Effect of Social-cultural Factors on Eating Disorders

The emergence of new fashion each day, access of such information via magazines, media and mostly the internet has prompted many young people especially women to practice what they see or read so as to improve their looks. New (2008) explains that some have gone too the extent of starving themselves so as to have a figure similar to a fashion model or an artist they so admire. People are therefore cautioned to watch what they eat and exercise regularly so as to maintain body fitness.

According to New (2008), one is said to have an eating disorder when he or she has excessive or low intake of food substances such that it has a physical or psychological effect on the functioning of the body. Such disorders could be induced by certain beliefs and taboos which hinder one from accepting themselves wholly.

They perceive the feeling that their body shape and size are not appealing thus feel unwanted or disliked by other people. With this in their mind, they find ways and means of cutting down their food intake so as gain their desired body shape.

The most experienced are Bulimia Nervosa, Binge and Anorexia Nervosa. Alexander and Lamsden (1994) say that people with the Anorexia disorder are said to have fear of weight gain or losing shape and therefore they tend to limit their food consumption by taking too little or doing too much exercise.

People with bulimia on the other hand tend to take a lot of food at one time and then try to get rid of it by vomiting, consuming laxatives or exercising too much so as to avoid gaining weight. In the same case, some one with binge disorder tends to take a lot of food but in this case, he/she does not purge/get rid of the food.

Anorexia victims are mostly skinny and malnourished while on the other hand the bulimia victims are plump or have standard weight (Alexander and Lamsden 1994). Food phobia is also an eating disorder though not as common as the fore mentioned.

The number of victims with eating disorder seems to be rising each day. According to Reiss et al (2007) these disorders are more common in women than in men but some say that this may not be true since most men tend to deny the fact that they have the disease and few of them even seek treatment.

Research however shows that women get the disease at a lower age compared to men, with most of them beginning at adolescence. Mostly, these disorders are linked to a life which is stressful due to poverty, war or violence and family conflicts. There are social-cultural factors that also lead to eating disorders, some of which are discussed below.

Media in particular has been on the spotlight for having a hand in the growing numbers of people experiencing eating disorders. Many young people watch fashion models, artists, actors on movies who are usually thin and hence they tend to think that beauty is associated with thinness.

They therefore tend to copy what they wear, try to eat as little as they can so as to maintain that body shape and size of their perceived model (Fallon et al 1994). Boys on the other hand also may tend to limit their eating habits and attend gym sessions so as to build muscles.

Most girls at adolescent stage tend to gain more weight due to the hormonal changes taking place in their bodies. At this stage, many of them are very concerned with how they look and are scared of gaining weight as this would portray them as ‘unattractive’. Such pressure when combined with the desire to be like a certain model makes them resolve into ways of cutting weight as much as they can.

Meyers (2009) says that certain activities people are involved in may also make them vulnerable to such disorders. For instance, the runners, dancers and those who play games like skating may tend to be more watchful on what they eat as they fear gaining weight as well as height. Athletes at some instance are persuaded by their coaches to loose weight even though the natures of their activity biologically compel them to gain weight.

Some research also shows that some families are very protective to their members and mainly focus their attention on achievements. Such families have so many expectations from their members, some of which are unrealistic or rather inflated.

Children brought up in such families may not live up to the expectations of their families and to compensate for their failure, they resort to doing something which is in their capacity such as limiting their food intake or losing weight (Meyers 2009). On the same note, people from families that experience constant domestic violence, divorce or broken marriages, drugs and alcohol abuse also tend to develop some eating disorders.

In Reiss et al (2007) reiterate that, “some people turn to an eating disorder after they’ve experienced a family trauma such as sexual or physical abuse”. If the trauma is excess, a condition know as Post Traumatic Disorder develops leading to anxiety and constant upsetting memories of the occurrences.

In the social world, some people tend to be very possessive especially when it comes to relationships, while others are perfectionists. Such people in most cases find themselves anxious or stressed especially if they do not meet their set targets.

This situation may therefore result to eating disorders and they find it hard controlling their weight or eating well (Costin 1999). Others, especially those suffering from bulimia and anorexia are more concerned with success and they mostly rate their performance with certain set standards which are often unrealistic, most of which are related to peer pressure.

This is to say that such individuals are worried with what people say about them rather than what they perceive themselves to be. Costin (2006) argues that such people strive to be the best they can and when they fail to achieve their goals, they experience a sense of frustration which in turn drives them into adopting control measures. Perfectionism related to eating disorders may be triggered by obsessive thinking especially wit the anorexics.

They become pre-occupied with food and aim at limiting their food intake so as to be thin. Their thinking is mostly on farthest ends and may not be in a position to accept that their behavior is unruly and that there are better ways of being happy other than losing weight.

Other researches by clinicians suggest that people who suffer from eating disorders may have deficiency in some skills essential in life. Eating disorder is hence used as a substitute for such skills. They do this to release tension, get comfort or attention and build self identity.

Moving from one stage to another in life may also pose a challenge to some people. For example, moving from one level of education to another and pressure from school work may trigger young people into eating disorder behaviors (HeathyPlace.com 2009).

This form of behavior is frequent with binge individuals, which is the reverse of the anorexics and bulimics who try to avoid food so as to become thin. Binge eaters are often unable to control their anger, are always anxious and bored and they rely on food for comfort since they feel that they do not have better way of making themselves happy.

