Eating disorders are complex and serious illnesses that can cause serious harm to the individual afflicted. Characterized by a disturbance in an individual’s self-perception and food behaviors, eating disorders are biologically-based brain illnesses that are affected by environmental, cultural, and psychological factors. A key aspect of eating disorders is their complexity and the questions surrounding them—what caused my eating disorder? Will I get better? Do other people experience this?
There are certain environmental factors that may contribute to the development of an eating disorder including diet culture, the media, and peer judgment. Diet culture is a series of beliefs that idolize thinness and equate it to health and wellbeing. Diet culture manifests in less obvious ways, too, and can be seen in the way that menus portray “healthy” options as superior or how the typical chair size is made for someone thin. These diet culture consequences can plant the idea, at a young age, that thinner is “normal” and something to strive for, which can lead to disordered eating later in life.
The media is largely problematic in its portrayal of the idea that thin is superior. From the majority of celebrities and actors being thin to weight-centric TV shows like “Biggest Loser,” it’s no surprise that society gets the message that skinny is better. This media messaging infiltrates daily lives. There’s billboards of new diets, commercials promoting gym memberships to get you in beach body shape, and reality TV featuring only the thinnest of stars. When faced with this negative messaging daily, individuals can feel intense pressure to “fit in,” leading to dieting, appearance dissatisfaction, and eating disorders.
Peer judgment and bullying may also be a key factor in the development of eating disorders, especially in youth and teens. A frequently cited trigger for disordered eating is weight and appearance-based bullying, which unfortunately is a common occurrence for preteens and teens. When faced with direct criticism and cruel jokes about appearance or dietary habits, it’s possible that the individual bullied will resort to drastic measures to escape the criticism or stop it—including restricting food or dramatically altering physical appearance or presentation.
Research has shown that eating disorders are the most prevalent in industrial cultures where thinness is idolized and incorrectly linked to health and wellbeing. In cultures where thinness is worshipped via media presentation and the larger communal dialogue, individuals are exposed to unrealistic ideals that can result in direct pressure to change how they naturally present.
In a blog written by Bhakti Doroodian, the influence of culture on eating disorders and recovery is discussed along with her personal experiences surrounding food and body. She notes that in India, body diversity was a norm due to Bollywood celebrating various body types and the focus being on ability—not appearance. This cultural acceptance of diverse appearances may contribute to positive food-body relationships, although she notes that it is not void of debatable eating practices.
Those suffering from eating disorders often cite culture as a contributor. For example, many American families engage in dieting and other body-based, restrictive practices. Growing up in a household that values thinness and appearance may cause children to normalize problematic food behaviors or to feel undue pressure to maintain a certain body shape.
Certain personality traits and mental health illnesses stand as a risk-factor for the development of eating disorders including perfectionism, body disdain, OCD, anxiety, and more. For those living with moderate to severe perfectionistic tendencies or OCD, disordered eating may become a way to feel in control of or manage negative feelings. Some individuals may begin to self-soothe by rigidly controlling their diet, as it becomes a way to feel power and control over their daily lives.
Those suffering from anxiety or depression may also fall victim to an eating disorder. Research has shown that a large portion of individuals who suffer from an eating disorder also experience anxiety or depression. For those struggling with anxiety, controlling food intake may serve as a way to feel control which can momentarily relieve anxiety. For those suffering from depression, eating too little or eating too much is common. As these depressive eating patterns continue, they make take hold.
By understanding the myriad factors that contribute to the development and reinforcement of eating disorders, we can understand how our upbringing can contribute to disordered eating. For those raised in strict households where food was used as a reward or punishment, it’s possible that food will still be viewed in that way later in life. For example, if good grades were rewarded by cake and poor scores resulted in no dessert, it’s possible that comfort eating will be a large part of the individual’s adult life. This belief and behavior of eating to celebrate may become disordered and turn into binge eating or bulimia.
For children raised in households where their parents were frequently dieting, they may receive the message that changing your body appearance is normal and good. When children watch their parents engage in restrictive eating, it can become normalized and something to strive for, causing children to start dieting at a young age in an attempt to copy their parents.
Additionally, overly critical households, especially in regards to food and body may contribute to eating disorders due to their negative nature. If children grow up hearing friends or family speak negatively about themselves or their bodies, it’s likely that they will start to mimic that behavior. If a mother looks at herself in the mirror and comments negatively on her appearance and her child hears, her child may leave with the message that certain things are bad and certain things are good. If a parent dislikes their weight, it’s likely that a child will grow up thinking that a certain size is superior, which may affect their behavior and decisions.
While eating disorders are not solely a result of upbringing, eating disorders can be triggered and reinforced by certain family dynamics or parenting approaches. No parent wants their child to develop an eating disorder and eating disorders are certainly not the sole fault of the parent—eating disorders are attributed to biology, neurology, social, environmental, and psychological factors. If you are a parent looking to promote body acceptance in your home, here is some advice from Dr. Jillian Lampert. If you are concerned you or a loved one is struggling with food and body, reach out to The Emily Program at 1-888-364-5977. We can help.
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