Research & Insights

Reducing the Stigma of Eating Disorders with the Right Message

Eating disorders can be devastating illnesses, and matters are made worse for individuals with an eating disorder by social stigmas which suggest they are to blame for their disease. But a new study out of Bond University in Australia suggests that highlighting the biological and genetic components of eating disorders may reduce the illness’s stigma.

Psychologists Amy Jean Bannatyne and Lisa Marie Abel conducted an experiment using 161 university students from a school in Australia. They described their results in a 2015 issue of the Australian Journal of Psychology.

The experiment involved students who had never been diagnosed with an eating disorder. The students were randomly assigned to read one of four vignettes regarding the causes of anorexia nervosa (AN). The biological vignette focused on biological and genetic factors for the disease, such as heritability, and the presence of specific genes. The socio-cultural vignette discussed factors such as “media influence [and] societal body image ideals.” The environmental vignette featured influences like “modelling of dieting behaviors [and] trauma.” Finally, the multifactorial condition discussed how biological, environmental and social factors combine to cause AN.

After reading the vignettes, the students answered questions about the causes of AN, their opinions of people with AN, and the how much stigma they felt towards people with AN (measured by asking whether they felt suffers were “selfish/vain, weak, and [to] blame [for their illness].” Participants were also asked whether they would be willing to sign a petition which encouraged private health providers to fully cover AN the same way the cover other illnesses.

Bannatyne and Abel found that, overall, the students tended to believe socio-cultural factors were stronger in producing AN than biological factors and environmental factors. They also ascribed negative characteristics to individuals with anorexia, such as “boring, weak, [and] insecure,” and “were ambivalent about whether individuals with AN were to blame for their condition.”

However, students who read the biological vignette were less likely to blame individuals with anorexia for their condition, particularly when compared to the students who read the socio-cultural vignette. Indeed, “participants who viewed a socio-cultural explanation of AN were less willing to register for an AN advocacy activity…compared to individuals in all other…conditions.”

Bannatyne and Abel suggest that these findings “provide further preliminary evidence that wider dissemination of research findings through popular media regarding the biological and genetic causes of AN may bring to people’s attention that the disorder is not solely determined by socio-cultural factors.” In turn, this may result in “a corresponding decrease in the amount of blame-based stigmazation AN suffers receive.”

The caution, though, that biological explanations can sometimes increase stigma, as people begin to see suffers as genetically different from people without the disease. “Therefore it is important to consider any unintended consequences prior to commencing education campaigns highlighting the role of genetics in AN,” they advise.

Australian Journal of Psychology

Amy Jean Bannatyne and Lisa Marie Abel, Bond University, Queensland, Australia

Posted: November 23, 2015
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