A notable amount of the literature and research conducted on eating disorders has been devoted to reporting the influence of mass media on individuals with eating disorders. Many proclaim that mass media advocate a standard of slim beauty that is unattainable and unrealistic. It is easy to point a finger at the media and declare, “The media causes eating disorders.” This statement, however, is extreme. It singles out the mass media as the main culprit behind why eating disorders are so prevalent in Western countries and is a growing problem in East Asian countries. The statement simplifies eating disorders as if they stem from one problem and ignores many other factors that play roles in this complex group of psychological disorders. This essay will briefly discuss factors such as family influences, psychological elements, and neurological and genetic factors that, in addition to the media, contribute to eating disorders.
When adolescent girls are asked what their main reasons are for dieting, they often reply: mass media (magazines, television, fashions, advertisements, etc.), peer influences, and family criticisms (Wertheim, Paxton, Schutz, & Muir, 1997). These reasons are not surprising because they are easily identifiable explanations behind why adolescents develop eating disorders. The mass media are widely known to hold influential power over their audiences’ looks, dress, and actions. Family and peers, too, can reinforce negative thoughts and lower self-esteem with criticisms and letdowns. The family also contributes to eating disorders in less obvious ways. The socioeconomic background of the family, parental behaviors and attitudes, family history of addictions, abuse, emotional disorders and/or obesity are all contributions to an adolescent’s path towards eating disorders (Sue, Sue, & Sue, 2010). Parents’ attitudes about restrictive eating and the importance of maintaining certain physical appearances assert pressure on their children to be thin. Field et al. (2008) found that negative comments of fathers about their sons’ weights were likely to be a predicting factor that the sons will start binging at least weekly. Criticisms may become ruminating thoughts and children would often internalize problems as their own faults. Parents and peers hence reinforce the ideal thin body that the media continually feature in advertisements and magazines (Annus, Smith, Fischer, Hendricks, & Williams, 2007). The build-up of pressure often leads to children creating thin-ideal internalizations; they agree that slender women are more attractive (Thompson & Stice, 2004).
A family’s history of addictions, emotional disorders, eating disorders and/or abuse is a possible determinant of eating disorders. Field and colleagues have found that young girls whose mothers had histories of eating disorders were 3 times more likely than their peers were to start purging at least weekly. Interestingly, young women are likely to mirror behaviors of those who have bad eating habits. “[W]hen a young woman discovered a close friend or relative had an eating disorder, she was likely to engage in disordered eating behaviors herself, even if she thought it was wrong” (Field, et al., 2008). Some studies have shown that individuals who come from a family of substance or alcohol abuse are more likely than the general population to be sensitive about their body image and thereafter develop eating disorders. Bulimic individuals are also more likely to have an obese parent or a parent who have been obese (Simon & Zieve, 2009). Family backgrounds of adolescents and their upbringing unfortunately do play a part in explaining eating disorders in adolescents.
Another major dimension behind eating disorders is the psychological aspect. People who resort to dieting or abnormal eating patterns are frequently victims of their own minds. These individuals often experience comorbid symptoms of eating disorders, mood disorders and self-esteem insecurities. They are excessively concerned about their body image, constantly worrying that others will see them as fat and unattractive. Adolescents may feel that they have no control over their lives (e.g., their parents are overbearing and restricting), and they may strive for perfection in school and in their appearance. To deal with their stress and anxiety, these individuals tend to resort to using food or weight control as means of handling their stress. By restricting their diet or by purging after eating, they feel like they have gained some control over their lives. The element of control over what they eat provides relief and satisfaction (Sue et al., 2010). Despite this temporary relief from anxiety, people who have anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa feel they are still not skinny enough. Dysfunctional beliefs about body size, weight, and shape ruminate in the minds of young girls, such as, “I am a failure because I am fat” (Sue et al., 2010). These thoughts reinforce eating disorders; dieting and binge eating patterns continue in a vicious cycle.
Those susceptible to eating disorders are particularly critical of themselves and self-conscious of their physical appearance. Various findings have reported higher scores for men and women on characteristics such as passivity, low self-esteem, dependence, and nonassertiveness. These scores are correlated with higher rates of disordered eating (Sue et al., 2010). Dieting may be used to show self-control, but an interesting study by Pelletier and Dion (2007) shows that there is more to eating pathologies than just control over eating. In their study, they investigated whether eating disorders were related to regulation of food intake. They found that the level of self-determination a woman has may help ward off the influences of others and the media about ideal bodies. They also found that self-determination is positively correlated with autonomous eating behaviors. This means that a woman with a high sense of direction and motivation is less likely to engage in regulated eating behaviors and follow strict diet regiments. Individuals with low scores on self-determination are more likely to be dissatisfied with their bodies and regulate their eating habits. Too much regulation may lead to bad eating habits that become symptoms of eating disorders.
The etiology of eating disorders is also believed to have biological factors related to genes and abnormal hormone levels. Studies conducted on anorexic individuals and their first-degree relatives have shown a correlation between genes and the tendency to develop anorexia nervosa (Sue et al., 2010). According to one report on the causes of eating disorders, anorexia is eight times more likely to develop in people with relatives who have this disorder (Simon & Zieve, 2009). Twin studies report moderate concordance rates for bulimia, 22.9% for monozygotic twins and 8.7% for dizygotic twins (Sue et al., 2010). Genetic studies on bulimia nervosa and obesity have identified loci on chromosome 10 to have influential roles in these conditions (Hinney et al., 2000; Bulik et al., 2003).
Genetic factors may also be related to the low levels of dopamine, the primary neurotransmitter believed to be involved with the rewarding psychological effects of food. A study by Epstein and colleagues (2007) found that a shorter allele for dopamine coding is correlated with appetite. When dopamine levels are low, an individual may feel a greater urge to consume more food, but an increase in dopamine levels is associated with a decrease in appetite (Sue et al., 2010). Neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine are the two other neurotransmitters of interest. Abnormal levels of either chemical may cause changes in stress, mood, and appetite (Simon & Zieve, 2009).
A substantial amount of girls diagnosed with eating disorders are diagnosed after puberty. It has been suggested that the onset of puberty may factor in to moderating the genetic influences on eating disorders. Girls undergo psychological, psychosocial and physical changes during puberty. Hormone levels begin to fluctuate. Most importantly, ovarian hormones are activated. These hormones drive pubertal changes and are also linked with food intake and body weight gain. Disruptions in hormone levels during this developmental period is associated with a change in food appetite and weight disturbances (Klump et al., 2007). Although still much biological research needs to be done to fully understand why eating disorders develop in some individuals and not in others, it is evident that there is much more to the etiology of eating disorders than the influences of the mass media.
As this essay tries to illustrate, there is no single causing factor that determines whether an individual develops eating disorders. The family’s involvement in an adolescent’s life influences his self-esteem and sense of control over his life. A restrictive and controlled parenting style may contribute to a child’s need to find his own sense of individuality and control, even if it is through eating. Also, eating disorders are often associated with psychological disturbances. Unfortunately, some adolescents display excessive concern about their body weight and hold dysfunctional beliefs about themselves. Yet behind all these social and psychological factors, there are some evidences that suggest eating disorders arise from genetic predispositions in hormone coding. No doubt, the media holds great power in setting the standards of beauty, and it influences vulnerable individuals to match their own ideal bodies to those of celebrities, but to say that the media causes eating disorders is an extreme and narrow position to take. Instead, one should take a multi-dimensional approach in investigating the causes of eating disorders.
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