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Pulling the Proverbial Trigger: Eating Disorders and Media Blame
"Genes load the gun, and the environment pulls the trigger."
This is the consensus among many eating disorder professionals, including the NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association).
But what does that specific environment look like? What drives someone to rely on destructive attitudes and behaviors towards food in an effort to deal with emotional distress?
Many people would say, "Well, it's the media's fault. They present such an unrealistic beauty ideal to our young men and women! We must pressure them to do something about it!"
This is a valid stance and it is important to reform a fashion industry who advertises to most average American women (5'4" tall and 140 lbs.) with models averaging 5'11" tall and only 117 lbs (NEDA).
But to say it's the only trigger is not only incorrect, it's dangerous. Eating Disorders (or simply abbreviated as EDs) are not driven by one thing. Rather, there are complex factors that come together to cause an individual to develop one. They may have one or many of the factors shown most likely to trigger an ED, again from a list compiled by the NEDA:
-Feelings of inadequacy or lack of control on life
-Depression, anxiety, anger or loneliness
-Difficulty expressing emotions and feelings
-A history of being ridiculed based on size and weight
-A history of sexual and/or physical abuse
-Cultural pressures that glorify "thinness" and place value on obtaining the "perfect body"
-Narrow definitions of beauty that only include men and women of a specific body size and shape
This is an incomplete list, but it still clearly shows how the majority of factors lie beyond the fashion industry and instead lie in an individual's past and present state of mind and history. In addition, a biological factor is at play. Having a close family member with an eating disorder increases your chances significantly as well, not only because you are exposed to disordered eating habits on a daily basis, but you may inherit certain imbalances in brain chemstry that make you more susceptible.
So if the causes are so multi-faceted, why all of the focus on media influence? There can be several reasons why. One big one is a widespread myth that eating disorders are only about food and being thin. It's understandable, since these are the most visible aspects for most. However, ED symptoms are driven by painful memories and out-of-control emotions and are an attempt to control this inner turmoil. This is why rather than simply helping a person with an ED develop healthier eating habits, they are also given intense counseling and possibly psychiatric medication. Deal with the underlying issues, and ED symptoms become that much easier to recover from.
A second reason is perhaps because people feel that it's simply easier to attack the fashion industry rather than deal with the painful subjects of rape, physical abuse and depression. Or they may not feel qualified to deal with such heavy things.
But the truth is, even though you may not be a licensed psychologist or dietician, we can all do our part to erase eating disorders from the world.
-Deal with any eating or food issues you may have.
-Model healthy behaviors. Your kids are watching you all the time!
-If you son or daughter begins to show worrying signs, do not brush it off. The sometimes grim prognosis of EDs gets brighter the earlier treatment is sought.
-Early treatment and intervention for anxiety disorders and depression can also significantly cut the chances of developing an ED as well.
-It's hard with all of the media noise out there and the problems you deal with at school and home, but learn that your body really is beautiful.
-Post "affirmations" (notes with phrases such as 'I am beautiful') in prominent places you'll see them everyday. They sound cheesy at first, but you will start to improve your self-esteem a little.
-Try taking nutrition classes to help you look at foods in terms of the vitamins and other nourishment they contain, rather than their fat and calories.
-If you or someone you know thinks something's wrong with your/their food attitudes/behaviors, you're or they are probably right. Seek help from an adult you trust right away. It's not worth it to stay in the pain.
For Teenagers with Eating Disorders:
-Work towards recovery every day and be honest when you're struggling. Remember, EDs kill, recovery just hurts!
-If you're in a good place with your recovery, your first-hand experience is vital to educate others about EDs and the direct impact they have on 11 million American individuals.