Strongest Influences on Eating Disorders are Closest to Home

In a culture where Victoria Secret models fill store windows and television and magazines are graced by only the picture-perfect, it can be hard for women to accept that not every female is meant to share the same body type. The not-so-subtle message is that in order to be considered beautiful a woman must be thin. These images are hard to escape making the message seemingly ubiquitous. This cultural emphasis on idealized beauty can lead some women into the psychological danger of eating disorders. Yet, since the message goes out to all while only some wind up obsessing over weight, the question arises as to what determines why one woman falls prey to the disorder while another woman does not?

A recent report described research on female twins that attempted to answer that question. The study of 300 twins between the ages of 12-22 years looked at cultural, environmental and genetic factors which might influence women to become weight obsessive. As part of the study, each woman was asked to gauge her own desire to look like female cultural icons.

The study found that genetic similarities mirrored answers about desired thinness. In other words, identical twins scored more closely on their desire to be thin than less genetically matched twins. This could mean that genetics strongly influences our desires. According to the report, the desire for thinness is a 43 percent heritable trait.

What about the influence of media images? While not discounting the strength of visual cues, the research found that after genetics, the woman’s immediate environment played the most decisive role in her attitudes toward thinness and beauty. A woman’s close environment did more to form her views of beauty than did broad cultural influences.

The study suggests that while Victoria Secret models may make most of us feel inadequate, the strongest influences on whether or not a woman will develop an eating disorder are her own genes and environment.