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June 8, 2017

Is It Harder to Self-Identify Disordered Eating?

Is It Harder to Self-Identify Disordered Eating?

Many previous studies have attempted to decipher how women perceive the disordered eating behaviors of other women. However, previous researchers have not extensively examined how young women perceive their own eating pathologies. Among college-aged women, eating disorders are extremely prevalent, but many of these individuals attribute their disordered eating to the normal stress of college. Of the very small percentage of women who do seek treatment, an even smaller percentage seek help specifically for an eating disorder. This lack of self-identification is deeply problematic because timely identification and treatment of an eating disorder is essential for maximizing the chances of a successful recovery.

A recent research study analyzed how female college students perceive their own disordered eating. In order to do so, researchers randomly assigned female university students to read one of two vignettes: one that depicted a main character with disordered eating named Lauren, and one that presented a main character with disordered eating as being the participant herself. The goal of the study was to determine if there was a discrepancy in how young women interpreted the eating pathology of other women versus the eating pathology of themselves.

After reading the vignettes, participants were asked about four different elements of the main character’s disordered eating. Researchers then compared the responses of those women who read about Lauren (the “other” group) versus those women who read about themselves (the “self” group). Here are the results:

  • Problem Recognition – Compared with those in the “other” group, participants in the “self” condition were 2.87 times more likely to attribute the character’s “problem” to a general health issue than to Bulimia Nervosa. Considering the vignette was intentionally designed to portray a character with Bulimia Nervosa, this failure to recognize an eating disorder and severe discrepancy between groups was especially surprising.
  • Barriers to Seeking Help – Interestingly, women in the “self” group identified the main character as having fewer barriers to seeking help than did those in the “other” group. Some of the most commonly perceived barriers between both groups were “not knowing where to go” and “the risk of other people finding out.”
  • Severity of Disordered Eating – Although participants in the “other” group did identify the character’s disordered eating as being slightly more severe than those in the “self” group, the results were not significant. However, the warped perception of the character’s eating by the “self” group was more reflected in their perception of the character’s coping ability.
  • Ability to Cope – While participants in the “other” condition strongly believed the vignette character should seek help for her disordered eating, participants in the “self” condition were far more likely to believe the character could cope with this problem on her own. This reflects a decreased perception of severity of the eating disorder among the “self” group because an eating disorder perceived as more intense would not be one an individual would be able to tackle on their own.

Results of this study indicate that women are far more likely to identify an eating disorder and endorse seeking help for other people than they are for themselves. The decrease in identified barriers in the “self” group may reflect what previous psychologists have described as the self-illusory superiority; many people intrinsically believe that their positive qualities are greater than others’. This dynamic manifests in the women’s tendencies to believe that if they were in the place of the main character, they would be able to cope well with very few barriers.

The conclusions of this study are important because many people are only truly able to accept seeking help once they have come to the internal conclusion that their symptoms warrant it. However, because people are so much less likely to identify problems and barriers in themselves, this can greatly stand in the way of their treatment potential. Furthermore, we must understand the difference between people’s perceptions of the disordered eating of others and of themselves because this discrepancy can be utilized in prevention and intervention tactics to heighten an individual’s understanding of their own behavior and why they perceive themselves a certain way.

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