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Is the Selfie Obsession Driving Eating Disorders?

Smartphones are a standard accessory these days and, thanks to their camera advancements, taking self-portraits – or “selfies” – has become somewhat of an obsession. But selfie pics aren’t just an exercise in vanity for some; numerous medical professionals have expressed concern that the culture surrounding this trend might be fueling a rise in eating disorders.

What’s a Picture Really Worth?

The Priory Group, which is one of the biggest providers of treatment for eating disorders in the U.K., has seen a 15 percent increase in adult patients over the last year, jumping from 463 to 535. Not surprisingly, young adults make up the majority of this population, but middle-aged patients have also nearly doubled.

Dr. Alex Yellowlees, medical director of the Priory Hospital in Glasgow, believes the selfie culture is responsible for sparking a “thin-spiration” trend on pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia websites. People who suffer from eating disorders post selfies to these sites, charting their “progress” in reaching unhealthy weight loss goals. Dr. Yellowlees also believes that smartphone apps that allow users to count their calorie intake are also contributing to the trend.

“These sites…may be not as prevalent as they once were, but they are definitely an active form of communication,” he said. “Some people will take repeated pictures of themselves at various stages of their illness, and send them to others. They want to… see for themselves, as it were, the progress they think they are making towards anorexia.”

Some people will take repeated pictures of themselves at various stages of their illness, and send them to others.-Dr. Alex Yellowlees

Eating Disorders and Self-Image

It’s important to point out that eating disorders don’t exclusively affect those who are dangerously thin. In fact, many people who used to be overweight or obese, but now hover at a “normal” weight, are also suffering from anorexia or bulimia.

An Australian study conducted last August examined 99 teenagers over a four-year period. When the study began in 2005, only 8 percent of the participants had an Eating Disorder Otherwise Not Specified (EDONS-Wt). By the time 2009 rolled around, however, that number rose to an astounding 47 percent.

While the EDONS-Wt group wasn’t underweight enough to be diagnosed with anorexia, they did display classic eating disorder symptoms including low pulse, distorted self-image and fear of weight gain.

“I was surprised at how similar they were not only physically, but also psychologically,” said lead researcher Melissa Whitelaw, a clinical specialist dietitian at The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, Australia. “Everything about them was anorexia except that they don’t look really skinny.”

Cynthia Bulik, director of the Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, also noted that “we are conditioned to think that the key feature of anorexia nervosa is a low body mass index. In fact, we miss a lot of eating disorders when focusing primarily on weight.”

Additional Reading: 3 Common Myths About Eating Disorders

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