Environmental Factors Of Eating Disorders

Environmental factors of eating disorders are external influences that affect body image. Of these, social attitudes and media influence probably have the most profound impact on how people perceive their bodies.

Environmental Factors: Media Image and Influence

Western culture often emphasizes physical appearance over internal character qualities. Media image and influence is everywhere, perpetuating this emphasis. The media glorifies tall and thin as the ideal female body type, and lean and muscular as the male ideal.

According to the National Association for Eating Disorders (2005), the average American woman is 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighs 140 pounds. In comparison, the average American model is 5 feet 11 inches and weighs 117 pounds. Faced with this disparity, it’s no surprise that 80 percent of American women are unhappy with the way they look. Teenagers are especially susceptible to environmental factors such as social pressure, which may help to explain the higher incidence of eating disorders among teens.

Eating disorders are prevalent among actors, athletes, models and other individuals in appearance-oriented professions. Although the media may portray these celebrity personalities as having it all together, constant media scrutiny places them under intense pressure to be thin.

Western society glamorizes thinness, portraying it as the key to happiness and success. Under such influence, some people (particularly teens) are willing to undertake whatever means necessary to obtain the ideal body type.

Eating Disorders Causes: The Internet Influence

Although the Internet can offer healthy tips for those recovering from an eating disorder, it can also be one of the main sources of harmful information for those with eating disorders. A number of pro-eating disorder sites offer support networks for this “lifestyle,” allowing teens to learn and share weight loss tips and new, harmful ways to lose weight.

According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Eating Disorders, this deadly subculture has its own identification symbols and rituals. A study published in the “Journal of Pediatrics” (2006) found that use of pro-eating disorder sites was widespread among teens with eating disorders, but most parents knew little or nothing about it.

Environmental factors alone can’t account for the prevalence of eating disorders. However, the media’s “thinfluence” helps to create a social environment that places utmost importance on appearance. Within this diet-driven context, eating disorders are becoming an increasing problem.


Mayo Clinic. (2010). Eating disorders. Retrieved July 8, 2010, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/eating-disorders/DS00294

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Eating Disorders. (n.d.) Eating disorders and the internet. Retrieved July 13, 2010, from http://www.anad.org/get-information/eating-disorders-and-the-internet/

National Eating Disorders Association. (2005). National eating disorders association statistics: Eating disorders and their precursors. Retrieved July 8, 2010, from http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/uploads/file/Statistics%20%20Updated% 20Feb%2010,%202008%20B.pdf

Wilson, J. L., Peebles, R., Hardy, K. K. & Litt, I. F. Surfing for thinness: A pilot study of pro-eating disorder Web site usage in adolescents with eating disorders.” Journal of Pediatrics, 118(6), 1635-1643. DOI: 10.1542/peds.2006-1133