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Eating Disorders: Cultural and Social Factors

Topic Overview

Eating disorders occur most often in industrialized cultures where there is an emphasis on thinness, especially if thinness is linked to success. Magazines, television, and other media have created an unrealistic image of the perfect, successful person. The pressure to be thin can lead to intense dieting, even in very young children, which can turn into an eating disorder in people who are more likely (predisposed) to get the disorders.

Professions and sports that require a certain body type may also indirectly encourage eating disorders. Ballet, gymnastics, modeling, acting, running, figure skating, swimming, jockeying, and wrestling often emphasize or require a thin, lean body.

Certain family attitudes or dynamics may contribute to the risk of a child or teen developing an eating disorder. The risk for eating disorders may be higher in families that:

  • Focus on high achievement.
  • Emphasize being perfect.
  • Are concerned about appearance.
  • Have difficulty talking about or coping with negative emotions such as sadness or anger.
  • Worry about being socially accepted.
  • Are concerned about physical fitness, including parents' own body weight and that of the child (or children).
  • Are overprotective or too involved in their teen's life.

Young people who develop eating disorders often have a close but troubled relationship with their parents. Although this is common in the teen years, a person who is at high risk for developing an eating disorder will take concerns over parental relationship problems to an extreme. The child may be afraid of disappointing his or her parents or may be trying to control an unspoken conflict or lack of harmony within the family.

People with eating disorders may seek out pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia websites to get support and encouragement in the disorder. Often nicknamed pro-ana (short for anorexia) and pro-mia (short for bulimia), these websites give users tips on weight loss, how to avoid meals, and how to increase exercise. They also allow users to communicate with each other so that they can encourage each other in continuing with their restrictive diets. Some people with eating disorders may say that these websites offer them support. But these websites are dangerous and can make the eating disorder worse.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
W. Stewart Agras, MD, FRCPC - Psychiatry
Last Revised August 27, 2013

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