Eating Disorders and Societal Pressures

Eating disorders are serious, potentially life-threatening mental illnesses that are caused by a combination of genetics, personality traits, and cultural and social factors. Social pressures are often one of the more prominent contributing factors in developing an eating disorder. Social pressures differ from culture to culture. This article will primarily focus on societal pressures within the United States, but some pressures may also be applicable to other world cultures.


Societal Beauty Standards

American society emphasizes the importance of being thin by idolizing an unrealistic beauty standard. Because this standard is unachievable, a person can feel stressed when they are unable to reach the thin ideal. This struggle can have detrimental effects on a person’s body image, which can cause them to take extreme measures in order to conform to Western beauty standards. These extreme measures often take the form of an eating disorder.



The media plays a large role in perpetuating the American beauty standard and thin ideal. Movies, TV,  magazines, celebrities, and models all contribute to the way beauty standards are represented in the United States. Western fashion models are typically extremely thin, and their images appear in many different forms such as billboards, commercials, and magazines. From a young age, children are exposed to these images, which influences how they perceive the ideal body shape and weight. Nearly 40% of elementary girls report wanting to lose weight after looking at pictures in magazines.1 Sometimes this desire to lose weight can cause a person to engage in unhealthy behaviors to achieve their ideal weight, such as extreme dieting, restricting calories, binge eating, and purging. These unhealthy behaviors can then escalate and lead to an eating disorder.1  


Social Media

In the modern era, social media dominates many people’s social lives. Social networking sites like Instagram often perpetuate unrealistic beauty standards. Many people compare themselves to other users on Instagram, especially Instagram Models and fitness accounts that promote unhealthy lifestyles. A study revealed that just 30 minutes spent scrolling through Instagram can cause a person to negatively fixate on their weight.1


Family Pressures

Pressures from family members to remain thin and lose weight can lead to an increased risk of developing an eating disorder. Nearly 40% of people with an eating disorder report feeling pressure to lose weight by their own family members.2 Weight shaming in the home can lead to an increased risk for binge eating disorder, weight gain, and extreme weight control measures.2


Relationship Pressures

People may also feel pressured to conform to a certain body standards when involved in an intimate relationship. Naturally, our bodies change over time, but some people may feel pressured to remain at a certain weight, or even lose wweight, over the entire duration of the relationship. Some people also feel pressure to conform to societal body standards when trying to impress potential partners. These pressures to be thin could lead to extreme dieting or even an eating disorder.6

Intimate Partner Pressures

In some intimate relationships, a person may be directly pressured by their partner to lose weight or stay thin. However, in other relationships, a person might pressure themselves to maintain a certain weight to live up to what they perceive to be their partner’s expectations. A study at Florida State University (FSU) found that people who feel less attractive than their partners feel more pressured to diet and be thin than people who feel more attractive than their partner.6 The researchers concluded that when a person feels as though they have fallen short of their partner’s expectations, they will be more likely to diet and have an increased risk of developing an eating disorder. Another FSU study found that people may over perceive their partner’s expectations and, as a result, may resort to extreme dieting, which increases their risk for an eating disorder.6

Impressing New and Potential Partners

Finding a potential new intimate partner can be an exciting time; however, people may also feel the need to conform to unrealistic beauty standards to attract a partner. Dating apps like Tinder may increase the pressure to conform to these standards. When potential partners are judging you solely based on your appearance in photos, there is an increased pressure to look your best and appear thin in the photos. Several studies have found that actively using dating apps is associated with lower levels of body satisfaction and self-confidence compared to people who do not use the apps, because they feel pressured to conform to unrealistic beauty standards.7 Pressures to impress a new partner can cause a person to attempt to lose or maintain their weight through unhealthy dieting, which could increase their risk of developing an eating disorder.



Some sports, such as wrestling and dance, place an added emphasis on a certain weight.5 Wrestlers  must remain in a specific weight class and often resort to significantly cutting calories or consuming well over the healthy amount of calories in a short amount of time. These unhealthy practices have led to a higher rate of eating disorders within wrestling compared to other sports. Dancers have the highest rates of eating disorders compared to all other sports.5 The dance world idealizes thinness, and it is not uncommon for dance instructors to encourage their students to be as thin as possible. While wrestlers and dancers are heavily impacted by unrealistic body standards, many other athletes are also at an increased risk for developing an eating disorder.5



Bullying that consists of body shaming can lead to lowered self-confidence, poor body image, and an increased risk of developing an eating disorder.2 Body shaming is defined as being negatively judged by one’s physical appearance. For example, people who are overweight may experience body shaming by their peers. Sometimes this body shaming can cause a person to take extreme measures to lose weight, possibly resulting in an eating disorder. Many people struggling with eating disorders report feeling pressured to lose weight by their peers. About 94% of females and 65% of males have experienced body shaming. Body shaming and bullying is a common contributing factor in eating disorder; nearly 65% of people suffering from an eating disorder reported bullying as a contributing factor of their disorder.2



If you think you may have an eating disorder or if you think you know someone with an eating disorder, there are many resources available. Doctors can provide a variety of resources such as referrals, pamphlets, books, websites, and more. Other U.S.-based online help centers and hotlines include the following:3

  • Eating Disorders Victoria Helpline Phone Number: (300) 550-236

  • ANAD Help Line Phone Number: (630) 577-1330

  • ANAD Help Line Email:

  • Support Group Finder:

  • NEDA Hotline: (800) 931-2237

  • NEDA Crisis Text Line: text “NEDA” to 741741 to connect to a trained volunteer


Concluding Remarks

Societal standards and pressures relating to body image can have detrimental effects on the mental health of individuals. An extreme desire to conform to unrealistic standards can lead to an increased risk for developing an eating disorder. It is important to seek help as soon as possible if you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder. The chance of full recovery increases the sooner you seek help.



  1. “Unrealistic Social Media Portrayals May Contribute to Body Dissatisfaction.” National Eating Disorders Association, 20 Feb. 2018.
  2. “Bullying & Weight Shaming.” National Eating Disorders Association, 26 Feb. 2018.
  3. “Risk Factors.” National Eating Disorders Association, 6 Mar. 2018.
  4. “Weight Stigma.” National Eating Disorders Association, 22 Feb. 2018.
  5. “Eating Disorders & Athletes.” National Eating Disorders Association, 27 Apr. 2018.
  6. “Women with Handsome Husbands May Feel More Pressure to Be Thin.” Psych Central, 15 July 2017.
  7. Oaklander, Mandy. “What Dating Apps like Tinder Do To Self-Esteem.” Time, Time, 4 Aug. 2016.

Last Updated: 7 May 2018.