What Causes An 11-Year-Old Girl To Develop An Eating Disorder?

A new study pinpoints a possible driving factor.

Academic studies can be fascinating... and totally confusing. So we decided to strip away all of the scientific jargon and break them down for you

The Background

It was estimated that the number of hospitalizations for eating disorders in children under 12 increased by 119 percent between 1999 and 2006. While this demographic accounts for less than 5 percent of eating disorder cases overall, the uptick in childhood eating disorders, particularly among young girls, is cause for concern for both parents and researchers searching for what might be driving kids to such unhealthy extremes. Past research has linked high BMI with disordered eating behaviors, like the use of diet pills or laxatives, fasting, over-exercising and vomiting. Teasing and bullying have also been shown to contribute to eating disorders in young girls. Then, of course, there's the abundant messaging in pop culture that tells women of all ages that they must be thin.

In a new study, researchers from the University of Houston looked at how all of these variables interact with one another and how they could drive overweight young girls to exhibit disordered eating behaviors.

The Setup

Researchers surveyed 135 girls who were all about 11 years old (give or take a year) and had a high percentage of body fat. Most of them -- 85 percent -- were classified as obese, while 19 percent were considered overweight. Among the sample, 78 percent self-identified as Hispanic and 16 percent as African American (the remaining 6 percent didn't specify).

The girls in the sample first completed surveys that measured their desire to be thinner, as well as how much weight-related teasing they got from peers in the past year. The survey also measured how often the girls engaged in disordered eating behaviors, like dieting ("cutting back on eating, starving, skipping meals, exercising, and eating less sweets or fatty foods"), emotional eating, binging and purging. Once they completed the survey, the girls had their height, weight and body fat percentage measured.

The Findings

The surveys revealed that girls with higher body-fat levels were more likely to desire to be thinner and more likely to suffer from teasing by peers about their weight. Those findings are troubling on their own, of course, but the researchers also found a strong link between being teased by peers about weight and disordered eating behaviors, like excessive dieting, emotional eating, binging and purging. Without the teasing, there was no link between high body fat or a desire to be thinner with disordered eating behaviors. 

Past research has also linked teasing with eating disorders in young girls. But this is the first study to focus in on an almost entirely obese sample of mostly Hispanic and African-American girls -- a demographic that has been shown to have a particularly high risk of becoming overweight or obese.

The Takeaway

This study suggests that, at the very least, some young girls internalize the messages they're getting about their bodies and may end up engaging in unhealthy behaviors as a result. And who's to say that girls who aren't engaging in disordered eating behaviors at 11 won't develop such patterns in adolescence because they were teased as children? That said, it's important to keep in mind that eating disorders aren't a huge problem for young girls overall -- eating disorders are much, much more prevalent in adolescents (whether or not the seed was planted years earlier).

To combat body negativity, the researchers suggest that educators encourage girls to engage in healthier coping mechanisms for this type of bullying, and employ a zero tolerance for weight-related teasing -- especially the kind directed at girls who are already overweight.

Controlling the negative messages children get from peers is certainly a daunting task, and it will likely take time and collective education before society is less hostile toward bodies that don't fit within the thin ideal. But studies like these might help raise awareness of the concrete problems that fat-shaming causes. And if we can take steps toward creating a world that doesn't start attacking women's bodies before they even reach puberty, why wouldn't we at least try? 

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