A deadly form of mental illness, eating disorders are spurred by idealization of thinness

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Eating disorders are the deadliest form of mental illness. They’re also one of the most complex mental illnesses, because there are multiple kinds, causes, and potential treatments.

But the most well-known contributor to a person developing an eating disorder is the idealization of thinness in society. That’s according to one study cited by NEDA: The National Eating Disorder Association.

According to local experts FOX4 spoke with, it’s getting harder to escape the “thin ideal” and “diet culture” since it’s always in the palm of your hand.

The pressure to be thin comes from everywhere, but the internet is especially ripe with the idealization of thinness. Common Sense Media, Inc., reports teenagers spend an average of nine hours a day watching entertainment. At least half of that is on their phone or tablet.

“Quick things like Tik Tok and Instagram are so focused on the image, and so that’s what people are really tuning into, much more than other content,” Dr. Kathryn Pieper, child psychologist and director of Children’s Mercy Hospital’s eating disorder clinic, said.

That content is being internalized and can trigger people who are pre-disposed to mental illnesses and eating disorders.

“There have actually been a number of studies that have shown the more social media usage, the increase in negative body image, because of all the social comparison involved. And I would say that’s certainly consistent with what I’ve seen in the clinic,” Dr. Pieper said.

“When an image is portrayed over and over again, it’s much more likely to be internalized. So, the media images show a very small slice of body diversity. Body dissatisfaction can lead to increased mental health issues, including anxiety and depression, and a desperate need to want to fix that.”

All of that can lead to an eating disorder. There are multiple kinds of eating disorders, and you can’t tell just by looking at a person whether they are suffering from one.

“Eating disorders are complex biopsychosocial disorders, so there are genetic components for males as well as females that can influence the development of an eating disorder. There are personality characteristics which can lead to a person being more sensitive or at risk for an eating disorder, and of course anxiety and depression co-occur,” Dr. Pieper said.

While there is a wide misconception eating disorders are based in vanity and a matter of eating vs. not eating, it’s not that simple.

“An eating disorder can actually be an attempt for someone to grapple with things they’re struggling with in their life, so it’s a maladaptive coping strategy,” Dr. Pieper said.

“Individual’s worlds become smaller and smaller as the eating disorder becomes larger and larger, so they are less invested in relationships, less able to focus on work. And you know physically, eating disorders affect every organ system in the body.”

According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, eating disorders are deadly. More than 10,000 people die worldwide each year as a direct result of an eating disorder; 26% of people with an eating disorder attempt to take their own life.

In this story, FOX4 explores many groups who suffer from eating disorders, and are often not represented in research or in the media.

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