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teenager with eating disorder

Janessa developed anorexia in 2002 and bulimia a year later. What started as a fad diet quickly took over her life leaving her feeling helpless, ashamed, and isolated with her secret. She discovered an eating disorder chatroom with people who understood what she was going through, a constant feed of support from young women just like her posting recipes, photos, and ideas for thinspiration. She began to compulsively check her feed hundreds of times a day, obsessively comparing herself to others in a desperate competition for thinness. This eating disorder online culture not only normalized her self-harm but also encouraged it. Her compulsive online activities provided an intimate escape that no one in her face-to-face life knew of, not even her therapist. By the time she was 19 years old, Janessa was diagnosed with osteoporosis. By 21 years old, she was buried.

  • 81% of ten-year-olds are afraid of being fat
  • Bullying about body size and appearance is the most common form of bullying in schools.
  • 25% of American men and 45% of American women are on a diet on any given day.
  • Americans spend over $40 billion on dieting and diet-related products each year.
  • Four out of ten individuals have either personally experienced an eating disorder or know someone who has.

girl looking in mirror What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders (EDs) are a class of mental illness characterized by maladaptive eating behaviors that negatively impact health, emotions, and general life functioning. EDs have the highest death rate of any mental illness, frequently persisting for years. The most common EDs are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.

Eating disordered behaviors typically begin as a way for individuals to lose weight or gain a sense of control over their lives. With a compulsively escalating course, dieting, binge eating, purging, self-starvation, excessive exercise, abuse of laxatives, and compulsive participation with online forums are common.

Who develops ED(s)?

National surveys estimate that 20 million women and 10 million men in America will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives. It’s estimated that 40% of female teenagers have an eating disorder, with more men and younger children falling victim in more recent years. EDs are particularly common with individuals who have difficulty coping with stressors.

Risk Factors

Biological Psychological       Social
Having a close relative with an eating disorder.

Having a close relative with a mental health condition.

Female sex. Although people of any, all, or no gender can develop an eating disorder, being female increases the risk of developing an eating disorder.

History of dieting or using weight loss tactics

Type One (Insulin-dependent) Diabetes

Perfectionism. Unrealistically high expectations for yourself.

Body image dissatisfaction. Internalization of the thin ideal.

Personal history of an anxiety disorder.

Behavioral inflexibility. Many people with anorexia report that, as children, they always followed the rules and felt there was one “right way” to do things.


Prejudices about weight – The idea that thinner is better

Personal history of being teased or bullied about weight.

A drive to be perfect

Members of the LGBTQ community are at higher risk due to stigma and discrimination.

Loneliness and isolation.


image of extremely thin girl on instagram Online Forums

Online forums often times exacerbate these already serious mental illnesses by advocating for ED’s as a healthy way of life and painting  mainstream society as condemning, encouraging a “they just don’t understand us” attitude and offering a “we’re in this together” alliance. Compulsive data journaling promotes unhealthy social comparison and competition.

H         = 5’1 (Height)
HW     = 99 lbs (Highest Weight)
LW      = 73 lbs (Lowest Weight)
CW      = 87 lbs (Current Weight)
GW      = 81 pounds (Goal We

Thinspiration or “Thinspo” is also used to encourage extreme and unhealthy thinness by sharing photos, memes, media, and stories. For example, “Once on the lips, forever on the hips” or “Every time you say no thank you to food, you say yes please to being skinny.” Secret terminology or slang is also used often to hide online activities from parents. Commonly used slang include:

“Ana”: anorexia

“Mia”: bulimia

“Bikini Bridge”: when an underweight woman in a bikini lies          down and her hip bones protrude well past   their flat stomach causing their bikini                bottom to stretch across and gap is formed.

“Thigh Gap”: space between the inner thighs when standing upright with both knees                               touching as a result of low weight.

thinspiration image - nothing tastes as good as skinny feels Signs Your Child is at Risk for an Eating Disorder

Wearing concealing clothing

 Emotional changes suggestive of co-occurring emotional distress like social anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem.

Behavioral changes like social isolation, eating more or eating less, sleeping more, fatigue or low energy, or an overall loss of interest in things they’ve always enjoyed.

Often spending time browsing for information about exercise and dieting or visiting pro eating disorder online forums

How You Can Help

Seek help & treatment

EDs can be extremely dangerous and commonly co-occur with depression, anxiety, social phobia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Consult a clinical psychologist who has specialized training with eating disordered behaviors early, don’t wait. Not only can a clinician work with your child to achieve insight and build resilience by teaching emotional coping skills, but she can also provide much needed consult and support for family members. Kids will often accept influence from a therapist even when they are dismissive of parenting support.

Stay calm and matter-of-fact

If you see evidence of eating disordered behavior; ask about it in a straightforward, emotionally neutral manner. Of course share your concern, but be careful not to escalate the situation by panicking, threatening, or lecturing.

Be supportive and present

Make yourself available and willing to talk when your child approaches, on her terms. Kids often avoid talking to their parents, because they’re afraid that they’ll lose their trust or add an additional stress factor to an already stressful situation, like going through a divorce or financial issues (Steinberg, 2014).

Reduce stigma

Shame and guilt can keep individuals tethered to their Eating Disorder longer. It is common for misinformed persons to think that disordered eating is simply a choice. Once EDs take hold, it is very difficult to recover without comprehensive professional treatment.

Helpful Online Resources

  • NEDA (National Eating Disorder Association) has recently worked with major platforms, including Facebook, Tumblr and Pinterest, to adjust their terms-of-use policies to forbid the promotion of “self-harm” by users.
  • Eating Disorder Hope provides its readers with extensive information online such as; defining each type of eating disorder, tools for recovery, treatment options, support groups in your area, an much much more.
  • Eating Disorders Anonymous (EDA provides and outlet of support and fellowship for individuals suffering. EDA is a free online community with the only requirement being that the member is committed to recovering from his/her eating disorder.

CSUCI Intern, Katherine Bryan Thank you to CSUCI Intern, Katherine Bryan for contributing this article. If you or someone you know is concerned about the effects that media driven beauty ideals online have on our youth please check-out the GKIS article, “I Want To Be Hot When I Grow Up”.

I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe.

Onward to More Awesome Parenting,

Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty

Works Cited

 Pro-Ana versus Pro-Recovery: A Content Analytic Comparison of Social Media Users’ Communication about Eating Disorders on Twitter and Tumblr.

The Dangers of ‘Thinspiration’ by Hannah Chenoweth.

Concurrent and prospective analyses of peer, television and social media influences on body dissatisfaction, eating disorder symptoms and life satisfaction in adolescent girls.

Pro-Eating Disorder Communities on Social Networking Sites: A Content Analysis.

Social networks become a battleground on body image.

Photo Credits

Anne on Anne of Carversville

Natalie E. Davis on Flckr

Hannah Chenoweth on The DA Online

Natalie Davis on Flckr

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Dr. Tracy Bennett
Dr. Tracy Bennett