Anorexia is a socially transmitted disease and appears to be more prevalent in countries such as France where women are thinner than average, according to new research from the London School of Economics and Political Science.
This first ever economic analysis of anorexia, using a sample of nearly 3,000 young women across Europe, concludes that peer group pressure is the most significant influence on self-image and the development of anorexia. The findings endorse government intervention to compensate for social pressure on women, regulating against the use of underweight models in the fashion industry and in women's magazines, for example.
The research, by LSE economist Dr Joan Costa-Font and Professor Mireia Jofre-Bonet of City University, is due to be published in the academic journal Economica later this year.
Dr Costa-Font explained: "Policy interventions to try to curb eating disorders are increasingly being used, such as the regulation of the fashion industry and advertisements, as well as support campaigns through social networks and the media. In some European countries, there has been increasing debate over the conditions, especially since the Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston died from anorexia in 2006.
"More generally, it is becoming increasingly apparent that standards of physical appearance are important and powerful motivators of human behaviour, especially regarding health and food. Excessive preoccupation with self-image is regarded as a contributing factor to the proliferation of food disorders, especially among young women. Anorexia, together with other food disorders such as bulimia nervosa, can be characterised by a distorted body image accompanied by an eating obsession.
"We found evidence that social pressure, through peer shape, is a determinant in explaining anorexia nervosa and a distorted self-perception of one's own body."
The study examined 2,871 women aged 15 to 34 across Europe. The average BMI by country is about 25 for all ages and 23 for those between 15 and 34 years of age. The country with highest average BMI for all women was United Kingdom (25.98) and the lowest average BMI was that of France (23.34); for young women the highest average BMI was that of UK (25.05) and the lowest average BMI was that of Italy (21.40). The country with the highest prevalence of female anorexia was Austria (1.55 per cent), followed by France (1.42 per cent). The lowest prevalence was in Northern Ireland and the Netherlands.
It concludes: "In the light of this study, government intervention to adjust individual biases in self-image would be justified to curb or at least prevent the spread of a potential epidemic of food disorders. The distorted self-perception of women with food disorders and the importance or the peer effects may prompt governments to take action to influence role models and compensate for social pressure on women driving the trade-off between ideal weight and health."
NOTES TO EDITORS
To interview Dr Costa-Font, please email J.Costa-Font@lse.ac.uk
To read the full research paper Anorexia, Body Image and Peer Effects: Evidence from a Sample of European Women, go to: http://cep.lse.ac.uk/pubs/download/dp1098.pdf
For any other information, please contact Joanna Bale, LSE Press Office, firstname.lastname@example.org, 07831 609679 or 0207 955 7060.