Unfortunately, eating disorders are still all too common among teenage girls, and it turns out that where a girl goes to school might have a big impact on how likely she is to develop one. A new study found that eating disorders are more common in girls who attend schools with more girls than boys — and who attend schools where more parents are university educated. And while the study might not be universally applicable — it was based solely on data from Sweden — it still raises some interesting questions.
In a new study, researchers from Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Oxford University, and other universities in the U.K. looked at routine data collected from Sweden to determine how common eating disorders were among girls in different academic settings. They found that overall, about 5.7 percent of girls had some form of eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder, among others. That's roughly one girl in every class of 20 students.
But girls in some schools were more likely to have eating disorders than others. Even after controlling for individual factors that might make a single student more likely to develop an eating disorder, such as birth weight and the number of siblings a girl had, researchers found that girls who attended schools where A) the number of female students was greater than the number of male students, and B) a high proportion of the parents had university educations, were more likely to display disordered eating.
It's important to note that since this data comes exclusively from Sweden, it's unclear how applicable it might be to other countries. After all, disordered eating may be tied up in any number of personal and cultural factors that can vary widely from country to country. Despite the similarities many Western schools tend to have, going to school in Sweden is probably not the same as going to school in the U.K., or the United States, or anywhere else; as such, it's hard to generalize. However, the researchers do think there are some important takeaways from this study, if only to show how much more research is needed on the subject.
"For a long time clinicians in the field have noted that they seem to see more young people with eating disorders from some schools than others, but this is the first empirical evidence that this is the case," Dr Helen Bould, a child and adolescent psychiatrist who led the study, said in a release. She added:
Unfortunately, this study can't tell us what it is about schools that affects the rates of eating disorders: It might be an unintentional effect of the aspirational culture of some schools that makes eating disorders more likely. ... On the other hand, it could be that some schools are better than others at identifying eating disorders in their students and ensuring they get diagnosed and treated.
So even though it's unclear if the same factors that might put girls at increased risk in Sweden would put girls at the same risk elsewhere, it seems likely that schools could indeed be a risk factor in other countries. All of which are things that we should be looking into.
Eating disorders are most common in teens and young adults — 95 percent of students with eating disorders are between the age of 12 and 26, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) — and studies have also found that most teenagers with eating disorders go without treatment. Properly identifying risk factors could be one of the key ways that public health officials can put a dent in those statistics, ensuring that students are properly diagnosed and get the help they need.
It's possible that attending a school made up mostly of girls or a school where most parents are college-educated really are universal risk factors. Maybe when girls outnumber boys, they feel more intense pressure to be "perfect" in order to stand out from their peers. Maybe schools where most parents went to college expect more from their students, which can be stressful and lead students to try exercising control via food.
The most important point, however, is that what school you attend really can have an impact on your chances of developing an eating disorder, and understanding why that is could be crucial to making sure fewer girls develop them in the future.