Wellness

Understanding Eating Disorders and Body Image Issues

Body image distress is often seen as a symptom of an eating disorder; however, not every person with an eating disorder has a problematic body image.

Eating disorders do not discriminate by age, gender, ethnicity or socio-economic status, and impact, not only on the person experiencing the disorder but also on their family, friends, and community.

Body image is the perception that a person has of their physical self, and when a person has negative thoughts and feelings about his or her own body, body dissatisfaction can develop.

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are mental illnesses defined by abnormal dietary habits. Such habits usually involve eating excessively small or large amounts of food that have the potential to cause major physical and mental problems.

Most common eating disorders are:

  • anorexia,
  • bulimia and
  • Binge eating disorder.

A distorted and unhealthy body image often accompanies these conditions, and those who suffer from anorexia nervosa entertain an irrational fear of obesity to the point of becoming underweight.

Bulimia sufferers give back episodes of binge eating with purging or excessive exercise because of the same fear of gaining weight.

Eating disorders are often characterized by an obsessive preoccupation with body image. This is a characteristic they share with another mental illness, namely body dysmorphic disorder.

What Can Cause an Eating Disorder?

As stated already, eating disorders are complex mental illnesses with medical complications and it’s unlikely that an eating disorder will develop as a result of one single cause. It’s much more likely to be a combination of risk factors, such as genetic vulnerability, psychological factors, and socio-cultural influences.

Genetic Vulnerability

Strong evidence suggests that eating disorders have a genetic basis. The genes that are most mixed up in passing on eating disorders are within biological systems that relate to food intake, appetite, metabolism, mood, and reward-pleasure responses.

It has been shown that this genetic influence is not simply due to the inheritance of any one gene but results from a much more complicated interaction between many genes and quite possibly non-inherited genetic factors too.

Biological Causes

The biological causes of eating disorders are not well understood, mainly because, the majority of studies are conducted during the acute or recovery phase of an eating disorder.

At this time, there are physiological changes occurring in the person as a result of their eating disorder behaviors. These changes can affect the findings of the studies.

Psychological Factors

Research into Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa expressly have identified a number of personality traits that may be present before, during, and after recovery from an eating disorder. Such traits include:

  • Obsessive-compulsiveness
  • Perfectionism
  • Neuroticism
  • Negative emotionality
  • Core low self-esteem
  • Harm avoidance

Socio-Cultural Influences

Evidence shows that socio-cultural influences play a role in the development of eating disorders. This is particular among people who internalize the Western beauty ideal of thinness, likely influenced by images communicated through mass media.

The most predominant images in our culture today suggest that beauty is equated with thinness for females and a lean, ripped body for males.

Individuals who internalize this ‘thin ideal’ have a greater risk of developing body dissatisfaction which can lead to eating disorder behaviors.

Body Image

Body image is the subjective image people have of their own body. Body image is distinct from how their body actually appears and is a complex construct that is made up of beliefs, thoughts, perceptions, feelings, and behaviors.

The way we see ourselves and our bodies have an impact on our mental health, our relationships, and our overall health. A healthy body image involves having an objective perception of one’s appearance and ability to separate one’s value as a person from the way he looks.


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Negative body image is often characterized by dissatisfaction with appearance and engaging in behaviors such as dieting, in an attempt to ameliorate the dissatisfaction.

Negative body image often emerges during childhood, and studies show that approximately 50% of preadolescent girls and 30% of preadolescent boys dislike their body. Similarly, 60% of adult women and 40% of adult men have a negative body image.

Signs and Symptoms of Negative Body Image

Symptoms of unhealthy or negative body image may include:

  • obsessive self-scrutiny (in mirrors)
  • thinking disparaging comments about your body
  • frequent comparison of your own shape and size to other people
  • Envy of a friend’s body, or the body of a celebrity or someone else in the media.

Causes of Negative Body Image

Sometimes body image is negatively impacted by one or more significant actions.  A typical example is a gymnast who is continually scolded by her coach and fellow athletes to lose a little weight; he may develop a deeply ingrained and long-standing dissatisfaction with her body, no matter how thin she becomes.

Relationship Between Weight and Body Image

A normally healthy weight range for an individual can be perceived as overweight by someone with a vague body image. It is not uncommon for obese individuals to report that they did not realize they were as large as they are and had perceived their body as much smaller until an occasion arises where they see a photograph that strikes a nerve and causes them to come to terms with their actual image.

Body image concerns and eating disorders go hand in hand, and often, it is the early dissatisfaction with a young person’s appearance that leads them to conclude that losing weight would enhance their appearance, and make them feel better about their bodies.

Thus, restrictive eating and over exercising are often leading to patterns of disordered eating and weight obsession that can develop into anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia, compulsive overeating or binge eating disorder.

Treatment

Given the fact that eating disorders and Body Image Issues are potentially deadly diseases, it is best to find professional help. This can be in a residential treatment facility or an outpatient treatment center.

Treatment programs usually offer cognitive behavioral therapy aimed to challenge patients’ self-image and eliminate destructive habits. Talk and group therapy helps the patients to feel less isolated, and nutritional counseling introduces them to lasting healthy eating habits.

Recognizing and acknowledging your feelings and accompanying body sensations will help you become more comfortable in your body and lessens the tendency to suppress feelings.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (an approach where irrational thoughts are recognized, analyzed and restructured to more rational self-talk) is frequently used as a treatment option, while dance and movement therapy are also often employed to develop a greater trust and appreciation of one’s body based upon creating internal experiences, rather than simply evaluated one’s body aesthetically.

 

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