Psychological explanations for Anorexia (AN)

Social-cultural and psychodynamic explanations.

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Cultural explanations

It is suggested that the western standards of attractiveness are a important factor in the cause of anorexia (AN). Many studies have found that western teenagers, mainly females are dissatisfied with the way their bodies look and have distorted body image. 

Gregory (2000) found that 16% of teenagers aged 15 - 18 in the UK were on a diet, it is believed to be in a attempt to get a more cultural slender body shape.


Hoek et al (1998) had a hypothesis that anorexia was rare in non western cultures. 44192 hospital records between 1987 and 1989 from Curaco (a non western Caribbean island). 6 cases of AN were found. This shows that even in cultures where there were no western influences, AN was still present. However, the number of AN cases was proportional to the amount of western influence. 

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Media influences (AO1)

There is a negative correlational relationship between the portrayal of the female body and the prevalence of AN. It has been found that the western preference for women is for them to be taller and slimmer over the past 50 years. There are several theories of why this happens. 

  • The cultural standards of female beauty includes slimness
  • There is therefore a tension between the real self and ideal self.
  • Dieting and obsession with food can be due to the dissatisfaction with body image. 
  • This can then lead to a eating disorder in some people.
  • It can also be due to imitation of role models (social learning theory) or praise about weight loss (operant conditioning).
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Media influences (AO2/AO3)

Studies looking at the effect of western influences has found that it increases body dissatisfication. A meta analysis of 25 studies found that the number of women dissatisfied with their body image image increased significantly after the exposure to western images. (AO3) The use of several studies with the same hypothesis provides strong evidence for the theory.

Becker et al (2002) found that in Fiji, where there no no western influences present, but where introduced. A study that followed the girls after 5 years found a significant increase in AN cases, this is believed to be due to the desire to be like the TV characters. 

This shows that the media has a influence in AN cases. However, focus is still on industrialization societies, indicating cultural bias in research. Also, since it is the media's fault how come only a few people develop AN?

AO3 Real life application can be found about the damage of the media in the French fashion house industry of 'charter of goodwill'. They aim to promote a healthy body image.

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Psychodynamic explanations (AO1)

Minuchina et al (1978) suggests that AN is associated with familes with at least 2 of the following

  • Enmeshment - Where parents are intrusive and over involved in their children live, but don't take care about their emotional needs
  • Rigidity - The status quo in the family remains the same and is not changed. No flexibility within the family. 
  • Over-protection - Parenting is over emphasized and there is a lack in opportunity for adolescents to explore, start to move away and learn from their mistakes.
  • Conflict avoidance/lack of resolution - Conflicts are 'brushed under the carpet' or are blamed on others, but not solved
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Psychodynamic explanations (AO2/AO3)

It is hard to evaluate Minuchin et al's study, however, it has been found that many people with AN have dysfunctional families - high levels of parental conflict.  

Hsu (1990) - found AN patients do tend to deny or blame conflicts onto others.

The evidence is correlational, as attention is only drawn AFTER AN is developed, so it is hard to establish cause and effect. The parental conflicts may be due to having a AN child and therefore it cannot cause AN. Most research also only uses case studies so generalisability is questioned.

However, there are family therapy and psychotherapy used to treat AN.


Many research is now also done on the internet. They contact those with AN and those supporting a AN patient, this is how qualitative data is gathered. Discussion boards, chat rooms and 'news groups' are increasingly used. 

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