Is anorexia a cultural disease?

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Psychologists are at odds about how to classify anorexia and similar, pathological eating disorders.

Public perception is that anorexia is largely cultural, and while some studies have shown that overly thin models and actresses in media can increase chances of younger women becoming anorexic, many other factors can also contribute to the problem.

 

Most anorexics have three things in common:

  1. Anxiety
  2. Depression
  3. Distorted body perception

Research on Anorexia

In the scientific literature on eating disorders, many studies actually show that cultural (environmental) factors are generally minor contributors in comparison to other, non-cultural contributors.

Studies are suggesting that genetics may play a role. One study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry found that 60% of a person's risk for developing anorexia is due to genetics. Follow-up studies have so far confirmed this, though all studies on the subject have been small.

Interestingly, one of the greatest environmental risks is not even models or magazines. A 2006 study in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that only 5% of a person's risk for becoming anorexic is derived from those types of media-based thin-model cultural influences.

Instead, a much greater environmental risk comes from unique environmental factors such as bullying. That 2006 study found that 35% of anorexics had deep-seeded emotional scars from childhood related to weight or appearance, usually from bullying or cruel remarks by peers or family members.

It's even been shown in small studies that Streptococcus could cause anorexia and similar obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD). Further research is needed to establish that link, but the theory is that the auto-immune response to the infection could trigger OCD symptoms.

In short, we have no way of knowing whether anorexia is really cultural, but the evidence so far says it is not.

 
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