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Eating Disorders: Why They are Shaped by Bias and Social Media

When I was 15 years old my best friend had Anorexia Nervosa. 

Did something happen that I don’t know about? Why is she acting this way? These were questions I constantly asked myself as I watched my best friend struggle with inner demons throughout my first year of high school. She progressively became more fatigued, impulsive, and quiet. At the time, I had no prior knowledge of Anorexia, an eating disorder that causes extensive weight loss alongside a skewed perception of gaining weight and food altogether. I never understood what was happening to my best friend for the longest time. I could only observe the complete alteration of who she was. Eating Disorders are categorized as psychological disorders with disturbed eating patterns and habits. These disorders have a severely detrimental impact on the mind, which is why it can take, on average, six months to two full years for the brain alone to recover from an eating disorder. 

It was not until years later that I realized my best friend was exhibiting the signs of an eating disorder in high school. Over time, she expressed to me how she felt about the illness. As if she was no longer in control, another part of herself decided to forcefully take the keys to the car and not stop driving. It took her years to climb out of the hole she was thrown in. Although even after she shared her story with me, I continued to struggle to wrap my head around the idea of how your brain can entirely change your perception of body image. It wasn’t until I learned about Attentional Bias in my Cognitive Psychology course that I noticed how eating disorders occur and develop in the brain. I find it quite terrifying how our brain controls how we perceive the world around us, especially in recent years, where the idea of “thinness” has been preached across social media platforms and among influential celebrities. 

Some popular social media platforms include Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, to name a few. Even well-known television shows such as America’s Next Top Model and The Biggest Loser actively normalize the idea that being “too big” is ugly, unattractive, and shameful. They either force contestants to lose weight in an unhealthy way or point out women’s insecurities for why they aren’t physically good enough to be the next top model. Constant advertisements for weight loss, diets, fitness, and cosmetic surgery are also to blame for our society willingness to support “thinness” (Leavy et al, 2006). For generations, our society has set unrealistic beauty standards, especially for women, that undoubtedly lead to low self-esteem and insecurities that have the potential to develop into an Eating Disorder. Even the most recognized celebrities have influenced bad and unhealthy habits with eating. Earlier this month, Kim Kardashian talked about how she lost sixteen pounds in three weeks to fit into a dress for the Met Gala. She spoke of nearly having to “starve herself” but how it was also worth it. From such a well-known celebrity that millions of people watch, to preach the idea of having to completely alter your diet to lose an unhealthy amount in a short time for the Met Gala is destructive to your body and mind. Mass media promoting this image allows Attentional biases to form and keep confirming themselves. Social media can have a firm grasp on how we view ourselves, especially in younger generations. This is extremely important because the most common age to develop an eating disorder is between twelve and twenty-five years old, meaning the most targeted crowd for social media is also the most vulnerable to this disorder(Leavy et al, 2006).

Chart of what impacts our feeling towards our bodies for both men and women. Social Media and Television the highest two. Retrieved from: https://www.today.com/style/social-media-affecting-way-we-view-our-bodies-it-s-t128500

Attentional Bias is often formed with Eating disorders. Attentional bias tends to be recurring in our environment. For example, people with eating disorders, who frequently think about their body image, will pay more attention to others’ overall appearance (Johansson, 2006). This leads to the constant comparisons of themselves with others which can be highly detrimental to the mind and body. This bias is easily formed because of mass media’s promotion of “thinness,” most recently Kim Kardashian, leading to the need for perfectionism and insufficient nutrition (Lee, 2003). 

To understand whether Attentional Biases relate to eating disorders, experimentation was conducted. Within eating disorders, one test tends to stand out above the rest, the Emotional Stroop Task. This task had participants view flashing words and read aloud the color of the word. This task aimed to determine whether words related to emotional concerns had a slower reaction time than the non-associated words. The results found that people with emotional disorders, for example, eating disorders, alter their attention by having a longer response time to color-name terms associated with emotional stress than the controlled participant’s group with no form of an emotional disorder(Aspen et al, 2013). Words that specifically involve body weight, food, size, etc., cause interference in our attention and information processing through Priming; the exposure of one stimulus influences a response to another stimulus without conscious intent. This also interrupts our Automatic processes, unconscious abilities that happen fast that do not require attention and can’t be avoided. Overall, this task supports attentional bias for information related to words of emotional concern of individuals with eating disorders. 

first signs of eating disorders. Retrieved from: https://www.ghll.org.uk/partnership-projects/beat—eating-disorders/

So why is it important to understand the cognitive effects of Eating disorders? Because to move forward in society to prevent them within our population, we must know the disastrous side effects it can have on the mind. The long-term effects are troublesome, to say the least. It is necessary to recognize the signs and symptoms of this disorder as a society. The most common signs and symptoms are: Extreme weight changes, slowed thinking, obsession over body image, low self-esteem, social isolation, and drastic shifts in mood. Watching life slowly leave her eyes day by day was one of the hardest things I witnessed. The mental and physical changes it caused were scary to watch. I could not understand what was going on and always wanted to help, but she continued to push me away. This shows that our education system lacks teaching, including eating disorders as a more open and less shamed discussion. If you or someone you know has a potential eating disorder, be proactive. Follow this article to understand how to approach someone with an eating disorder about seeking help and moving forward. The most important part is to be there for them and make them feel safe.


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