Eating Disorders and Obesity: A Comprehensive Handbook

By Christopher G. Fairburn; Kelly D. Brownell | Go to book overview
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Sociocultural Influences on Body
Image and Eating Disturbance


Sociocultural influences have long been suspected of promoting disturbances of body image and eating. These sociocultural pressures center around the idealization of thinness and physical fitness, and the disparagement of overweight, and they primarily originate from the mass media, family, and peers.


Sociologists have proposed two processes by which socialization agents may promote attitudes and behavior: social reinforcement and modeling. Social reinforcement refers to the process whereby people internalize attitudes and exhibit behaviors approved of by respected others. Within the domain of body image and eating disturbance, social reinforcement could be defined as comments or actions of others that serve to support and perpetuate the thin–ideal body image for women. For example, an adolescent girl may be more likely to pursue an ultraslender physique through dieting if she perceives the mass media as glorifying slenderness. Social reinforcement of the thin–ideal might also be manifest by socialization agents who are preoccupied by their weight, engage in dieting, or criticize overweight people. Theoretically, social reinforcement of the thin–ideal promotes an internalization of this ideal and thereby body dissatisfaction. These factors in turn are thought to result in dieting and negative affect, which increase the risk for the emergence of unhealthy weight control behaviors and eating pathology.

Modeling, on the other hand, refers to the process wherein individuals directly emulate behaviors they observe. For instance, a woman may be more likely to use laxatives for weight control if she sees a peer engage in this behavior. Socialization agents may also model preoccupation with body dimensions, excessive dieting, unhealthy weight-control


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Eating Disorders and Obesity: A Comprehensive Handbook
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