When we look at most illnesses we readily associate them with a long list of symptoms and an even longer list of risk factors to avoid in order to steer clear of the illness. To avoid diabetes we are cautious to monitor our sugar intake and to exercise regularly. We look to these risk factors as a means to distance ourselves from the illness, to assure ourselves that it could never be a factor in our lives so long as we adhere to some sort of ideal behavior. Yet we do not always know the specific cause of an illness; and so we find ourselves without the ability to create distance between us and the illness by means of our actions. The illness seems all the more uncontrollable, mysterious, and omniscient. Such is the case with eating disorders.
Studies have struggled for years to try and pinpoint a cause for eating disorders and have failed to do so. This struggle stems from the very foundation of these disorders and how they develop. Eating disorders develop gradually. There are a number of factors: biological, psychological, and social which play important roles in its development, thus creating a difficult environment in which to conduct a controlled experiment. Imagine trying to understand a children’s playground and isolate one socioeconomic aspect to view. Suppose you wanted to see the effects of a student’s economic status on their likelihood to be teased. What exactly do you look for? Do you only pinpoint those jokes that directly call the student poor? Jokes about the student’s dress, how the student spends their time, and even how the student goes to and from school are all related. They may seem like separate issues but they too are on account of the student’s socioeconomic status. It’s difficult to see just one factor at work because his socioeconomic status is also related to where the student lives, his family’s mindset and health,and numerous other factors. It’s difficult because all of these factors usually intermingle and work quite closely. Even when a correlation is noticed between the student being bullied and his socioeconomic status, it is hard to attribute the student’s socioeconomic status as the cause of said bullying. Similarly it has been hard to prove a causal relation between various factors and eating disorders. A scientific journal published by Janet Polivy and C. Peter Herman accepts the shortcomings of previous studies in this aspect and attempts to better fill in the gaps by surveying people on a larger scale and narrowing in slowly (2002).
The study looks critically at the common perception that the media is to be blamed largely for the prevalence of eating disorders. Society most definitely defines a very strict ideal of beauty, where beauty often corresponds to being exceptionally thin, especially in the United States which does cause some to look at themselves more critically and strive towards an unrealistic and usually unhealthy ideal. The media’s perpetuation of this ideal most definitely contributes to its spread as it constantly reminds people of these ideals everywhere they go: in the car radio, at home on the tv, on posters in their workplace. The study suggests that rather than the media targeting a specific group, the media actually provides a distracting fixation for those people who have trouble facing other problems in their lives. These same issues can be seen in the dynamics at work in a family more prone to eating disorders. Those families that suppress emotions and fail to provide proper support for its members to work out emotional and psychological stress are more likely to develop an eating disorder for they too have no means to handle other issues in their lives (Polivy, Herman 2002). Yet it is difficult to designate this correlation as a proper cause. Rather, we can acknowledge these family dynamics as a contributing factor which may perpetuate the effects of a proper cause of eating disorders.
It is not an individual’s fault that he/she has an eating disorder and it is important to realize that no magical guideline can separate us from this disorder. It is something that plays on our natural desires and our innate tendencies to set in and perpetuate in our lives. It could happen to myself or my neighbor at any point in time and that doesn’t mean it is our fault.
Polivy, J. & Herman, P. C. (2002). Causes of Eating Disorders. Annual Review of Psychology. 53:182-213
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