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Eating Disorders and Social Learning Theory
This essay discusses and defines both eating disorders and social learning theory, and how SLT might be used to help those who suffer with these diseases.
Eating disorders afflict millions of Americans, and they are serious, even life-threatening. They are classified as psychiatric disorders, and actually have little to do with food, but rather with underlying issues of self-esteem and other emotional states. They are a significant health concern.
This paper explores eating disorders, social learning theory, and how we might use the theory to help a sufferer develop a more positive body image.
II Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are most common in adolescents; they are found 10 times more often in girls than in boys; and though they are found in all ethnic groups, they are most common in whites who live in industrialized nations. The most common forms of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and nonspecified eating disorder. Anorexia occurs in two forms: restricting type and binge/purge type. Bulimia two is found in two forms: purging and nonpurging. (Pritts, PG).
These are very serious conditions: the risk of young women developing anorexia is 0.5 to 1 percent, but of those who develop the condition, death results in an estimated 4 to 10 percent of sufferers. (Pritts, PG). This is a considerable number of young women dying because they despise their appearance.
Statistics reveal how widespread weight concerns are in young people: “In 1999, the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey (7) reported that 58 percent of students in the United States had exercised to lose weight, and 40 percent of students had restricted caloric intake in an attempt to lose weight. … The distinction between normal dieting and disordered eating is based on whether the patient has a distorted body image.” (Pritts, PG).
The last three words of that sentence, “distorted body image,” give us a clue as to one of the basic concerns of those who treat this disease: the fact that sufferers are overly concerned with their appearance, which they see as undesirable, even grotesque or obese, even when their weight is within normal limits, or even too low. We can examine the influences on our young people that make them susceptible to these beliefs, and we can also see how social learning theory might be both a partial cause, and potential cure, of eating disorders.
III Social Learning Theory
Social learning theory is often called “modeling” theory and is probably most closely connected with Albert Bandura. Bandura is a well-respected scientist who began his career as a behaviorist, but modified his approach so that he is generally considered a cognitivist. (Boeree, PG). As such, he considers that behavior, environment and psychological processes unite to form personality. It is his experiment in behavior, known as the “Bobo the Clown” studies, that concern us here, for it shows how powerful modeling is.
The “Bobo” experiment is as follows: Bobo was/is one of those large inflatable dolls with a round, weighted bottom that bobs back up when you knock it down. Bandura filmed one of his students, a young woman, “beating up” Bobo. She punched the doll, yelling “sockeroo” as she did so; kicked it, hit it with hammers, sat on it and generally beat it to death, yelling aggressively as she did so.
Bandura showed the film to a kindergarten class, which, predictably, loved it. The children were then taken into another room where there were various toys, including the Bobo doll. They attacked the doll, punching it and yelling “sockeroo,” sitting on it, hitting it with hammers and so on. They imitated, as closely as possible, the actions of Bandura’s student. (Boeree, PG).
The significance of this is that the students were not prompted in any way, nor “coached,” nor did they approach the doll in guided “steps”; meaning they were not encouraged to treat something with mild aggression, then become progressively more violent until they attacked the doll. They beat up the Bobo without further prompting, with the film the only instigation for their actions.
This startling result illustrates the power images have over children; it’s fair to conclude that images have power over adolescents as well. Even mature adults sometimes “model” their behavior after something they’ve seen. It is thus important to see what sort of body images adolescents see, and how these images may lead them to form poor self-images.
It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that television and film have a huge impact on the way adolescents see themselves; there have been literally hundreds of studies done on the influence of the media on society. We know now that young women often feel they should look like the actors they see on the screen; they don’t understand that those actors spend a great deal of money and time on their appearance, such that maintaining their looks is in effect a full-time job for them. Their faces and bodies are their ticket to employment, and so they spend hours in the gym, at the hairdressers, with their nutritionists, etc. Only these extreme measures enable them to maintain their appearance, and such things are beyond the means of average people. In addition, the body types that many of the stars maintain meet the clinical definition of anorexia—they are below a healthy body weight. Still, these ultra-thin, ultra-chic women have become the desirable standard in American society, and young women are literally dying to look like them.
