Societal pressures are not solely responsible for eating disorders

People have begun to misperceive eating disorders as the product of societal expectations

Many young women yearn for the long, slender legs of the supermodels they see on the runway. Similarly, many young men aspire to look like the toned, lean models walking the same runway.

Unfortunately for many, these desires are unrealistic and often unachievable. A person’s appearance is dictated predominantly by his or her genetic makeup.

For example, a University of Queensland study found that races associated with greater height are genetically predisposed to being more slender, as measured by their BMI. Countless other studies support this, reinforcing the idea that a person's physical appearance can only be changed so much. 

Not to discount the high rate of obesity in the world, especially in the United States, as well as the merit of exercise, but the body image many seek is unobtainable by healthy means. Many develop eating disorders while seeking to fulfill their need for this “perfect body.” They have allowed societal expectations to influence their eating habits.

However, many overlook the fact that eating disorders are not driven by environmental factors alone. In fact, eating disorders can be genetically inheritable themselves.

Eating disorders can develop from the inheritance of specific genes in the human genome. Recent research conducted by the University of Iowa and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center has actually pinpointed specific genes responsible for the emergence of eating disorders.

Additionally, eating disorders can develop from pre-existing mental illnesses. For example, body dysmorphic disorder involves a persistent obsession with an “imagined or slight defect” in a person’s appearance. Some people with BDD look in the mirror and imagine themselves differently than others see them, which leads to the development of eating disorders. 

Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder are often caused by a similar clinical obsession with appearance; it is not always a matter of societal influences.

Most individuals perceive eating disorders as a condition developed by environmental factors, such as the “perfect” body portrayed in the fashion industry and recently on social media, but there is more to it than that. These cases often cannot be approached with counseling alone, nor can they be written off as the result of societal expectations. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, treatment plans for recovering from an eating disorder can range anywhere from group psychotherapy to prescription medication.

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The legitimacy of these conditions is often discounted due to the misconception that they develop as a result of societal pressures, which are hard to quantify or diagnose. Surprisingly enough, eating disorders are just as legitimate in the scientific community as any other mental condition.

Although a large portion of the general public has yet to understand this, the psychology and health community has made programs and treatments available to those suffering from eating disorders.

ASU specifically provides access to services that both inform students and allow them to seek help for this.

“Any student who comes to health or counseling services is offered the opportunity to talk about what is going on in their life,” Aaron D. Krasnow, Ph.D, associate vice president of ASU’s counseling services and health services, said.

"One of the things we do at ASU, which we are trying to get the word out more about but not a lot of students know about, is that all students are registered for a patient portal, which is a way to interact with health services,” he said. “You can ask questions to your doctor and make appointments. One of the features of the patient portal is Health Wise. It is basically like WebMD, but all the information has been compiled by us (at ASU), so that we know that it is credible.”

The general public needs to be more precarious with their approach to eating disorders in the future. Understanding that they are caused not only by environmental factors, but also by heritable traits helps to shatter the negative stigma surrounding those with body image issues and aids those suffering from eating disorders in recovering.


Reach the columnist at ghirneis@asu.edu or follow @ghirneise2 on Twitter.

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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