New research from the London School of Economics has found anorexia nervosa to be ‘primarily socially induced’. The groundbreaking study offers a new approach to combating this life-threatening illness, one that focuses on the social environment of teenagers and young women.
Dr Joan Costa-Font and Professor Mireia Jofre-Bonet, of the LSE and City University, have constructed the world’s first-ever economic model of anorexia. Their study focuses on young women, who make up ninety percent of anorexia cases, and taking a sample of nearly 3000 European women between the ages of 15 and 34 the researchers relate a range of social and environmental factors to ‘self-image’ and weight.
Anorexia nervosa is defined as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of less than 17.5 coupled with distorted self-image and the perception of being ‘just fine’ or ‘too fat’. The researchers conclude that the size and weight of a social group has a significant impact upon disordered eating within the group. The lower the body mass of your peers, the greater the likelihood that you will suffer from anorexia, and vice-versa.
The study has serious policy implications. Dr Jofre-Bonet and Professor Costa-Front call for urgent action to ‘prevent the spread of a potential epidemic of food disorders’. Any approach must target the social environment of teenage girls and young women and must go beyond traditional peer groups to target online communities.
In the online era social networks extend far beyond neighbourhoods, schools and universities. Moreover the Internet is awash with ‘pro-ana’ and ‘thinspiration’ blogs and forums, supporting countless online peer groups dedicated to dieting and weight loss. Alarmingly this sphere remains largely invisible to parents and teachers.
Fortunately some online actors are addressing the issue. Microblogging forum and social network Tumblr.com is in the process of implementing a new policy against pro-self-harm blogs including those that ‘embrace anorexia, bulimia, or other eating disorders’. Harmful blogs will be banned from the platform and users who search for associated tags, such as ‘thinspiration’, will view a public service announcement urging them to seek help. This policy is an important recognition of the potential harm these online communities and peer groups pose.
Dr Jofre-Bonet and Professor Costa-Front’s research repositions anorexia nervosa as, at least in part, a socially transmitted illness. Their research will hopefully prompt more online platforms to follow Tumblr’s lead and regulate the online social environment of teenagers and young women as a preventative measure.
‘Anorexia, Body Image and Peer Effects: Evidence from a Sample of European Women’ will be published in academic journal Economica later this year.