Learn why biology is not destiny.

Friday, January 26, 2007


What Does Anorexia and the News Media Have In Common?

I saw a Reuters news article posted on Yahoo! about Brazillian supermodel Giselle telling the press she's thankful for not having the kind of family that might have caused her to develop anorexia nervosa, like one model in Brazil who died because of it. Here's a link for the article:

Wouldn't you know it! A few days later, another Reuters article was released trying to make sure the public doesn't start to believe parenting can contribute to developing anorexia, only this article was much worse than what Giselle had to say because it was written (unfortunately by a woman) to perpetuate biodeterminism. Here's the link for her article:

I know we'd all like the "scientific evidence" that journalists can be unbiased in their reports, but yes, once again, here's another article contributing to a biodeterministic understanding of human behavior with only a mere hint of what has been called the "stress-diathesis" model of mental illness (i.e., genes are only expressed under certain environmental conditions, which means the genes are not the only cause). The reporter at Reuters masquerading as an expert in psychological research trying to tell the public what causes human behavior claims there is "NO scientific evidence" to support that families are the cause of anorexia. She interviews a doctor whose research apparently found greater concordant rates in monozygotic (identical) twins compared to dizygotic (fraternal) twins, and now they're both ready to proclaim anorexia is being caused by genes.

So, parents who place their children into beauty pagents when they're as young as 5 years old don't instill into their children an inflated importance of appearances? Teen magazines and our society do nothing? Cultural expecations? --nada? The development of a schema somehow happens in the absence of a person's experience and just grows in the brain from a genetic source?

I hate it when I have to refer back to my textbooks from college because they're buried under some very heavy boxes in my closet. In one of the boxes I found a book that I knew discussed some of the research done on factors suspected of contributing to anorexia. A good book called Sex & Gender (Lips 1997) was written by a woman well aquanted with what a cultural-aware perspective on human behavior really means (in case you feel a book from 1997 is "outdated" or not).

Lips explains the most common cases of anorexia are with white, middle-class women under the age of 25, especially if modeling students, athletes, or dancers. About 30 years or so ago, a change began to occur pertaining to the cultural convention in America for what an attractive woman should look like, and this newfangled woman was much thinner compared to body types of earlier generations (due to everything from Barbie dolls to Playboy). In contrast to men, a woman's appearance is generally more subjected to expectations of the conventional ideal, and overweight women are perhaps given more severe condemnations than overweight men. There is a horrible stereotype that obese people are less smart, lonely, and otherwise undesireable, while the stereotype for slim attractive women is just about the opposite. Moreover, the conventional ideal for men is a much heavier, muscular type body. A woman is more expected to be "watching her figure" by dieting compared to men, and the many magazines and media products out there intended for women help to reinforce that a woman's appearance is (supposed to be) the most important part of her life. The very fact that the vast majority of cases of anorexia nervosa are with women while at the same time this same cohort must deal with the above mentioned conditions while trying to integrate into society should raise a serious question from anyone who is told there is simply some genetic vulnerability specifically in women that is the cause of anorexia.

Let's go all the way back to childhood for a second. As Piaget explains it, a female in any culture would begin to assimilate a way of life, i.e., cultural beliefs and expectations, through her experiences. The assimilated experiences and social learning creates what has been called a "schema" or the lens by which one views the world. The schema becomes like a filter for interpreting reality, such as how one views one's body as being too overweight according to mainstream cultural standards. To varying degrees, a person's schema can close off alternate interpretations of reality. Some people highly appraise their cultural standards much more than others, depending on the person's circumstances, goals, needs, or desires.

Do you see the picture that is emerging? Women may have similar brain structures and be a part of the same in-group (or culture) but each person can still have a unique experience. What happens in the cases of the women who develop anorexia nervosa? The most obvious thing is they begin to value their appearance beyond what is expected of them, much like an overachiever. They may also develop what should be considered a phobia--the fear of becoming fat and unattractive. When the fear goes beyond a certain threshold it is manifested by an eating disorder like anorexia.

According to Neal and Davidson in the book Abnormal Psychology (1999), to directly observe families and find no abnormal disturbances does NOT negate the child's own perception, but it's only direct observation of the families of those diagnosed with anorexia that is lacking. Research relies on self-reports. When parents answer questionaires indicating they think there is nothing wrong in the family, it doesn't mean the child's perception is wrong, such as in the cases the child feels there is poor communication but parents do not. One of the most common similarities found with women diagnosed with anorexia is that while they report high levels of conflict in the family (Kent and Clopton, 1992) their parents do not, and this may be some evidence of disturbed family relationships (Humphrey, 1986). What we have is mixed evidence that parenting plays some undetermined role, not NO evidence as the journalist flat out lied about.

