Society and Eating Disorders

Current research indicates that eating disorders are likely the result of a combination of genetic and environmental factors. While environmental factors alone cannot cause an eating disorder, many people have pointed to the role of social pressures for thinness as a factor that can have an impact on individuals who may be genetically predisposed to eating disorders.

It is not surprising that the value society places on being thin can impact those already at risk for eating disorders. In North America, we are given the message at a very young age that in order to be happy and successful, we must be thin and fit. Every time we walk into a store we are surrounded by skinny or buff mannequins. Images of emaciated women and muscular men appear on the front covers of fashion magazines. Thousands of teenage girls are starving themselves trying to attain what the fashion industry considers to be the “ideal” figure. More than 4 out of 10 boys in middle and high school regularly exercise with the goal of increasing muscle mass. 80% of girls have dieted by the time they get to the 4th grade. This has become a society consumed by food, weight, and dieting.

The Media

Clearly the media has an influence. It is natural for people to want to look like the body images they see on social media, television, movies and in magazines.

Television shows featuring thin or very muscular actors make viewers feel like they need to look the same in order to be valued, worthy, accepted, and lovable. Many actors we see on screen have endured hours of exercise and have deprived themselves of the proper nutrition in order to maintain a thin figure. Some resort to plastic surgery, liposuction, and breast implants. Due to these practices, airbrushing, and photoshop, there is a saying: “The girl in the magazine doesn’t even look like the girl in the magazine.” Our society is brainwashing people into believing that being thin is important, necessary, and achievable. Additionally, television programming promotes weight stigma by stereotyping and making fun of larger characters who normally don’t get the starring roles.

We spend a great deal of time on social media sites which provides an additional forum for self-comparison against a thin ideal and increased body dissatisfaction. In fact, a recent study linked time spent on Facebook to increased rates of disordered eating. Another recent study rated Instagram as the worst app for mental health and well-being due to its negative effects on anxiety, self-identity, and body image. They also found that people are comparing themselves the harshest against their peer group, acquaintances, and celebrities. We tend to know there’s more to the story than what close friends and family are posting online.

Media Literacy

Because different forms of mass media (e.g. television, magazines, and internet) are possibly contributing to the development of eating disorders, efforts have been made toward teaching media literacy to children and teenagers as a prevention strategy.

People need to realize that society’s ideal body image is not achievable for the vast majority of people. The photos we see in magazines are not real either. Many people don’t realize that those photos have gone through many touch-ups and have been air-brushed to make the models look “perfect”. Individuals striving to attain society’s unattainable ideal image usually end up increasing their feelings of inadequacy.

We are under a lot of pressure to change our bodies because we are led to believe that the only way we can be accepted or fit in is if we are thin. We resort to exercising excessively, starving, vomiting and eating only diet foods to try to lose weight or “appear healthy”.

Diet Commercials

Diet commercials are constantly appearing on our television screens, in magazines, and on internet pop-up ads, telling us that once we lose the weight, we will be happy. While you’re standing in the checkout line at the grocery store you are surrounded by magazines claiming to have the newest and best diet. Each month another new diet appears, claiming to be the diet to end all diets. Whatever happened to last month’s diets that claimed the same thing? Dieting has become an obsession in our culture.

In 2019, the US diet industry was worth $72 billion. We spend billions of dollars each year trying to look the way society tells us we need to look, it’s a business. If diets really work, then why are there so many of them? The reason a new diet pops up each month is that last month’s diets did not work. The truth of the matter is that DIETS DON’T WORK. As soon as you start to diet, you automatically set yourself up for failure. Many of the diets on the market right now are also unhealthy. They deprive you of the proper nutrition your body needs to survive and these diets can lead to health problems.

The diet and fashion industries are not totally to blame for society’s obsession with thinness. It’s unfortunate, but in today’s society, people have forgotten that it’s what’s inside a person that counts, not what’s on the outside. We need to start loving and accepting each other for who we are, not what we look like. Next time you decide that you are going to start another diet because you feel you are too fat, stop and sign up for a self-esteem class or individual therapy instead. That would be money well spent. When we learn to accept ourselves we often begin to build a fuller, more meaningful life, doing what matters to us, and living in line with our values.


It is important to highlight that parents do not cause eating disorders in their children and they cannot necessarily prevent them. However, parents can try to help children develop resilience and self-acceptance by teaching children to be proud of who they are. They need to teach them that people come in all shapes and sizes, to accept everyone for who they are, and to treat others with kindness and respect no matter what they look like. Parents need to show by example what it’s like to have a healthy relationship with all foods and that dieting pulls us away from our natural ability to eat intuitively.

Once again, we want to stress the fact that diets don’t work. Eating at least three healthy meals and a few snacks a day and engaging in joyful movement will allow your body to be at its natural set point. It’s important to give ourselves permission to eat all foods that are accessible, barring any medical conditions. Stop buying image-focused magazines, diet products, and believing all the lies being told to you by the diet industries. Instead, focus on learning to care for and accept yourself. Seeing a lower number on a scale and fitting into a smaller dress size will not bring you a better, more meaningful life. Doing things that align with your values and spending time with the people who matter does. This can be easier said than done. If you need additional support, consider reaching out to a licensed therapist who specializes in food and body image concerns.


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Updated by Molly Bahr – 2020
Updated by Dr. Lauren Muhlheim and Tabitha Farrar – 2014
Written by Colleen Thompson – 1997