Eating disorders are typically viewed as disorders that occur in Western society where the media portrays the super thin-ideal for women and the lean muscular ideal for men. Because the link between eating disorders and sociocultural influences makes so much sense at face value, this was left largely untested until more recently, when studies began to examine the neurobiological underpinnings of eating disorders. Turns out there is compelling scientific evidence that eating disorders are largely genetically transmitted; that is, 50 to 80% of the variability can be accounted for by neurobiological predisposing factors in anorexia nervosa. Essentially this means that some people are more prone to developing an eating disorder than others because of their genes.
So given this information, people may wonder how body image disturbance impacts some people but not others. We are all bombarded with images that are unrealistic and that can result in many people feeling dissatisfied with parts of their body or their body as a whole. This widespread, but not clinical level of dissatisfaction is referred to as normative discontent. It is no wonder that women feel pressure to lose weight, diet, exercise and cut back on treat foods when you realize that 33% of American women are nearly overweight, yet only 3% of the women we see on television shows are portrayed as overweight. Instead, we see a much higher representation of underweight women (32%) on TV.
What is relevant and important to remember is that body dissatisfaction can be both a contributing predictor for the development of an eating disorder and a significant predictor for relapse into disordered eating. Often, the drive for thinness or the desire to change or alter the shape of your body can lead someone with neurobiological predisposing factors to restrict his or her dietary intake, engage in purging behaviors and try to “fix” his/her body through compulsive exercise.
A preliminary step towards having a healthy body image is to normalize eating and activity with the help of a treatment team composed of mental health, dietary and medical professionals. Once you have achieved this and given up other eating disordered weight loss strategies, you are ready to focus on body image work.