The Link Between Bullying and Eating Disorders

Bullying is an increasingly difficult problem in our world today. The British press is reporting that up to 65 percent of those diagnosed with an eating disorder say that bullying was a strong contributing factor. That rather astonishing figure represents a more than 40 percent increase of similar survey results from as recently as 2009. Studies here in the U.S. are also showing that being bullied may have a great deal more to do with a person’s extreme over or under eating behavior than was suspected. In Britain, respondents to the survey revealed that close to one half of them had first been bullied before the age of 10 years. The pain of that experience, they said, lasted well into their fourth and fifth decade of life. The survey also found that just 22 percent looked for help to deal with their bullying. As is the case here in the U.S., bullying is hard to define, hard to prove and hard to remedy. Most victims find it easier to keep quiet and suffer in silence. Yet, according to the survey results, the repercussions of bullying can stretch far beyond childhood. A study here in the United States underscores the validity of the U.K. findings. A team at North Dakota State University surveyed people with eating disorders and asked them to rank those things which they felt had most contributed to the development of their disorder. On the list were influences of the culture and media who presented idealized icons of beauty and social difficulties such as peer pressure and unkind comments from friends or classmates. Most of the literature on eating disorders has touted the tremendous negative impact of media representations of beauty, yet the North Dakota study found that when you ask people with eating disorders what prompted their behavior they do not blame the media or culture. Instead, those surveyed in the North Dakota research said that social difficulties were the most responsible for their problems with eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. There is little question that bullying sends a person’s self-esteem into a nosedive. Low self-esteem has long been recognized as a key risk factor for developing an eating disorder. Evidently, occasions of being called fat or being teased about being overweight carry more impact than was once understood. This isn’t all that surprising since by its nature bullying is a behavior which takes place in the shadows. Little wonder then that its impact on a recipient’s mental health and subsequent behavior is so little known. While bullying is inherently difficult to control, its devastating impact makes it worth the attempt.

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