Factors of Influence

Eating disorders are puzzling. People on the outside often watch their friends or loved ones engage in dangerous behaviors and wonder, why are they doing this to themselves? Men and women who find themselves in the throes of an eating disorder ask similar questions—why is this happening to me? How did this start? It is not surprising that supporters and sufferers alike are often confused and frustrated by eating disorders; after decades of research, experts in the field are still unable to say with complete certainty what causes them. What we do know is that eating disorders are not just about food; oftentimes the disorder serves as a way to cope with painful emotions and to gain a sense of control over one’s life. We also know that eating disorders are the result of numerous factors interacting in various ways, and the path to an eating disorder is different for different people. Research does show that the following factors are associated with increased risk for developing eating disorder symptoms (Miller & Pumariega, 2001; Polivy & Herman, 2002).

Social/Cultural Factors

  • Idealization of thinness in the media and cultural messages that suggest anyone can obtain the “perfect body” if they try hard enough
  • Narrow definitions of attractiveness that are difficult for most men and women to achieve through healthy means, if at all
  • Cultural stigmatization of being “overweight” and discrimination against larger people.
  • For racial and ethnic minorities, the additional stress resulting from discrimination and pressure to acculturate to Western European ideals
  • Emphasis on food, weight, and appearance in one’s subculture, such as one’s friends, school, sports team
  • Gender role expectations that limit women’s access to power and men’s ability to express emotions

Individual/Psychological Factors

  • Feelings of low self-worth
  • Striving toward perfection
  • Body dissatisfaction and/or body shame
  • Intense emotions such as depression, anger, or anxiety
  • Feeling a lack of control in one’s life
  • Difficulty identifying and expressing emotions

Life Experiences

  • History of sexual, emotional, and/or physical abuse
  • Stressful life transitions, such as puberty and going away to college
  • Traumatic events such as rape, sexual harassment, or hate crimes
  • Difficulty coping with highly stressful situations

Family Background

  • Genetic vulnerability for eating disorders
  • Parents engaging in dieting and other weight-loss behaviors
  • Family modeling of negative attitudes toward larger-sized individuals
  • Placing a strong emphasis on appearance
  • Parents teasing or criticizing children for being overweight and encouraging them to diet and exercise
  • Family environment characterized by criticism, lack of cohesion, enmeshment, high levels of conflict, or other problematic interaction styles

For additional information on causes of eating disorders, visit the following websites: