Douglas Bunnell, PhD, a clinical psychologist and chief clinical officer at Monte Nido Eating Disorder Treatment Centers, discusses the possible reasons that eating disorders overwhelmingly affect young women in the video above.
There still is a big disparity between the rates for boys and girls. It’s important to make the point that boys do get these disorders. But the fact is still that more girls are affected by this than boys, so there must be something about being female that loads your risk for this.
It’s tempting to see it just as a cultural phenomenon or a socio-cultural phenomenon, but I think when we get to it and we really have the tools to understand it, we’re going to see that it’s a complex interaction between the biology of being female, the biology of being female at puberty, as people go through that phase of life, and the cultural factors.
We do know that objectification of women and premature or early sexualization of women is a risk factor for psychiatric illness in girls and women, so I think that’s going on in eating disorders. It’s undoubtedly true that there is a culture that promotes a thin body ideal which does get internalized and we can see that as girls who are somehow “falling prey” to the culture. One way we’ve discounted eating disorders and minimized them is to say, “Oh, those girls are sort of weak, they gave into the culture somehow.” But it’s a potent factor. It’s not like the culture is outside of our heads. If you grow up in a culture it ends up being the way we evaluate ourselves, and it has a direct influence on that, and there’s a lot of research that shows that internalization of the thin body ideal is a real potent risk factor for developing an eating disorder.
I think for a clinician, even more importantly, it shapes the recovery environment for our patients. If you’re a woman who’s recovering from an eating disorder, you’re recovering in an environment that’s basically telling you that you’re wrong to get better. If your goal is to gain weight, and you’re living in a culture that is massively promoting the exact opposite, it takes a lot of wherewithal to swim against that. Managing the recovery environment is a potent factor in eating disorders treatment.