The result of this is a feeling of guiltiness, and to handle this, they binge more, thus creating a kind of cycle that they are eventually fixated into.

Peer relations are often characterized by teasing and comparisons among the adolescents. According to (Paxton et al 1999, as cited in Gold 2004) eating behaviors in adolescents tend to compare in adolescents who are friends or who belong to a certain group.

This is due to influence gained from such cliques as they discuss different issues concerning them. Those with body sizes perceived as big and unattractive are often ridiculed by their fellow peers and in order for them to fit into the group, they resort to eating disorder behaviors.

Some research shows that eating disorders have led to growth of some kind of limitations in families. According to Reiss et al (2007) families became enmeshed with the person suffering from this disorder.

Reiss et al (2007) explains that, ‘enmeshed’, is a psychological term describing a symbiotic and overly-intimate relationship in which the emotional and psychological boundaries between people are so obscure or unclear that it is difficult for them to function as separate individuals with heir own identities.

This condition comes about gradually and its effect is not seen till adolescence when the child starts to have feelings of wanting to be independent rather than being directed by the parents (Lask and Bryant 2000). Such a teenager may feel insecure and unable to make personal decisions and therefore fight to control what happens in their bodies.

For example, a teenager who wants to attend a sports event in her school is compelled to leave home for some time. If her parents are the over-involved type, they may feel a bit insecure by this idea and hence compensate by accompanying her daughter to such an event.

This in turn may make the teenager feel uneasy and lack self confidence thus controlling such situation in the only way that is familiar to her, limiting what she eats. Persistence of this behavior eventually leads to an eating disorder.

In conclusion eating disorders can be said not to be as frequent as compared to mental illnesses but that does not mean that they do not exist. A survey carried out by the National Institute of Mental Health in the U.S says that 5-10% of the people in the country have an eating disorder (New 2008), with Binge being experienced mostly by adults of about 2% of the population.

These cases have however been in the rise in the recent past, with the most affected being women. This does not mean that the disorders are women diseases, men who are concerned with body shape and size also suffer from such disorders. Some of these men have even resorted to using steroids so as to boost their muscle strength.

Eating disorders are intricate forms of illness which could be caused by social issues, biological, physical and emotional issues. According to Katzman et al (2001) once an individual develops an eating disorder, the condition creates a form of a cycle that repeats itself forcing the victim to be more involved in the eating behavior. Many of these disorders begin at onset of adolescence and early adulthood.

The emotional changes experienced by adolescents such as peer pressure, stress and the desire to be independent are believed to be the major causes of these disorders at this stage of life.

Cohn and Schwartz (1996) say that some events in life that are perceived as stressful, like domestic violence, stress at school and sexual abuse, have also contributed greatly in these disorders. It is however noted that the race of an individual or their social economic status does not determine ones’ vulnerability to them, but rather, they affect all people, both the poor and the rich.

All the above discussed disorders can have negative effects in an individual. They can influence how one carries themselves in their daily life, cause painful emotions and eventually lead to isolation from others (Abraham and Jones 2001). This is because they are mostly obsessed with their weight and body image, and how other people see them.

It is ironical that even when friends and family members of such victims are concerned about their weight loss, they (victims) still find themselves as overweight and brush off other people’s opinions of their self worth. Declining opinions from other people makes them uphold the negative view about themselves and this encourages the cycle to continue.

Emmett (1985) urges that suffering from an eating disorder however is not a death sentence. People have been cured and therefore, one is advised to seek treatment as soon as possible!

Reference list

Abraham, Suzanne and Jones, Derek (2001) Eating disorders: the facts. 5th edition. Oxford University Press.

Alexander-Mott, Ann and Lamsden, Barry (1994) Understanding eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and obesity. Taylor and Francis.

Costin, C. (1999) The eating disorder sourcebook: a comprehensive guide to the causes, treatments, and prevention of eating disorders. 2rd edition. McGraw-Hill Professional

Costin, C. (2006) The eating disorder sourcebook: a comprehensive guide to the causes, treatments, and prevention of eating disorders. 3rd edition.

McGraw-Hill Professional Emmett, S. (1985) Theory and treatment of anorexia nervosa and bulimia: biomedicalsociocultural, and psychological perspectives. Psychology Press

Engel, Reiss et al. (2007) Eating Disorders. [Online] (Updated Feb 2nd2007)

Fallon, Wooley et al. (1994) Feminist perspectives on eating disorders. Guilford Press

Gold, M. (2004) Eating disorders, overeating, and pathological attachment to food: independent or addictive disorders? Routledge.

(2009) What causes Anorexia and bulimia in Teens? [Online]

Lask, Bryan and Bryant, Rachel (2000) Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders in Childhood and Adolescence. 2nd edition. Taylor and Francis

Meyers, S. (2009) Factors that may Contribute to Eating Disorders.

Nasser, Katzman e. al (eds) (2001) Eating Disorders and Cultures in Transition. Psychology Press.

New, Michelle (2008) Eating Disorders. [Online]. Nemours Foundation.

Schwartz, Mark and Cohn, Leigh (1996) Sexual abuse and eating disorders. Psychology Press.

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