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3 Factors That Affect Eating Disorders in Adolescence

Elyse has taught middle school for five years. She majored in middle-grade education and minored in both English and psychology at UNCW.

3 Factors That Affect Eating Disorders in Adolescence

3 Factors That Affect Eating Disorders in Adolescence

3 Reasons Eating Disorders Develop in Adolescence

There are not many who would dispute that adolescence is an awkward time in development. Kids going through this stage are just beginning to search for an idea of who they are as individuals and, moreover, how they as individuals fit into a larger society. Meanwhile, their bodies are changing and maturing in ways beyond their control and more than likely at different rates than those of their peers.

According to a publication on Educational Psychology, it is at this point that body image becomes relevant for, as their bodies change, adolescents begin to examine themselves very carefully and compare their bodies to others (Woolfolk, 99). Such a reaction is fairly natural, and more or less something everyone has gone through in their own experience. Eating disorders seem to crop up especially during this time of development.

A fairly recent phenomenon, the presence of disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, and others raise more questions than there are currently answers. Perhaps one of the most important questions, however, and the one that this article will attempt to answer, is what causes these adolescents to develop disorders like these in the midst of their growth.

10% of young women in the United States struggle with an eating disorder.

— American Academy of Childhood and Adolescent Psychology

#1 Problems With Social Interaction

Unsuccessful social interactions with peers are a factor contributing to the development of eating disorders among adolescents. A person’s self-concept immediately affects their self-esteem, and vice versa (Woolfolk, 2011). Social development ties into this, as peers often help define an adolescent’s self-concept. For example, if a child is not successful socially and their peers have a negative perception of them, they are more likely to negative self-concept, and therefore low self-esteem. The lowering of self-esteem as caused by peers has been thought to be a factor in the development of eating disorders, especially if the negative attention from peers is directed towards body image.

This theory was illustrated in an interview with former Disney actress and musician Demi Lovato, who also admitted to having an eating disorder. Her problem started in middle school, and she admits to having been driven to bulimia by the bullying of other students. "I literally didn't know why they were being so mean to me. And when I would ask them why, they would just say, 'Well, you're fat.’" she said in an interview (Johnston, 2011). Lovato, whose fame is most extensive within the adolescent age group, has used her position to campaign against bullying, and here the reason is clear. Whatever her self-concept had been previous to the bullying no longer mattered when she was faced with negative attention from her peers. In an attempt to “fix herself” and fit in socially, Lovato turned to vomiting up her meals in order to lose weight.

#2 The Effect of the Media

In order for an adolescent to “fit in” and have a positive self-concept, according to societal demands, they must look a certain way. Billboards, magazines, and every other type of media reinforce the fact that the physical ideal is thin. As most people are constantly bombarded with these expectations, it was only a matter of time before adolescents internalized these standards as ones to live up to at all costs.

A study done in London in 2005 examined the effect of media on the self-esteem of adolescents. Over one hundred girls, aged eleven to sixteen, of several different ethnicities, were divided into three groups. One group was given a magazine cover featuring a thin model. The second group was given a magazine cover with the same model picture digitally altered to appear several pounds heavier, around a size twelve or fourteen in the UK. The third group, the control, was simply given a picture of a Christmas stocking. After examining their pictures, the girls were asked scaled questions regarding their body satisfaction and self-esteem. The results were interesting. While the group that examined the thin model definitely displayed decreased self-esteem and body image, the group with the average-sized model did as well (Clay 2005).

Most of the girls walked away from the study having admitted that they wished they could alter their bodies because of the picture put in front of them, showing that the cultural expectations portrayed by media—regarding weight and even just general appearance—play a big role in creating the sort of negative self-concept that spurs eating disorders.

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#3 Familial Influence

Another factor contributing to an adolescent developing a dangerous disorder is often one of the biggest influences in their lives: their family.

  • Family History of Obesity or Eating Disorders. Negative familial influences include things such as a family history of similar disorders or a history of obesity. These children may be more susceptible to developing an eating disorder or be driven to one by the idea that they are destined to be overweight.
  • Emotional or Physical Abuse. Children suffering from abuse by their parents are also more likely to have an eating disorder. Other than overt physical abuse is the more subtle one stemming from overbearing parental expectations. On the National Eating Disorders Association website, one woman recounts her lifelong struggle with a binge eating disorder, as well as her parent’s role in the matter. “My mother was anorexic as a teen and as a young mother she coached me to distinguish between “good” and “bad” food and taught me the many rules and rituals she followed. Mom modeled her own uneasiness with her body and we dieted together often,” she said. She went on to say that, as her binge eating expanded her waistline, she also had to deal with the scrutiny and disappointment that came from her mother. This would cause her to starve herself for as long as possible to lose the pounds before she finally gave into food again (Turner, 2012).
  • Maternal Pressure. Maternal pressure plays a huge role in cases of adolescent eating disorders. In fact, research has suggested over time that parents who engage their children in conversations focusing on weight and size could be a contributing factor to the development of an eating disorder. Family plays a huge part in the rising numbers of adolescents who are currently struggling with an eating disorder.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology, ten in one hundred young women in the United States struggle with an eating disorder, as well as a rising number of young men (AACAP 2008). Given these statistics, as well as the prevalence of all of the factors described previously using details of some very credible sources, it is extremely likely that a future or presently practicing teacher will have a student who is struggling with this sort of problem.

As eating disorders, especially anorexia nervousa and bulimia, can quickly escalate into something very serious and often life-threatening, it would be to the advantage of the future or present professional to know not only the signs, but also the causes. Knowledge of the media influencing the adolescent, the home life, and how their peers interact with them could alert a teacher to pay careful attention to a student that could potentially be at-risk for developing an eating disorder.

Works Cited

Clay, D., Vignoles, V. L., & Dittmar, H. (2005). Body Image and Self-Esteem Among Adolescent Girls: Testing the Influence of Sociocultural Factors. Journal Of Research On Adolescence, 15(4), 451-477. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Turner, C. (2012). Bringing bed in to the light [Web log Post]. Retrieved from

Johnston, J. (2011, April). Demi Lovato Interview: Teen Star Opens Up on Bulimia, Cutting Issues. ABC News/Interviewer: Robin Roberts. Retrieved from

AACAP (2008, May). Teenagers With Eating Disorders [Web log Post]. Retrieved from

“Eating Disorders.” University of Maryland Medical System,

Woolfolk, A. (2011). Challenges in Physical Development. Educational Psychology (pp. 98-111). Boston: Pearson

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Elyse Maupin-Thomas

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