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Teenagers and Eating Disorders
Nov 1, 2017

“You look great. Have you lost weight?” Most of us enjoy such compliments. Our culture’s messages maintain the importance of being slim. Dieting, exercising, skipping meals, body dissatisfaction, and a desire to lose weight are the norm for 70 percent of teenagers (Siegel and et al. 5). When these problems become more serious, they can be classified an eating disorder.

Eating disorders are not problems with food. Eating problems start out when someone wishes to lose weight, and this wish turns into behavior that is out of control. An eating habit becomes an eating disorder when it satisfies the psychological need of that person. Eating disorders are a combination of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder. Anorexia nervosa is a purposeful attempt to stop eating. Bulimia nervosa is eating a large amount of food in a short time and then making one’s self ill, “purging” one of the food they just ate. Binge-eating is using food to deal with emotional distress. Eating disorders can be symptoms of other psychological problems; a study in 2003 found that people with anorexia are 56 times more likely to comment suicide than people without anorexia (Polivy and Herman). Some teenagers develop eating disorders because of familial influences, psychosexual problems, or sociocultural factors.

Familial influences, such as using food as rewards, parental critical comments, and biological factors, can cause eating disorders in teenagers. Some problematic behaviors can seem innocent. For example, many parents use food to comfort their children after a stressful day. Food can act as a drug and calm a child’s anxiety (Siegel and et al. 32). In this case, the food may become a problem for teenagers who do not know how to deal with stress and painful feelings.

If over-indulgence is a problem, so is total prohibition. If parents try to limit their children’s access to junk food, children may overeat these prohibited foods. This behavior may lead to eating disorders in the future (Polivy and Herman). Research has shown that parents of teenagers with eating disorders are overprotective. This kind of parent complains and criticizes their children’s appearance. Appearance-related teasing or critical comments, even in jest, can increase the risk of eating disorders in teenagers. Furthermore, teenagers with a high risk of eating disorders have usually been more criticized and less accepted in their families. On other hand, teenagers who have a good relationship with parents and other family members are at a low risk of developing eating disorders. Emotional support from families can help teenagers develop positive body images and eating behaviors.

Some teenagers’ eating disorders are biologically inherited. Genetic factors are reasons for approximately 56 percent of the risk for developing an eating disorder (Polivy and Herman). In addition, statistics show that teenagers who have a family member with an eating disorder develop anorexia nervosa 12 times more, and bulimia four times more, than other teenagers without this family history (Polivy and Herman). Furthermore, mothers who themselves have an eating disorder have a negative influence on their children’s eating behaviors. Some parents with eating disorders feed their children irregularly and use less nutritional food.

Psychosexual problems in teenagers can also cause eating disorders. Whenever extreme weight lost occurs, psychological depression might be the cause. Teenagers who are eating disordered, eat because they are psychologically hungry (Siegel and et al. 7). Emotional stability, self-criticism and perfectionism play a large role in the development of eating disorders. The pre-anorexic is the model teenager, never complaining and very helpful. On the other hand, teenagers with anorexia and bulimia are competitive and perfectionists. They are highly critical of themselves and get upset if they fail to meet their goals. This dissatisfaction can drive them toward eating disorders (Polivy and Herman).

Gender identity, such as discomfort with one’s own sex, can cause eating disorders, too. During the developmental period many teenagers face physical changes in their body. Female teenagers want to decrease the overall size of their bodies; however, males want to increase their upper bodies. Research shows that in 2005, 45.6 percent of high school students were trying to lose weight (Polivy and Herman). Female teenagers displayed a higher risk of eating disorders because young girls are encouraged to pay more attention to others’ opinions about how they should look.

Finally, sociocultural factors, such as social pressure and media influence can cause eating disorders in teenagers. These days, the ideal woman’s body image is much discussed. Society is brainwashing teenagers into believing that when they are thin they are accepted (Polivy and Herman). Sometimes, romantic partner or peer influence can cause eating disorders. Relationship problems, loneliness, and conflicted connections can lead to destructive behavior. Furthermore, teenagers who have eating disorders seek social approval, and lower peer acceptance is often blamed for an increased risk of eating disorders.

Cultural expectations can contribute to disordered eating. Sometimes, cultural expectations and direct or indirect messages about body image can be cruel. Teenagers are told that if they want to be happy, they should be in good shape and successful in school. Studies show that Hispanic and Asian-American teenage girls have greater body dissatisfaction than Caucasian girls. This can be partly attributed to the kinds of “ideal” bodies portrayed in popular media. Teenagers consume popular media and want to resemble their favorite stars. Media highlights that young, thin, and stylishly dressed actors and models are happy and successful. Teenagers who watch more shows than average tend to view themselves as overweight and unhappy. There have been some national and international attempts to change these unrealistic, photoshopped, and unachievable portrayals of men and women, but the dominant image is still that young and thin are ideal (Ata and et al.).   

Familial influences, psychosexual problems, and sociocultural factors can contribute to the development of eating disorders in teenagers. It’s important to educate teenagers about the causes and symptoms of eating disorders, as their understanding of eating disorders can lead them to get professional help. But it’s also important for teenagers’ families to help them. Developing healthier relationships, establishing responsibilities, and learning to listen effectively can help teenagers’ families communicate with them and help them to cope with an eating disorder.


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