Academic journal article Journal of College Counseling

Challenging Stereotypes of Eating and Body Image Concerns among College Students: Implications for Diagnosis and Treatment of Diverse Populations

Academic journal article Journal of College Counseling

Challenging Stereotypes of Eating and Body Image Concerns among College Students: Implications for Diagnosis and Treatment of Diverse Populations

Article excerpt

The authors describe a study that was conducted to provide better understanding of eating and body image concerns among clients in university counseling centers. First, they explored the prevalence of such concerns among stereotype-congruent (White, heterosexual, female) and stereotype-incongruent groups (e.g., ethnic/sexual minorities, men). Then, because some groups may use compensatory behaviors not adequately captured by current definitions of eating disorders, they specifically examined body image disturbance among these groups.


National, population-based studies have suggested that eating disorders (as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed., text rev.; DSM-IV-TR; American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2000) affect between 1% and 3% of women and less than .5% of men (e.g., Hudson, Hiripi, Pope, & Kessler, 2007). In their severe forms, eating disorders can cause debilitating medical problems (e.g., heart and kidney failure, electrolyte imbalance, osteoporosis, reproductive problems) and can even be fatal. What is more, these disorders often are associated with other serious psychological problems: They have been found to be correlated with most other DSM-IV-TR diagnoses as well as social role impairment (Hudson et al., 2007).

Eating disorders as well as eating and body image concerns more generally are notoriously present in college student populations (Hill, 2002). Additionally, given that individuals suffering from eating and body image disturbance often experience a great deal of shame, these concerns can go underreported (Costin, 2006), making it all the more important for clinicians who work with college student populations to assess for eating and body image concerns and to follow up on any indications that a client may be experiencing such difficulties.

Stereotypes and Assumptions About Who Is at Risk

The stereotypical individual suffering from an eating disorder is a young (mid- to late teens, early 20s), White, heterosexual female. In fact, eating disorders have been referred to as "a Western culture-bound syndrome" and linked to an emphasis on the thin female beauty ideal (Smolak & Striegel-Moore, 2001). Women are thought to internalize the thin ideal, compare themselves with it, and experience dissatisfaction with their bodies, thus placing them at risk for eating disorders (e.g., Stice, 2002). In support of this theory, the authors of one study found a dose-response relationship between socioculrural emphasis on thinness and the incidence of eating pathology within a population (Anderson & DiDomenico, 1992). Others have found that, on an individual level, women who adhered to the European American standards of female beauty were at greater risk for disordered eating (e.g., Hooper & Garner, 1986).

Individuals who do not fit this stereotype (men, sexual minority women, women of color) have traditionally been seen as "immune" to (or at least at far lower risk for) eating disorders. Within Western culture, the ideal of male attractiveness has not involved thinness, so the thin ideal is thought not to apply to men. Furthermore, there has been less emphasis traditionally on men's appearance as compared to that of women; therefore, it has been assumed that men are less susceptible to body image disturbance associated with eating disorders. It also has been assumed that lesbians do not share the same standards of beauty as heterosexual women do, placing them at lower risk for eating pathology (Feldman & Meyer, 2007). Women of color have also been thought to be at lower risk for eating disorders for several reasons. First, many non-Western societies traditionally have not valued thinness and instead have valued plumpness (associated with fertility and economic security), so women from these cultural backgrounds may have received different messages about what constitutes female beauty (Harris & Kuba, 1997). …

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