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Eating Disorders: Impact on Individuals, Families, Communities and Society

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Body image and related eating disorders can have profound effects on individuals, families and society at large. How we perceive ourselves and our bodies predisposes us to how we interact with the world at large, including those closest to us.

The current ethos of our society, reaffirmed by mass media, is towards thin, youthful, attractive bodies and faces. The shapes and features are idealized, set to a very thin formula most well defined to that of a fashion model. (Yu, 2011)

Achieving this idealized body type, for many, if not most, is next to impossible. As a result, for those who struggle to be thin, and who are left feeling marginalized, the effects can be life changing. Individuals can resort to a number of eating disorders, maladaptive behaviors, and self-destructive habits. (Rohde, 2015)Body Image 2
For youth, the pursuit of these societal self image expectations can have dire health consequences and adverse effects on family dynamics.

The physical consequences of advanced eating disorders can result in malnutrition, inflamed esophagus, heart failure, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, some types of cancer, dental issues, weakened bones, and even death in extreme cases. But for most, the physical effects are graduated. There is a slow deterioration of the body’s vital systems over time that can carry effects well into adulthood. Early damage done to the body through unhealthy eating habits may result in chronic illnesses that bring not only suffering, but also an added cost to the individual and the society at large. In this scenario, the costs are projected for decades in the future. The society at large then incurs the burden on providing treatment for these individuals.

The results of youth attempting to achieve idealized proportions can at times result in hospitalization. In addition, many recur to ingesting substances to facilitate weight loss. Several over the counter weight loss drugs can result in long lasting, pernicious effects. Tragically, others resort to using illicit substances to sooth the deep feelings of inadequacy and exclusion. From here, substance abuse disorders frequently emerge, which add to the already severe physical effects present. The combination of drugs and eating disorders can accelerate physical symptoms by ameliorating adverse bodily reactions to extreme diets. These substances also provide an escape from existing psychological challenges that thus remain un-addressed.

Screen Shot 2015-09-01 at 8.58.44 PMUltimately, the burden of trying to “fit in” at school and amongst friends in this dysfunctional way can have fatal results. Many youth have perished from the effects of their eating disorders as well as overdoses of un-prescribed substances.

Substance abuse can have strong repercussions for the families. Those who are closest to youth also become affected. Academic performance, school participation, and social interaction are impacted as the young person’s health and reality becomes affected. The parents frequently become caught up in trying to keep their children in school and performing well. This added stressor in family life can lead to discord which can further worsen any eating disorder/body image issue present. It can lead to seeking more ways to escape for the youth. This can often lead to intensifying drug intake and maladaptive behavior in school and outside the home.

Youth affected by body image and eating disorders can, on an extreme spectrum, act out their frustrations on their surroundings. The community will then bear the burden in having to attempt to correct the effects of their actions. A young person who becomes ill from extreme dieting, ingestion of illicit substances, risky behavior etc, will affect the community at large. There may be a need for internment to a facility, drug counseling, legal proceedings for drug related offenses and a variety of other issues.

Isolation is an important factor in the young struggling with eating disorders. The obsession and its rituals tend to reduce the comfort zone and social circle of affected youth. The desire to be with others with similar issues as well as trying to find an environment that suits their body image underlines this tendency. This separation from immediate human contact creates a personal universe that affirms present ideas of self-image. Within this frame, the youth becomes profoundly invested in how she thinks she should be. The act of looking a certain way defines her world. Other parts of life fade away and are not prominent. All seems to be enveloped around the necessity to be the perfect body.

While the media encourages a bodily perfection obsession, parents are excluded from this process. Their influence becomes limited by their busy schedules and generational separation. This isolation increases the impact of the disorder. It creates internal ideas in the youth of certainty that what they are doing is the only and best way to act. These internalized objects come to define and reaffirm how they see their daily life. Society becomes secondary. This, in turn, increases the difficulty in parents and society at large reaching the youth to try and affect positive change.

Eating disorders and body image can have a profound effect on the afflicted youth, their parents, instructors and community at large. The behaviors and their outward results impact all those around, incurring an emotional toll on friends and family. The consequences are also of a financial nature. Medical costs for treatment can be significant. In extreme cases, the community becomes financially responsible for catastrophic health outcomes in the form of emergency room visits.

In summary, one's self perception as influenced by the media, can result in eating disorders with adverse affects, both medical and emotional. Within these adaptations, not only are the youth affected, but also the parents and the community at large. It is a generalized malady that affects not only its victim but the society at large.



Rohde, P., Stice, E., & Marti, C. N. (2015). Development and predictive effects of eating disorder risk factors during adolescence: Implications for prevention efforts. International Journal Of Eating Disorders, 48(2), 187-198. doi:10.1002/eat.22270

Yu, U., Damhorst, M. L., & Russell, D. W. (2011). The impact of body image on consumers’ perceptions of idealized advertising images and brand attitudes. Family And Consumer Sciences Research Journal, 40(1), 58-73. doi:10.1111/j.1552-3934.2011.02088.x


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About the Author

The Antioch University Community Psych Eating Disorder Team includes: Ori Shansi Agam, Lisa Blume, Lauren Emmel, Michele Simon, Suzy Unger, Sergio Ocampo. They are working together to provide materials that look at the problems, solutions and program of actions people can take individually and on a group level to make a difference in a community dealing with Eating Disorders.

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    How big of a problem is Disordered Eating?

     31.8% of the American population suffers from obesity. (Social Progress Index, 2015)

    • Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

     The United States populace ranks as the 14th most obese population in the world (14th out of 133 nations)  (Social Progress Index, 2015)

    • The estimated annual health care costs of obesity-related illnesses are a staggering $190.2 billion or nearly 21% of annual medical spending in the United States. (Cawley J, Meyerhoefer C. The medical care costs of obesity: an instrumental variables approach. Journal of Health Economics. 31(1):219-230. 2012.)



    Media, Perception, Dieting:

    • 95% of all dieters will regain their lost weight within 5 years.

    • 35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting. Of those, 20-25% progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders.

    • The body type portrayed in advertising as the ideal is possessed naturally by only 5% of American females.

    • 47% of girls in 5th-12th grade reported wanting to lose weight because of magazine pictures.

    • 69% of girls in 5th-12th grade reported that magazine pictures influenced their idea of a perfect body shape.

    • 42% of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner (Collins, 1991).

    • 81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat. (Mellin et al., 1991).

    > Good Sources:
    Collins, M.E. (1991). Body figure perceptions and preferences among pre-adolescent children. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 199-208.

    Mellin, L., McNutt, S., Hu, Y., Schreiber, G.B., Crawford, P., & Obarzanek, E. (1991). A longitudinal study of the dietary practices of black and white girls 9 and 10 years old at enrollment: The NHLBI growth and health study. Journal of Adolescent Health, 23-37.

    Come back to see our article update on the status of disordered eating in America. It’s horrendous. But the solutions that are forming bring hope!

    The Antioch University Community Psych Eating Disorder Team
    Antioch University