Does society cause eating disorders?

Does society cause eating disorders?

In our series to help parents understand eating disorders, we take a look at how society can contribute to, and even cause, eating disorder development. This article is a great companion to the free eBook, What Kids Want Parents to Know About Eating Disorders. Please feel free to get a copy.

If you have a child who has an eating disorder, then you have probably been told that eating disorders are “complicated.” So what does that mean, and why are eating disorders considered so complicated? More importantly, how can parents help? In this four-part series (this is Part 3 – check back for more later) we review the four elements that are linked to eating disorder development. These elements combine to create the complexity of eating disorders. They are:

  1. Genes, Personality & Experiences
  2. Family Dynamics
  3. Societal Norms & Beliefs
  4. Eating Disorder Diagnosis

In this article, we’ll untangle the third element, societal norms and beliefs. And we’ll take a look at how society can impact, shape, and even cause eating disorders. We’ll also provide some tips for parents who want to help their child recover.

The societal norms and beliefs linked to eating disorder development

The five major societal norms and beliefs that are associated with eating disorder development are:

  1. Sexism: women are expected to be small, and men are expected to be strong
  2. Beauty standards: <5% of the population meets current beauty standards
  3. Thin ideal: thin bodies are considered “healthier” and “better” than larger bodies
  4. Diet culture: believing that all bodies can be thin and those that aren’t are doing something wrong

Our society drives unhealthy body norms and beliefs. These norms and beliefs have a significant impact on eating disorders. Think about it this way: if I’m feeling bad about my life in general, that is overwhelming and I don’t know how to solve the problem. But if I feel bad about my body, I feel as if I have control over that. I’ve been taught that if I eat right and exercise enough I can limit my risk of disease, ridicule, and unhappiness. I can increase my chances of success in this society. So of course it makes perfect sense for me to put my negative feelings and thoughts into my body, which I think I can control, rather than elsewhere.

1. Sexism: women are expected to be small, and men are expected to be strong

Eating disorders are intertwined with sexism. First, they primarily affect women, although eating disorders in men are steeply rising. And all genders suffer from the stereotypes that drive sexism. The belief that women must be small and men must be big set us up for the belief that our appearance is vital to who we are.

Tips for Parents: Take a look at your assumptions about gender. All of us make assumptions, and they were taught to us by our families, peers, and the media. But luckily we can overturn generational sexism and improve our child’s ability to live confidently.

Talk to your child about society’s beliefs and expectations of girls and women. It’s OK if you learn about this together. Start investigating whether you assume women should be small and delicate. Explore whether you prefer women to keep their voice soft, avoid being angry, and jump to take care of other people before themselves. These are deep and powerful social norms, so give yourself time to learn new beliefs and behaviors about a “woman’s place” in our society.

Also, explore society’s assumptions about boys and men. How do you feel about men being vulnerable, afraid, and sad? Talk about how we pressure girls to stay small while we praise boys to grow “big and strong.” Masculinity can trap boys and men as much as it puts women and girls in rigid gender roles.

2. Beauty standards: <5% of the population meets the current beauty standard

Our culture’s beauty standards are so rigid that fewer than 5% of people meet them naturally. Social media has embedded these standards deep into our kids’ brains. Beauty standards can drive a person to believe that if they meet the standards they will be successful, happy, and loved.

Tips for Parents: Beauty standards are perpetuated by advertising and media in order to sell products. Most of us learned what it means to be beautiful and accepted at home, school, and even the grocery store where we see magazine covers featuring striking cover models.

Consider how you have interpreted beauty standards. What standards are you holding yourself to, and why? Many beauty standards keep us pursuing goals and ideals that are simply out of reach. How do your beliefs about what is beautiful impact your daily life?

Talk to your child about beauty standards. A great vehicle for this is social media. Look at social media and consider that the algorithm prefers slender, conventionally attractive bodies. We know that social media contributes to body shame. So talk about how social media makes your child feel. Don’t threaten to take it away (which could cause serious panic!) instead use it as a vehicle for having conversations about cultural beauty standards.

3. Thin ideal: thin bodies are considered “healthier” and “better” than larger bodies

The thin ideal is the belief that thin bodies are healthier and better than larger bodies. This ideal is perpetuated in almost every arena of life, from homes to schools and doctor’s offices. It impacts all of us by making us believe that being thin is a sign of health. But health is not based on BMI, and the pursuit of thin can lead to eating disorders.

Tips for Parents: There’s a really good chance that you grew up in a household that perpetuated the thin ideal – most of us do! The thin ideal is rooted so deeply in our culture that most people don’t recognize it.

One of the best things you can do is learn about the science of Health at Every Size®. This approaches health from a weight-neutral perspective. In fact, it demonstrates that the thin ideal is a greater risk to our health than high weight.

Your child’s recovery may mean they gain weight, and it almost always means they need to let go of their belief that thinner is better. So if you learn that thin is not a requirement for health, it will help set the foundation for their recovery.

4. Diet culture: believing that all bodies can be thin and those that aren’t are doing something wrong.

Diet culture perpetuates the idea that all bodies can and should lose weight, and that it is healthy to intentionally lose weight. However, 95% of people who intentionally lose weight regain the weight, and 65% of them gain more. And unfortunately, people who diet are 15x more likely to develop an eating disorder.

Tips for Parents: The diet industry has been exploding for the past 30 years and is currently at $72 billion. It has driven the belief that all of us can and should lose weight to be healthier, happier, and more attractive. But it can really help to educate yourself about the diet industry and the culture it has created.

The fact is that 95% of diets fail. And dieting itself is unhealthy and sets us up for weight gain. Are you a lifetime dieter? It’s OK if you have dieted or tried to control your weight in the past. Most of us do! But it will really help your child recover if you can let go of diet culture and learn to accept your body. I’m not saying this is easy – it’s not! But it will definitely help.

Getting help

Society is a contributor, even a cause of eating disorders. The more you can identify and understand areas where you can counterbalance social messages, the better your chances of helping your child recover. This is hard because so much of society’s messages are hidden and hard to find within ourselves. but learning about societal untruths can help you create an environment that fosters recovery.

If your child has an eating disorder, you can help them recover. Parents can make a tremendous impact on recovery. So please get support to help you navigate this process. If at all possible, see a therapist or coach to help.

Books to help

These books can help you understand society’s messages about food and body and challenge some of the assumptions we make about health.

Intuitive Eating, 4th Edition: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach, by Evelyn Tribole, M.S., R.D. and Elyse Resch, M.S., R.D., F.A.D.A.

An extremely popular method used to treat and prevent eating disorders.

Body Respect: What Conventional Health Books Get Wrong, Leave Out, and Just Plain Fail to Understand about Weight, by Lindo Bacon and Lucy Aphramor

The science behind a Health at Every Size approach to health.

Free eBook: What Kids Want Parents to Know About Eating Disorders


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.

She’s the editor of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.

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