Risk & Protective Factors
Like most other psychiatric and health conditions, the development of eating disorders is likely to involve a combination of complex factors, including psychological, sociocultural and genetic.
Genetic vulnerability refers to a person’s ability to inherit an eating disorder from their biological parent. There is some evidence that does suggest eating disorders have a genetic basis, however, the greater biological causes of eating disorders are still not fully understood.
Psychological factors include various behaviours and personality characteristics that can place a person at a greater risk of adopting disordered eating habits. These characteristics can include:
Low self-esteem or feelings of inadequacy
Perfectionism, obsessive-compulsiveness or neuroticism
Negative emotions or cynicism
Overvaluing body image in defining self-worth
Harm avoidance or traits such as excessive worrying, anxiety, fear, doubt and pessimism
Avoidance of social interaction
Heightened sensitivity or inability to cope with negative evaluations
Socio-cultural influences refer to external, environmental occurrences that may have an impact on how someone perceives their body image. These messages are often delivered via platforms like television, film, social media, magazines and advertising.
However, socio-cultural influences can also relate to situations involving peers, friends, family, teachers, sport coaches and other figures of authority or influence.
Socio-cultural risk factors
Internalising the western beauty ideal of thinness, muscularity and leanness
Societal pressure to achieve and succeed
Involvement in a sport or industry with an emphasis on a thin body shape and size (e.g. ballet dancer, gymnast, model, athlete)
Teasing or bullying (especially when based on weight or body shape)
Troubled family or personal relationships
Why are some people more resilient than others?
Research has shown that there are some protective factors that may reduce the likelihood of developing an eating disorder. As with risk factors, protective factors tend to be grouped for ease of reference. These groups include:
Individual protective factors
- High self-esteem
- Positive body image
- Critical processing of media images (i.e. media literacy)
- Emotional well-being
- School achievement
- Being self-directed and assertive
- Good social skills with success at performing multiple social roles
- Problem solving and coping skills
Family protective factors
- Belonging to a family that does not overemphasise weight and physical attractiveness
- Eating regular meals with the family
Socio-cultural protective factors
- Belonging to a less westernised culture that accepts a range of body shapes and sizes
- Involvement with sport or industry where there is no emphasis on physical attractiveness or thinness
- Peer or social support structures and relationships where weight and physical appearance are not of high concern
The impact of social media
Social media plays an increasingly important role in the lives of young people. For many, social media provides an accessible and powerful toolkit for finding information, building relationships and promoting a sense of identity and belonging. For others, online communities can be an unsafe space, and being aware of the risks can help educators and carers take the appropriate precautions to ensure safe use.
Risk of social media
Social media platforms allow users to personalise and curate their online presence and instantaneously communicate with peers across a range of handheld devices. Images of thin, attractive men and women are widely available online and expose viewers to unrealistic standards of beauty that can have a detrimental impact on body image.
Thinspiration and fitspiration refer to images of thin and fit individuals that are shared online, generally with the intention of motivating others to a slimmer physique or healthier lifestyle. While some viewers may be inspired by these images to make positive changes, they can also increase body dissatisfaction by leading viewers to compare their own bodies to these images and feel less attractive themselves.
‘Pro-eating disorders’ websites encourage disordered eating behaviour and provide a social forum for the exchange of photos, tips and support. They often contain advice that directly encourages unhealthy and extreme weight and shape control behaviours, as well as tips on how to best conceal these behaviours. Termed ‘pro-ana’ when supporting anorexia and ‘pro-mia’ when supporting bulimia, these sites positively portray the anorexic or bulimic lifestyle and focus on themes of perfection, physical transformation, strength and success.