Genetics May Play a Role In Pressure To Be Thin

Any woman who reads magazines or watches television is confronted with images of super-thin models and actresses. For some women, viewing these images creates a feeling of dissatisfaction with their own bodies and can lead to an eating disorder.

Why is it that the media has such a powerful hold on some women while others are more resilient?

A new study from Michigan State University suggests that women who feel pressured to be thin after seeing media images that idealize thinness may be influenced by genetics. This is the first study to suggest that thin idealization (one of the early indicators of an eating disorder) may have genetic roots. According to Jessica Suisman, leader of the MSU study, the purpose of the study was to determine why some women buy into the media’s idealization of thin women while others are not affected. Women who buy into thin idealization can develop body dissatisfaction, become preoccupied with their weight and exhibit other symptoms of eating disorders.

Research psychologists at MSU surveyed 300 sets of female twins ages 12 to 22. Each twin was asked how much they would like to look like people in magazines, movies and TV. Both identical twins (who share all of their genes) and fraternal twins (who share only half their genes) were part of the study. The study found that identical twins were more likely to have similar reactions to the idealization of thin women in the media. The researchers also determined that nearly half the reason that women differ in their reactions to the idealization of thin women can be attributed to genetic differences.

In an interview with NPR, Suisman pointed out that although the study revealed that there is a genetic component related to the development of eating disorders, there is no single “eating disorder gene” that doctors can use to identify people at risk. Instead, multiple genes probably contribute. Most psychologists believe that genetics influence certain personality factors, such as perfectionism. A woman’s susceptibility to the thin-idealization may be caused by the same genes.