Factors that Contribute to the Development of Eating Disorders

Junior (College 3rd year) ・Healthcare&Medicine ・APA ・9 Sources

Eating disorders such as Bulimia Nervosa and Anorexia Nervosa are often construed as the desire to remain thin. However, there are various psychological factors that may contribute to the development of such disorders. Though there are arguments that eating disorders are attributable to issues such as personality, genetics or inadequate coping mechanism or skills, the interaction of these factors with varying family and environment related issues exacerbate the problem.
Various studies on eating disorders have largely focused on examining the development of emotional boundaries in domestic institutions such as families. In some instances, families have been found to be excessively involved and embroiled with a person suffering from one or more eating disorders. Eating disorders can be caused by a myriad of factors that include psychosocial and cultural influences within the family dynamic and society. This paper examines eating disorders associated factors that contribute to the development and escalation of abnormal eating behaviour especially among female teenagers and young adults.

Overview of Eating Disorders

When an individual’s relationship with family members is enmeshed, it can be described as being an overly-intimate and interdependent relationship. In such a situation, there are unclear psychological and emotional boundaries between two family members (Alexander & Treasure, 2013). The enmeshed relationship makes it significantly difficult for individuals to dissociate from one another and function separately. Hence, they are unable to function separately as individuals with their own unique identities. Such situations do not occur immediately but develop gradually over time. Conflict arises when a child has grown into the teenage stage and attempt to become independent and develop his or her own identity outside the family dynamic (Mitchell & Peterson, 2012).
In most cases, teenagers experience difficulties in coping with such situations and may feel inadequate or powerless in their attempt to develop their own individual identities. Therefore, they resort to actions that are within their control such as determining what will or will not happen to their bodies (Mitchell & Peterson, 2012). For instance, in a case where a teenage girl wishes to join the cheerleading group in the school may require her to be away from the home environment most of the time for practice and participation in cheerleading events. However, some parents who are overly involved in their children may find it difficult to let go and allow the child to have a life outside the home (Alexander & Treasure, 2013). In such a situation conflict in more than likely to occur, and the teenage girl would make every attempt to ensure that she has some form of control in her life. Hunger strikes and starvation become a means within which the teenager can voice her discontent with the inability to extricate from the clutches of her parents. When such behaviour continues unchecked, it may result in eating disorders that may be detrimental to health.
According to Alexander and Treasure (2013) studies have determined that a significant number of young people suffering from “eating disorders come from families that are rigid, overprotective, focused on success and perfectionist.” In some instances, such families have very high expectations for their children’s success that may be largely unreasonable and unwarranted (Alexander & Treasure, 2013). The parents may fail to take into consideration the needs of their children but focus mainly on external rewards that may benefit them more than the children in question. Teenagers and young adults from such families often present the appearance of success as per expected norms such as being thin, well-groomed and attractive (Mitchell & Peterson, 2012); however, in reality, they do not feel successful at all. When families place too many expectations for a child to achieve certain goals, the pressure causes them to attempt doing something that is within their control, and they can excel in. in most cases, they resort to restricting food intake.
Families have been found to have numerous issues that may influence the development of eating disorders. Various studies have suggested that individuals whose families are troubled or characterized by negative behaviour such as alcoholism, drug abuse and domestic violence are more than likely to suffer from eating disorders. In addition, issues associated with divorce have also been found to contribute towards the development of eating disorders. Traumatic experiences such as neglect, physical and sexual abuse in the hands of family members cause individuals to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (Mitchell & Peterson, 2012). The occurrence of PTSD may have a significant impact on eating habits where an individual is too frightened and anxious to eat (Mitchell & Peterson, 2012).
The modern world dynamics is largely influenced by westernized cultural practices that encourage teenagers and young women to adopt a thin physique. The modern culture is influenced by models, dieting fads and the media which emphasize on the thin body image as one that embodies beauty, admiration and respect in society. Consequently, most modern families are encouraging their children to adopt a similar image that is considered as culturally correct, and attractive to the community.
According to Conway (2013), various media including television, advertisements, magazines and beauty models have re-defined the meaning of sensual, desirable and beautiful woman through the distortion of the female body image. Magazines such as Vogue and Allure among others publish images of extremely skinny women wearing tiny and revealing outfits (Conway, 2013). Apparently, the fashion industry presents a skinny woman as the ideal fashionable modern woman. Television shows such as Victorious or Gossip Girl have contributed towards the distortion of the American female body image, where thin and skinny women are accepted in modern social circles while voluptuous women are shunned as fat, unhealthy, socially awkward and ugly (Conway, 2013). Consequently, such characterization of the female’s body images has led to significant health and social problems such as eating disorders, depression and even cases of attempted suicides (Conway, 2013).

