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The Rise of Eating Disorders

*Warning, may contain triggers for some readers*

Every now and again, my home page on Youtube will suggest a video titled “Anorexia: My Journey” or “My Eating Disorder Story”. And sometimes I will click to listen to a young woman passionately preach about how important it is to feed your body properly and how oblivious they were to the damage they were doing to their body. It’s all made me question how eating disorders came to rise, and if social media played a role in accelerating their prominence.

Thinking logically, eating disorders should be a relatively new illness because in the past, for one, junk food didn’t exist. But beyond that, our ancestors were focused on getting as much food into their bodies as possible to survive. The idea of restricting caloric intake to look a certain way would’ve been absurd, right? 

However, after research, I’ve found that eating disorders aren’t new. The first cases of limiting food intake and starving oneself actually date back to the 12th and 13th centuries in the Hellenistic era. Back then, of course, it was done for religious purposes. 

After this time period, doctors began noticing symptoms commonly associated with eating disorders in the late 1600s, termed as “wasting disease”. The term “anorexia” was established in 1873: this was around the point when symptoms tied to eating disorders, though this umbrella term wasn’t created and normalized yet, began to emerge from desires to be bodily-perfect, rather than spiritual reasons. 

Doctors tried curing these illnesses through incorrect diagnoses like endocrine disorder and used various methods like parentectomy, or separating people from their parents. At this point, doctors were aware of eating disorders, but the public was not. In 1973, Hilde Bruch published a book called Eating Disorders: Obesity, Anorexia Nervosa, And The Person Within, a culmination of years of research. It spread public awareness about eating disorders, how they may develop, and their emotional toll on individuals. As the disorder reached public awareness in the 1970s, cases went up. Eating disorders were added to major organizations’ lists of mental illnesses in the late 1900s and celebrities (like Princess Diana) began speaking out about them. 

Today, eating disorders are well known and pretty identifiable, but is that because they’re more prominent?

According to a study by BMJ, the number of people diagnosed with eating disorders has increased from .032% to .037% between 2000 and 2009 (before the launch of Instagram and other social media). However, this number is likely much higher, as not all people with an eating disorder are formally diagnosed since many are convinced that they don’t have an issue. Regardless, this data serves to indicate that eating disorders are on the rise, and not necessarily because of social media. However, it’s not to say that social media hasn’t made it worse. A series of studies by psychologists at Flinders University found a strong correlation between the two. The studies found that appearance-based social comparison promoted the relationship between social networking apps and eating concerns. It was especially linked to the insecurity of one’s body, a lust for thinness, body scrutiny, and self-objectification (seeing oneself as an object instead of as a human being).

While it may be reasonable to believe that the rise of eating disorders has something to do with the burgeoning of Hollywood, celebrity culture, and unrealistic standards plastered throughout the media, researchers have found that a spike in dieting behaviors actually began as obesity began to skyrocket in America in the 70s and 80s. While cultural pressures affect peoples’ desires to be thin, this link suggests that because we are always told how unhealthy the “American diet” is– considering its highly-processed and sugar-laden nature–this stigma may have caused people to be extra cautious about what they eat and how much they eat of it. Ultimately, cultural pressures may play a role in the public’s perception that the only way to remain skinny and avoid the obesity epidemic is through unhealthy eating habits. Young people of today are surrounded by reminders of this “unhealthy body” whichever way they turn. Eating disorders deserve to be reconsidered or at least portrayed in a scientific, unbiased manner.

Please keep an eye on your friends and loved ones who might be suffering from an eating disorder, and if you need help please don’t hesitate to reach out.

National Eating Disorders Hotline: (800) 931-2237

For crisis situations, text “NEDA” to 741741 

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