Eating disorders are biopsychosocial disorders, meaning they have biological, psychological, and social causes. Therefore, eating disorders are heavily influenced by social norms and beliefs. In this article 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.
Social norms and beliefs linked to eating disorders
Eating disorders have various social causes. Pressure from societal beauty standards and the emphasis on thinness can contribute to the development of disordered eating patterns. Media portrayal of unrealistic body ideals, social comparison, and bullying related to appearance can also play a role. Additionally, family dynamics, relationships, and cultural influences can impact an individual’s perception of their body and food. Addressing these social factors is essential in preventing and treating eating disorders, fostering a more inclusive and body-positive society.
Our society promotes unhealthy body norms and beliefs. These norms and beliefs have a significant impact on eating disorders. The four major societal norms and beliefs that are associated with eating disorder development are:
- Sex and gender norms: women are expected to be small, and men are expected to be strong
- Beauty standards: <5% of the population meets current beauty standards
- Thin ideal: thin bodies are considered “healthier” and “better” than larger bodies
- Diet culture: believing that all bodies can be thin and those that aren’t are doing something wrong
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The 6 basic steps you need to follow to help your child recover from an eating disorder.
How do social norms cause eating disorders?
Body image is primarily driven by social norms and beliefs about what it means to have a “good” body. Social norms cause eating disorders by defining bodies as good or bad. In our diet culture, we’re taught that good bodies are based on good behavior, and bad (fat) bodies are based on bad behavior. Ignoring the natural fact of body diversity and the significant biological and environmental impacts on weight means that everyone is vulnerable to negative body image. In these conditions, eating disorders are inevitable. As long as we perpetuate the idea that good bodies are based on good behavior, we cause 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. This is just one way social norms cause eating disorders.
1. Sex and gender norms: women are expected to be small, and men are expected to be strong
Sexism can contribute to the development of eating disorders by perpetuating unrealistic beauty standards and objectification of bodies. While this used to be somewhat limited to women’s bodies, men’s bodies are increasingly being objectified as well, leading to increased rates of eating disorders in boys and men.
Eating disorders are intertwined with sex and gender norms. First, they primarily affect women, although eating disorders in men are steeply rising. And all genders, especially trans and nonbinary people, suffer from sex and gender stereotypes about bodies and weight. 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 sex and 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 sex and gender. 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
Beauty standards can contribute to the development of eating disorders as individuals strive to attain unrealistic ideals and place excessive focus on their appearance.
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 promoted by society can contribute to the development of eating disorders as individuals strive to achieve an unrealistic and often unhealthy body weight. It is driven by weight stigma, which is the false belief that people in larger bodies are bad and people in thin bodies are good.
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 a non-diet approach to health. This approaches health from a weight-neutral perspective. In fact, it is based on the fact 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.
Free Download: Non-Diet Approach To Health For Parents
The basic facts you need to start using a non-diet approach to parenting with this free downloadable PDF.
4. Diet culture: believing that all bodies can be thin and those that aren’t are doing something wrong.
With its focus on restrictive eating and weight loss, diet culture contributes to the development of eating disorders by promoting unhealthy relationships with food and body image.
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 18x more likely to develop an eating disorder. [scientific resources]
⭐ 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.
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. Kids whose parents continue to diet and practice from a diet culture mindset say it interferes with their eating disorder recovery.
Social causes of eating disorders include societal pressure to conform to unrealistic beauty standards, objectification of bodies, media portrayal of “ideal” bodies, diet culture, and the influence of peers. These factors can contribute to low self-esteem, body dissatisfaction, and the development of disordered eating behaviors.
One of the most important social groups involved in the social causes of eating disorders is families. This is why it’s important for families to evaluate their approach to health and adopt a non-diet approach, which supports eating disorder recovery.
Society is 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 many 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.
Non-Diet/Health At Every Size® Fact Sheets, Guidelines, and Scripts
- Fact Sheets About Weight Stigma, Diet Culture, Kids and Diets, and More
- Non-Diet Parent Guidelines
- Non-Diet Parent Scripts About Responding to Fat Talk, Diet Talk, and More
- What to Say/Not Say When Talking About Bodies and Food
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to help their kids recover from eating disorders, body image issues, and other mental health conditions. She’s the founder of More-Love.org, an online resource supporting parents who have kids with eating disorders, and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with mental health issues.
Ginny has been researching and writing about eating disorders since 2016. She incorporates the principles of neurobiology and attachment parenting with a non-diet, Health At Every Size® approach to health and recovery.