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.
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.
Risk & Protection
Why do women suffer from eating disorders more than men? The answers lie in risk and protective factors. Risk factors are attributes that increase the likelihood of a condition occurring, while protective factors are attributes that decrease or mitigate the likelihood of a condition occurring. Protective factors don't necessarily reduce the eating disorder, but they can alter the chances of what happens if it does occur.
What are the risk factors for an eating disorder? Well, we're going to start this off by saying that being female is kind of a risk factor for an eating disorder. Why? Because there appears to be a gender-wide issue with body image, self-esteem, and fear of rejection. Hopefully I haven't offended any of the female viewers, but this is what has been found. These issues are present in males, but not as strongly due to a greater acceptance of a wider range of men's body images, a larger effort to increase males' self-esteem via sports and machismo ideas, and less intricate socialization leading to a reduced fear of rejection.
Age is another risk factor, with people in adolescence far more likely to suffer from the above mentioned issues because they are attempting to define who they are in the world that includes how they look to everyone else. Furthermore, without adult experience, the adolescent mind is unduly buffeted by culture and media images. They don't have the understanding of who they are and what is expected of them like adults do.
We are going to divide protective factors into two flavors: avoiding diagnosis and post diagnosis. Protective factors that help a person avoid eating disorders include stress management and high self-esteem. These two things together help a person cope with the stresses and the push of culture. This doesn't make them immune to eating disorders, but it helps buffer them from the unrealistic expectations.
If a person has been diagnosed with an eating disorder and has undergone treatment, some effective protective factors include therapy and pharmaceuticals, that is to say, prescriptions. These two should be continued after a diagnosis to ensure that the disorder doesn't come back. Therapy can help change poor behaviors and thoughts, while medication can help reduce depression and anxiety, which are two typically underlying causes of eating disorders. They work even better when combined with the protective factors that help a person avoid diagnosis to begin with.
Eating disorders are defined as behavioral and psychological food and body shape issues resulting from an underlying disorder. They fall into two broad categories: anorexia nervosa, which is defined as a pattern of restrictive food intake due to a distorted view of one's weight and body shape, and bulimia nervosa, which is defined as a pattern of consuming excessive calories and then various methods to purge the excess calories.
About 80%-95% of people diagnosed with an eating disorder are women, which is likely due to a cultural push for an impossible ideal. To mitigate the influence of culture are protective factors, which are attributes that decrease or mitigate the likelihood of a condition occurring, but there are also risk factors, which are attributes that increase the likelihood of a condition occurring.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to identify causes of eating disorders and explain why women are more affected by them than men.