Anorexia can have a contagious effect if sufferers turn to each other for tips and support.

Social & Cultural Aspects of Anorexia in Teenagers

by Alissa Fleck

The eating disorder known as anorexia is a mental disorder which affects people of all ages, but is particularly prevalent in teenage girls. Despite being classified as a mental disorder, anorexia is impacted by -- and in turn impacts -- a number of social and cultural factors. The best means of targeting anorexia in teenagers is by focusing on the social and cultural aspects surrounding it.

Societal Pressures

While there is no exact cause, anorexia can be linked to a number of different triggers, including pressure from the media and peers, and being raised in a body-conscious household. According to Dr. Linda Smolak, Ph.D., fashion models, who are on average thinner than 98 percent of women, reinforce a narrow definition of beauty in society. Children also tend to imitate their parents' behaviors from an early age, meaning family members who place an emphasis on the importance of appearance can pave the way for eating disorders without even realizing it. Society's obsession with dieting reinforces this importance and can be difficult for the teenager -- who is at an age of extreme vulnerability -- to navigate. Additionally, appearance-based bullying can cause the recipient of that bullying to become traumatized and turn to starvation as a means of coping.

Social Media

Although social media can be a great way for teenagers to connect with one another and nurture friendships, it also has the potential to quickly spread harmful information among vulnerable and easily influenced teenagers. According to the Huffington Post in 2012, eating disorders can and long have been spread through social media by way of tips, advice and online support between eating disorder sufferers. Social media in and of itself may not be enough to cause an eating disorder, but it can help reinforce an illness which is already present. The Internet also allows people to present themselves in relative anonymity, which oftentimes makes people bolder and more inclined to promote things they might never bring up in person, and allows the anorexia sufferer to live a secret life.

Cultural Aspects

According to a 2001 article in the journal "Psychiatry," cultural beliefs and attitudes play a large role in the development of eating disorders. The journal notes that eating disorders tend to evolve along racial and ethnic lines, and change in appearance in societies over time. According to "Psychiatry," cultural change may be partially responsible for the appearance of and vulnerability toward eating disorders, particularly when an emphasis on physical aesthetics is noted. This could occur on the individual level, such as when a person immigrates to a new society. The "International Journal of Eating Disorders" notes in 2007 that more culturally sensitive eating disorder treatment is needed to address and encompass the diverse presentation of these illnesses across differing communities.

How to Help

Anorexia can be exacerbated by standards in and messages from society, and can also have damaging social impacts. Anorexia can result in social isolation for the individual and can place tremendous stress on the family and loved ones of a sufferer. If an anorexia sufferer finds herself receiving positive external feedback on her appearance, this can perpetuate the cycle of damaging behavior. Anorexia is a serious medical condition and should be treated as such with immediate intervention from a healthcare professional. To prevent and help treat anorexia, damaging social and cultural expectations should be targeted at their root. According to the Eating Disorders Coalition, targeting the environment which fosters eating disorders is the best means of fighting them. Talk to your teenager about unrealistic definitions of beauty and encourage self-acceptance and health from an early age. Oversee your teenager's use of social media and make sure she understands the dangers of websites promoting the anorexic lifestyle. Find ways of substituting the support she may receive online with healthy, body-positive support.

About the Author

Alissa Fleck is a contributing writer for several community newspapers in New York City. She writes book reviews for an online magazine and hosts a monthly reading series. Fleck has also interned at a literary agency and worked as a university teaching assistant. She holds a B.A. in English and an M.F.A. in creative writing.

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