What Causes Eating Disorders? - Risk Factors and Cultural Perspectives

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  • 0:05 Eating Disorders
  • 2:39 Gender & Culture
  • 4:46 Risk & Protection
  • 7:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

This lesson takes a broad look at the causes of eating disorders. In addition, this lesson looks at what causes individuals to face higher or lower incidence rates of eating disorders.

Eating Disorders

We live in a culture that has this dynamic tension between oppositions. That's my fancy way of saying that we live in a culture of eating and wanting to stay in shape. Americans love to eat a lot and usually things that are terrible for us. Hot dog eating competitions, pie eating competitions, and holidays all have us gorging. Then we watch TV and look at advertisements with people who are extremely fit and whose body fat is in the dangerously low range. This creates a huge tension between us wanting to eat and wanting to be like those we see on TV.

This dynamic tension creates a lot of thinking and behavioral problems that, if one were to stop and think about it, would be ridiculous. Gorging on 3,000 calories for a meal or going to the gym twice a day every day while your body is fighting off pneumonia are good examples of absurd behavior like this. Narrowing our focus down a little more, we have eating disorders, which are defined as behavioral and psychological issues concerned with food and body shape, resulting from underlying disorders. Eating disorders are commonly put under two types: anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

Anorexia nervosa is defined as a pattern of restrictive food intake due to a distorted view of one's weight and body shape. This disorder is marked by high anxiety and a reduction in body mass to dangerous levels. The individual restricts calories or finds ways of burning off what they do take in to dangerous thinness. It's important to remember that these disorders are not simplistic, and that they can take many different forms. For example, most people equate anorexia with not eating. However, anorexia can also be linked to over-exercising.

Bulimia nervosa is defined as a pattern of consuming excessive calories and then various methods to purge the excess calories. This disorder is commonly thought of as the type where a person eats food and then throws it up. However, the real disorder resists simplicity since not everyone throws up. Some over-exercise, while others take laxatives or other medications. The thing about bulimia is that it can be hidden well by terms like 'dieting' or 'normal weight' while it wreaks havoc on the body. Often, underlying psychological issues of depression and stress have to do with bulimia.

Gender & Culture

We've discussed how culture plays a big part in eating disorders. However, it isn't just culture by itself since culture has a lot of weird and backward ideas. We need to look at it with a more refined eye. For example, when we look at who is most likely to be afflicted by an eating disorder, women far outnumber men. If this was 100 years ago, we would just say women have some neurotic disorder or pseudo-scientific junk about penis envy or something. What is actually happening is that culture is different to men and women.

Let's look at an advertisement for men which depicts women as this impossibly thin but still curvy figure. This is meant to sell something to men by associating sex with the item. What is also happening is that this photo-shopped image has become the new ideal. Men want what they see in the poster and women want to be what is in the poster, both of which are impossible because the image isn't real.

The double whammy is that women are also given these impossible images and ideals to live up to. Look at any fashion or teen magazine, and the photos have been tweaked and modified so that the image isn't really anyone anymore. This hyper-focus on women and their body is reflected in the numbers, with 80%-95% of people with eating disorders being female.

I am kind of a stickler for some things, and while I completely agree that culture has put an impossible image on women, it is not entirely a female issue. At least 5%-20% of eating disorders are diagnosed in males. And like any mental disorder, this is based on a psychologist's perception of the client.

The real number is likely much higher because there is a cultural bias that an eating disorder is a woman's problem. Male eating disorders are due to the same issues as women - images in culture. Look at the male figure in clothing ads, video games, and television, and the same issues are there. Why is it not as bad for men as women? To look at that, we need to examine the risk factors.

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