• What Social Factors Contribute to Eating Disorders and Why?

    This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the graduate students in my Psychopathology course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Mental Health.” To that end, each student has to prepare two 1,000ish word posts on a particular class of mental disorders.


    What Social Factors Contribute to Eating Disorders and Why? by Alexis Pendarvis

    Eating Disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa (AN) and Bulimia Nervosa (BN) often occur in Western societies where food is in abundance but attractiveness is associated with thinness. Western societies also value and possess more media than non-Western societies. Therefore, there are many social factors that can contribute to the development of Eating Disorders. However, not all individuals who are subjected to these factors develop Eating Disorders.

    The western culture has a tendency to neutralize and possibly even idolize pathological behavior in pursuit of an ideal body. The thin ideal of the Western world has many women convinced that they must be extremely thin to be beautiful. Often, a woman’s self-esteem is dependent upon her perceived attractiveness to the opposite sex and body weight and shape can play a role in said attractiveness. Instead of feeling hatred or disgust for their own bodies, women often talk about their fantasy bodies. These fantasy body ideas are coming from actors and actresses in movies. The actors and actresses are the outliers who are deciding the norm for what body weight and size is acceptable. Obtaining these so-called fantasy bodies may be more difficult for some women than others. Therefore, some women may turn to Eating Disorder behavior to maintain the weight and body shape they desire. There has been a 24% increase in hospital stays due to Eating Disorders from 1999 to 2009. During this time there was an increase in hospital stays among all age groups, but the largest increase was from 45 to 65 year olds.

    Food & Drink

    There are four industries that can be involved in the social development of Eating Disorders. The first is the American food industry. The American food industry promotes snacking so that people are eating more than three times a day, it also idealizes processed foods causing people to eat foods that are not healthy for them or their weight control. With this industry in place and acting as it does to push people into consuming more food and unhealthier food Americans are actually gaining weight in a time when weight loss is the social ideal.

    Next, the diet and weight-loss industries are making billions on diet pills, creams and weight loss coaches or videos. This industry is trying to convince people that they can lose substantial amounts of weight without putting in any real effort. They want people to believe the weight will fall off without any change to their daily routine, but for a price.


    The fitness industry is another industry that may be leading to the social development of Eating Disorders. The fitness and diet industries often work together claiming that individuals need both to achieve and maintain their ideal body weight. The fitness industry is made up of gym memberships, personal trainers and sports equipment for homes such as treadmills and ellipticals.

    The final industry is the cosmetic surgery industry. The cosmetic surgery industry is making money off of people’s insecurities promising them a life of happiness after a liposuction or other procedures. There may be evidence that some hospitals wish to fill their empty beds so they place insecurities in their patients to allow them to want for an elective surgery. Cosmetic surgery allows for an easy way out for many people wishing to lose large amounts of weight.

    Not all women however, will be affected by these industries or the idea of an ideal body. Each media consumer brings his or her own personal history and identity to the viewing of media. There are four major  theories that are used to suggest why some individuals develop Eating Disorders based on mass media and why others do not. The first theory is Cultivation Theory, which states that the more media a person is exposed to, the more he or she will view the media images as realistic. Once these media images are realistic in a persons mind they may find themselves as inadequate and a possible failure for not being able to reach these unachievable goals they have set for themselves.

    The second theory is the Uses and Gratification Theory. The Uses and Gratification Theory looks at individuals and how they choose to expose themselves to media and how they act upon their interpretations of the media. For example, those who are unhappy with their bodies may purposefully expose themselves to images of thinness in the media and as a result become unhappier with their own bodies.

    The next theory is the Social Comparison Theory. The social comparison theory is three-fold, first individuals want to improve themselves. Second, individuals compare themselves to others and finally, individuals compare themselves to others with whom they are similar. Individuals wish for improvement of themselves is not merely associated with Eating Disorders. However, if this desire becomes drastic enough for the improvement of weight and body shape it may lead to Eating Disordered behavior. Individuals comparing themselves to others with whom they are similar can be a problem because no two people are alike in any way including weight and body size. Therefore, if young women are comparing themselves to other young actresses or women present in the media they are setting themselves up for unreachable standards.

    The final theory is the Objectification Theory, which states that the sexual objectification of women functions to socialize them to treat themselves as objects that are to be evaluated based on appearance. Growing up, even young girls learn quickly that looks matter and can influence their futures.

    As a society, we place too much emphasis on good looks and thinness. A process of re-visioning femininity can be a step in the right direction for developing solutions for society’s influence on Eating Disorders. Many people believe thin, petite women to be more feminine than heavier female figures. A first step in re-visioning femininity would be to replace this belief that somehow thinner women are more feminine. Another possible solution to media’s promotion of an “ideal” body is social activism. Social activism can include boycotting anorexic marketing or models that are below the healthy Body-Mass Index. Another example of social activism is Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which is a national program that is designed to bring awareness to the prevalence of Eating Disorders. A final solution to media’s promotion of an “ideal” body is media literacy. If people, mainly those affected by media messages, were to become media literate, they may be better able to critically analyze and question the images and messages that come from the media. Other possible solutions include addressing Eating Disorders and weight stigmatization in different aspects of life including school and sports. Also, the implementation of anti-bullying policies to prevent youth from being bullied based on their weight will lead to a possible solution for Eating Disorders and Eating Disordered behavior.

    Category: FeaturedMental HealthPsychologyTeaching


    Article by: Caleb Lack

    Caleb Lack is the author of "Great Plains Skeptic" on SIN, as well as a clinical psychologist, professor, and researcher. His website contains many more exciting details, visit it at www.caleblack.com