Adolescents are particularly susceptible to this sort of pressure. Their bodies are just developing and they are trying to form their identity. They may be confused about their sexuality, and peer pressure is intense. Less attractive (whatever “attractive” means at the time) girls find themselves on the sidelines while boys pursue the more attractive girls for dates; they are not popular with their own sex, either. Cliques form, and the overweight teens are usually left out. It’s a very tough time of life, and it’s easy to see why so many kids retreat to fantasy, and attempt to look like their screen idols.
This is the same type of modeling that we saw in Bandura’s Bobo experiments: the adolescents see something on the screen that they find desirable, and seek to emulate it, doing so uncritically and without further prompting. Now we should consider how we might use modeling to replace these unattainable body types with more desirable results.
One source has some tips for parents who want to help their children overcome the trap of following inappropriate models. First, they should be aware that eating disorders are widespread and present a real danger to their children. Second, parents should understand that eating disorders are not about food, but about something else. They need to discover the real issue. Third, discourage dieting; it can lead to “disordered eating.” Parents should make sure that adolescents understand that “… any weight that takes a superhuman effort to maintain is probably not a healthy weight. Serve as a role model yourself by conveying a balanced attitude toward food and by not dieting.” (“Foster Healthy Body Image in Your Child,” PG).
Additionally, parents should never place any food “off limits” unless it’s moldy or spoiled, or the child is allergic to it. The parents should explain that some foods are more nutritious than others, but that none are “bad for you.” This strategy takes away the alluring power of food and makes it what it is: fuel for the body.
Next, parents should help their children realize their bodies are good by telling them so, and by not disparaging their own bodies. And finally parents should seek help for their children if necessary, rather than denying a problem exists. (“Foster Healthy Body Image in Your Child,” PG). There are two specific suggestions here that relate directly to the idea of modeling: parents serving as a role model with regard to dieting; and parents not disparaging their own bodies.
As we’ve seen, social learning theory or modeling tells us that behavior is imitative, as witness the Bobo experiment. Therefore, it’s imperative that adolescents see other images than those of the ultra-thin, super-chic men and women in the media. It’s particularly insidious that no one ever addresses this issue directly in the shows. By that I mean that none of the characters ever say to the other, “You’re too thin, that can’t be healthy.” Their extreme appearance is simply taken as the norm, and when none of the fictional characters remarks on it, it becomes the standard. Parents have to provide a different image and encourage their children to follow it.
The first point is the one about not dieting. I don’t believe the suggestion is that people who need to lose weight avoid doing so, but instead that parents put food in perspective. Weight loss should take place, if necessary, in the context of an over-all balanced eating plan, which in turn is part of a well-balanced life. In such a life, food does not assume the proportions it does to those with eating disorders. They model the behavior of those for whom food is fuel, nothing more; and who have a good relationship with it. They learn to eat properly, neither too much nor too little; they learn nutrition; and they learn to maintain a healthy weight by making reasonable food choices. And they learn all this by modeling those who are already living a life in accordance with these principles.
The second behavior that parents can use to encourage adolescents to model them is a negative behavior: they should not make remarks about how dissatisfied they are with their own bodies. They should provide models of people who are happy as they are. (Again I would suggest that those who are morbidly obese should lose weight for health reasons, but once they have reached a reasonable weight, they should let their children see that their target weight, and not extreme thinness, is proper for them.)
It would be nice to think that the entertainment media would understand the tremendous harm they are doing to millions of young people and hire people who actually look like real people, but that’s probably unlikely to happen. But for much of the early part of their lives, before they develop significant psychological problems, parents are the greatest influence on their children. If they will use social learning theory to provide models for their children, they may well be able to show by example that normal weight and good eating habits are the foundations of good health. (This paper doesn’t address those adolescents who have serious psychological problems that are reflected in their eating disorders, but suggests that having alternative role models to the stick-thin media people will at least provide a choice that is currently lacking.)
Eating disorders plague nearly 8 million Americans, most of them adolescents. They are serious, even life-threatening, illnesses, and I believe may in part be caused by social learning theory, in which youngsters imitate the unhealthy habits of media people.
By using the same mechanism of social learning theory (modeling) that has proven injurious, I believe it’s possible to provide other models for adolescents; in particular their parents, who provide examples of people who eat sensibly, do not diet, exercise properly and make food only a part of their lives, not the focus of the whole. Thus social learning theory can be used to help adolescents as well.
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