one believe that the talk show hostess is truly in favor of strong, healthy female bodies when she frequently prods her stick-like thighs and talks about how much she wants to lose weight from her already scrawny body?
In May 1999, research was published that demonstrated the media’s unhealthy affect on women’s self-esteem and body awareness. In 1995, before television came to their island, the people of Fiji thought the ideal body was round, plump, and soft. Then, after 38 months of Melrose Place, Beverly Hills 90210, and similar western shows, Fijian teenage girls showed serious signs of eating disorders.
In another study, females who regularly watch TV three or more nights per week are fifty percent more likely than non-watchers to feel “too big” or “too fat.” About two-thirds of the TV-watching female teens dieted in the month preceding the survey. Fifteen percent admitted vomiting to control their weight. TV shows like the two mentioned above are fantasies, but all over the world young women, and some not so young, accept them as instructions on how to look and act. That’s really a shame.
An important question for people who watch TV, read magazines, and go to movies — do these media present images that open a window on the real world, or do they hold up a fun house mirror in which the reflections of real people are distorted into impossibly tall, thin sticks (or impossibly muscular, steroid-dependent male action figures)? Media consumers need to be wise consumers of visual images.
And wise consumers of verbal images too. The impact on vulnerable, insecure people cannot be calculated when they hear celebrities say things like “Whenever I watch TV and see those poor starving kids all over the world, I can’t help but cry. I mean I’d love to be skinny like that, but not with all those flies and death and stuff.” –Mariah Carey
For more information on this topic, we recommend “Remote Control Childhood? Combatting the Hazards of Media Culture,” a book by Diane Levin. In addition, parents can help their children learn to think critically by teaching them to ask the following questions about material presented through the media:
For an online interactive exercise in media analysis, visit the children’s section of the Public Broadcast System’s website. The exercise is aimed at younger children, but everyone can learn from it, and parents are encouraged to work through it too.
If people are vulnerable to eating disorders,
Triggers often happen at times of transition,
There is some evidence to suggest that
Wanting to take control and fix things,
Sometimes people such as diabetics who
Perhaps the most common trigger of disordered
Feeling guilty and perhaps horrified at
For an excellent and detailed discussion of the dangers and disappointments of dieting, visit NEDA, our sister organization.
A panel at the 2004 International Conference on Eating Disorders in Orlando, Florida, suggested the following spectrum of risk factors. The more any one person has, the greater the probability of developing an eating disorder.