Moreover, the parents of a woman diagnosed with anorexia are part of the same society enforcing the codes of behavior women are supposed to follow. The extent to which they conform to the convention can very well contribute to what they may expect from their daughter. So, in regard to the claim that there is no evidence that family life or parenting is part of the cause for anorexia, all you need to do is find any study that shows parents are either reinforcing gender roles and differentially treating daughters compared to their sons. It's an indirect influence. Some parents start their differential gender treatment even before the baby is born (e.g., painting the room pink instead of blue), and children can take gender stereotypes to the extreme (Lips 1997). I don't expect the journalist to see it this way though because she obviously wants to isolate family life as outside the scope of sociocultural factors and decide for all of us that the society a woman lives in is less important compared to some unknown and supposed female gene.

Let's consider the proposterous argument reflected in the language of the second Reuters article: Genes play a "bigger" role than environment. How could you possibly do scientific research to validate such a claim without knowing all the variables involved? Do we just draw the dividing line and say nature (genes) is now 75% responsible for anorexia and environment is maybe 25%? Where would such numbers validly be derived? It's much more about what one "expert" WANTS to believe, and much less about all the available research you can find. You can find evidence to support whichever position you WANT to believe. The research that finds anorexia "runs in families" tells us very little about any possible genetic links because it doesn't control for the social learning that's a big part of family life including sibling relationships, parent-parent relationship and parent-child relationship. Twin studies look for "concordance" among each pair (i.e., both twins are diagnosed with anorexia) and when the monozygotic twins have a higher concordance rate compared to dizygotic twins, there are doctors and others who want to jump for joy and proclaim, AH HA! Now we have the evidence that it's really BIOLOGY that causes anorexia! However, this is seriously misleading the public. The bio-related (twin) studies are not conclusive, not easily replicated, and certainly DO NOT control for all possible cultural variables and the effects of social learning, unless the twins were raised in utter isolation from each other. The only identical twin study that can do this requires one twin to be raised in a completely different culture than the other twin, and each culture cannot have the same ideals when it comes to a woman's body type.

There's another flaw inherent in twin studies. Whether you have a twin or not, the brain does not develop in isolation of social learning experiences. The assumption in twin studies is that if the twins were reared apart this controls for the environment's influence, but that's not necessarily the case. All siblings have bonding experiences with each other, but twins have a special bonding experience. Twins are literally told over and over from an early age that they are just like each other. So, they begin to learn they are expected to look and act the same. Every twin study out there has this as an uncontrolled extraneous variable.

Research that has at it's inception the purpose of finding the biological "underpinnings" of anorexia are coming from the leading "experts" that managed to get their studies published and supported by other groups who also support the leading approach to mental illness, which is the MEDICAL MODEL and the MEDICAL INDUSTRY. They want to a) convince everyone that treating behavioral disorders is the same as treating a disease like diabetes, and b) offer to the public some form of expensive patented gene therapy or new prescription drug that will somehow compensate for those bad genes telling you that you look fat when you look in the mirror despite being wafer thin, and you know there are people who would be willing to take the drugs no matter what the side effects are. Despite risks of side effects (such as what's officially being called "Serotonin Syndrome"), many women diagnosed with anorexia receive anti-depressants for treatment despite the symptoms of major depression not necessarily involving weight loss. (In fact, depression can be associated with weight gain). Serotonin level is only a biological correlate of both depression and anorexia and not necessarily the root cause of anything.

One more point regarding studies that involve parents of women diagnosed with anorexia. Are you going to find parents with children who ended up with an eating disorder waiting in line to volunteer for a study trying to determine if parenting style contributes to a disorder? On the contrary, you will more likely find parents standing in line to sign up for research that is searching for some genetic link because this takes all focus off any possible blame that could be assigned to how parenting may have contributed to development of an eating disorder. If more and more evidence surfaces that anorexia is hopelessly "in the genes" it supposedly provides the evidence that parents, the fashion industry, etc., can all be considered innocent bystanders when another woman is diagnosed with anorexia, right? Wrong.

It deeply saddens me when I see women contribute to the perpetuation of their own oppression. Our patriarchal society tells women what they are supposed to look like as well as the consequences for not complying. Parents can fool themselves all they want believing that they don't contribute to the development of their child's behavior. Need vindication? Just find all the research that supports the medical model's hypothesis that genes are automatically making a person act a certain way. Then we no longer have to be held responsible for our children or the quality of our society. They will tell me I am ignoring the research, and I will continue to tell them they are ignoring two things: a) the limitations of the scientific method as it pertains to human behavior and b) the bias of a medical model that gives biological factors (and the opinions of bio-experts) the highest appraisal.

In case you forgot what biodeterminism is, you can go here:


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