Study shows how body dissatisfaction can lead to eating disorders

Just being unhappy with their bodies is not enough to lead most women into eating disorders – it takes additional factors, according to a new study.

Women are more likely to have eating disorders when their body dissatisfaction is accompanied by other issues – most importantly, a tendency to obsessively examine their bodies and think about how they appear to others.

The results of the study help clarify a long-running issue that has complicated the problem of identifying women at risk for eating disorders: while studies have shown body dissatisfaction is strongly related to the development of eating disorders, there are many women who express dissatisfaction with their bodies but who don’t have symptoms of disordered eating.

“Body dissatisfaction is so prevalent among women in our society that it isn’t very useful in identifying women who may have eating disorders,” said Tracy Tylka, author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University’s Marion campus.

“About 3 to 8 percent of women have some type of eating disorder, but many women — maybe most women — are dissatisfied with their bodies. This study shows there are factors such as constant body monitoring that strengthen the relationship between body dissatisfaction and eating disorders and may help identify women at risk.”

The research was published in a recent issue of the Journal of Counseling Psychology.

In two related studies, Tylka tried to identify factors that strengthen the link between body dissatisfaction – a woman’s unhappiness about her overall body shape or about specific body parts such as stomach or thighs — and eating disorders. One study involved 304 college women and the other 373 women aged 17 to 58.

The results showed “body surveillance” was the strongest factor that predicted which women with body dissatisfaction were likely to report symptoms of eating disorders.

“Body surveillance involves actions like continually looking at yourself in the mirror to see how you look,” Tylka said. “Women who do this tend to ignore their internal feelings and emotions and concentrate on their outward appearance. They think of their bodies as objects.”

For example, some women may ignore their feelings of hunger because they are more concerned with how eating may affect how they appear to others, she said.

Tylka discovered that another factor that strengthened the link between body dissatisfaction and eating disorders is neuroticism – a personality trait in which people tend to be anxious, nervous, worrying, and insecure.

The third related factor was having a family member or friend who has an eating disorder.

Women who have any of these three factors – coupled with body dissatisfaction – are the ones who may be most at risk for disordered eating, Tylka said.

“Knowing these moderating factors can help health professionals understand which women with body dissatisfaction may have a tendency toward problems with disordered eating,” she said.

Contact: Tracy Tylka, (740) 389-6786; Tylka.2@osu.edu
Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457; Grabmeier.1@osu.edu

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Jeff Grabmeier OSU

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