Research Findings

The examination of research on issues that contribute to eating disorders indicates that they are largely centred on how individuals perceive themselves, their efforts to fit in and become part of the larger society outside the confined of their family. While there are intricate factors that contribute to eating disorders, a significant number of individuals suffering from eating disorders were motivated by their need to create, control and preserve a body image that is acceptable to society (Mitchell & Peterson, 2012). Consequently, body image issues are among the leading factors that contribute to eating disorders.
A woman’s body image is defined by her figure, hair, skin and sense of fashion; as such, the media being aware of this fact has exploited the female vulnerabilities to further their commercial agendas. Slenderness becomes a fashionable concept in the early 20th century. This trend continued and was further propagated by the various media and film personality in the mid-20th century such as Marilyn Monroe (Becker, 2004). However, Monroe attempted to redefine the female body image to encompass a fuller female physique.
Women were trying to regain the curves they were once trying to restrict. The most idolized women around that time were Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield (Becker, 2004). Look at the bodies they had; curvy, voluptuous and healthy. Just because they were not a size zero, did not affect how beautiful they were. Then again, in the 1960’s, slenderness was back. The model Twiggy showed that her fragile figure was what equalled beauty. Between 1970 and 1990, the demand for being skinny was taking a toll on the world (Becker, 2004). In the modern society, being thin is the “it” thing, and women are sparing no effort or costs to attain this “beautiful and ideal body image.”
In the journal article Plastic Makes Perfect, it talks about how even mothers want to be slim and perfect (Abate, 2010). Despite the fact that being shapely due to having kids should make a woman proud, mothers still want to conform to the pressures society is demanding. The article suggests that no one specifically counts the number of tummy tucks and breast augmentations done. Mothers especially have to think about the impact that they have on their children. When children observe their parent having surgery, most likely they will follow in their parents’ footsteps or attempt the most readily available solution such as refraining from eating which results in eating disorders. Society has to think about the message being sent to the younger generation (Bordo, 1993). Women develop “Body Dysmorphic Disorder, which is a mental disorder characterized by a person’s fixation” with a small or the illusion of flaws in their physical image to the extent of becoming clinically depressed and dysfunctional (Abate, 2010). If the media did not advertise only skinny, perfect women, then women of the real world would not feel pressured to conform to what they see and problems associated with eating disorders can be reduced significantly (Ballaster, Beetham, Frazer & Hebron, 1991).
According to Conway (2013), women go to unbelievable extremes to acquire the perfect look. It has been observed that the American woman is presumed to develop body deficit issues and eating disorders above anyone else. Essentially, women would rather develop eating disorders in the process of themselves and try to be what they see in the media. It is not only magazines and television that makes girls wish to morph into something unhealthy. Female adolescents are easily manipulated into believing what they see is the truth (Conway, 2013). When girls flip through the magazines, they see what their favourite stars are wearing or what looks appealing. If they see clothes advertised on a skinny, bony figure, it is highly likely that a significant percentage will take to the media's representation of beauty; hence attempt to emulate such body images.
Consequently, a large number of young females develop the most common eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. Anorexia is the act of starving oneself to stay thin; while bulimia is the act of bingeing significant amounts of food and subsequently purging to get rid of everything eaten (Bordo, 1993). The trend of eating disorders had increased significantly; meanwhile, a significant number of young women in the United States are highly dissatisfied with their body image; this is a factor that leads to eating disorders and plastic surgery (Abate, 2010). Although many women feel the need to look young and in shape regardless, the majority of their desire is caused by the media. If women and girls did not observe what society advertises through television and magazines, they would not feel compelled to look perfect at the cost of their health.
Women of the world are not only in competition, but with each other. Whoever is skinnier is prettier, whoever has better clothes is the better person, and whoever has the best hair and make-up is the most successful. Women are naturally competitive and self-destructive. When women see other women looking prettier and skinnier, it drives them into motivation. What is absolutely shocking is that there are pro-anorexia websites where the women on the sites talk about what to eat and not eat. Essentially, these girls post pictures of rail thin girls and write paragraphs about how to starve themselves (Palad, 2009). Over time, clothing companies have shrunk the sizes, so clothes run smaller- forcing women to believe they are larger than they are (Palad, 2009). Evidently, eating disorders are considered as the accepted consequences that women must suffer in their attempt to conform to societal expectations.


Though the research succeeded in identifying various causal factors of eating disorders, it did not present the measures that can be taken to mitigate or undo the effects of eating disorders. It does not present systemic measures to deter the development of eating disorders especially in the context of body image related issues. The arguments on eating disorders largely focus on women and exclude men’s issues that can result in the development of such problems. Particularly, men are also conscious about their body image and may suffer from eating disorders as they attempt to preserve the ideal and acceptable masculine body image. Further research is needed towards the identification of comprehensive measures for the prevention of eating disorders and solutions available to individuals who are concerned with their body image.


Abate, M. A. (2010). “Plastic makes perfect”: My beautiful mommy, cosmetic surgery, and the medicalization of motherhood. Women Studies, 39(7), 715-746.
Alexander, J., & Treasure, J. (2013). A collaborative approach to eating disorders. New York, NY: Routledge.
Ballaster, R., Beetham, M., Frazer, E., & Hebron, S. (1991). Women’s worlds-ideology, femininity and the woman magazine. Basingstoke, UK: MacMillan.
Becker, A. E. (2004). Television, Disordered Eating, and Young Women in Fiji: Negotiating body image and identify during rapid social change. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, 28, 533-559.
Bordo, S. (1993). Unbearable weight: Feminism, western culture and the body. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.
Conway, C. (2013). Body image and the media. North Mankato, MN: ABDO Publishing Company.
Doheny, K. (2007). Cosmetic procedures on the rise – again. The Washington Post, 20 March 2007. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/20/AR2007032000447.html
Mitchell, J. E., & Peterson, C. B. (2012). Assessment of eating disorders. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Palad, T. (2009). Mixed messages: Interpreting body image and social norms. Edina, MN: ABDO Publishing Company.

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