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What Is the Connection between Eating Disorders and Self-Esteem?

By Nicole Etolen
Updated May 17, 2024
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Eating disorders and self-esteem issues tend to go together, as low self-esteem can lead to an overwhelming desire to be thin or exert control over an out-of-control situation. Although eating disorders can start at any age and affect either gender, women are nine times more likely than men to develop them. Young women in particular may be sensitive to images in the media, peer pressure, and a stressful home life, which puts them at the highest risk for developing an eating disorder.

There are three main types of eating disorders recognized by medical professionals. Anorexia nervosa typically involves abstaining from food, taking in only very minimal calories per day, until the sufferer becomes extremely thin. This can lead to numerous medical conditions, including heart problems, kidney failure, and other organ malfunctions. Bulimia involves eating an excessive amount of food, which the sufferer then immediately purges by forcing his or herself to vomit. Bulimia can lead to damage of the teeth, esophagus, and throat. Binge eating without vomiting is also common, which generally causes extreme obesity and the health conditions associated with being overweight.

Eating disorders frequently begin as a diets, or in the case of bulimia, a “one-time thing” after over-indulging. As time passes, however, individuals become obsessed with their weights and develop distorted body images, which increase the desire to lose more weight. External influences such as the media and peer pressure provide a strong link between eating disorders and self-esteem. Teenagers and college-aged men and women in particular are sensitive to others' ideas of beauty, and often feel the need to live up to those ideals.

The connection between eating disorders and self-esteem may not always be obvious. While the media and peer pressure play a large role in young people's self-images, stress at home can cause more harm than these two factors combined. Eating disorders often develop when patients are in their early or mid-teens, when many facets of their lives are out of their control, including parental relationships, financial issues, and health challenges faced by other family members. Patients often feel that the one thing they can control is their food intake, and may take that control to extremes by choosing to eat very little or nothing at all.

During treatment, a psychologist or other behavioral specialist often tries to sever the connection between the eating disorders and self-esteem by teaching the sufferer tactics to develop a healthy self-image, such as listing positive attributes and recognizing that the images in the media do not depict the average woman. Eating disorders are similar to addictions in that they are difficult habits to break, and it may take several tries to help the sufferer overcome one. In many cases, young women must be hospitalized for extensive stays in rehabilitative facilities before the cycle is broken.

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