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Causes of Eating Disorders - Cultural Influences

Bridget Engel, Psy.D., edited by Kathryn Patricelli, MA

Particularly in modern Westernized countries, models, the media and dieting fads influence women and girls to be as thin as possible. Sociologists studying the development of eating disorders across time have talked about how the ideals of beauty have changed. Thinness wasn't always considered attractive. Until the 1950's, curvy and plump bodies were the accepted body type. With tablets, smartphones and computers, in addition to television, studies have found that children are exposed to technology anywhere from 2-3 hours a day to as many as 8 hours or more. Because of this, they are flooded with commercials and media messages. In these images, many of the female characters are underweight. In contrast, men are shown as strong and powerful.

Young girls and teens are influenced to think that the women shown in television, movies, and magazines are of normal weight and body shape. They often begin to believe that being thin makes them popular, successful and happy. The media presents a highly idealized and very much unrealistic fantasy version of reality. These images are unconsciously or passively rooted in our minds, even when we know that the images are not realistic.

In 1999, a study was published about the effects of exposing a culture to Western television for the first time. Prior to the television viewing, the people of Fiji believed that the ideal body was plump, round, and soft. Interviews after 38 months of exposure to Westernized shows suggested a sharp decrease in self-esteem and an increase in symptoms of eating disorders in teenage girls.

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