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Eating Disorders and Identity: Cultural Influences on Teenage Girls

Our culture is part of the core of our identity. The world around us influences everything from our style to our beliefs. Eating disorders and identity are closely interrelated. Recovery from an eating disorder requires one to understand how their beliefs impact their relationship with food and body image. 

Introduction to the Impact of Cultural Identity and Eating Disorders

Cultural identity reflects the cultural characteristics with which one identifies. Many people may have several influences that shape their sense of self and belonging. Some characteristics that shape one’s cultural identity include [1]:

  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Geographical location
  • Language
  • Beliefs
  • Religion
  • Gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Cuisine
  • Physical or mental abilities
  • Age
  • Influences from music, art, or literature 

Cultural factors shape a young girl’s sense of self. Her influences growing up create a foundation for her beliefs and values. When these values empower her to eat culturally normal foods and embrace her natural beauty, she will likely grow up with a healthy view of food and body image.

Many cultures emphasize certain beauty standards and may even have certain expectations for appearance. Some practices related to appearance, such as certain clothing, hairstyles, or jewelry, can help girls feel connected with their culture. However, beauty standards focused on certain body features may negatively impact a teen girl’s sense of self. 

For example, many cultures value certain body sizes and bone structures. Girls who are not genetically built with these features may develop a negative body image.

Exploring Cultural Pressures and Beauty Standards

There are unique beauty standards specific to each culture. In many cultures, teen girls feel pressured to maintain a smaller body size. There also may be certain physical features that are praised within certain groups. Some of these are related to bone structure, such as high cheekbones for girls and height for boys. 

Cultural standards may also seem contradictory. For example, some cultures may emphasize thinness but also applaud when specific body parts are larger or “curvy.”

Boys may feel pressure to gain larger muscles, while girls may feel pressure to maintain small but “defined” muscles. 

A significant issue with these messages is that most people have minimal if any, control over their physical appearance. While teens can change their hair color, they can’t change their bone structure. 

Physical aspects like size, weight distribution, or muscle mass are largely influenced by genetics. However, teens are often surrounded by messages from the world around them that they can change their appearance with enough work, dedication, and sacrifice. 

This misinformation can lead teens to develop unhealthy ways of coping with poor body image. They may begin engaging in disordered eating or exercise behaviors to try to change the way they look. 

Strategies for Parents and Caregivers

Self-awareness and education are essential tools for understanding the intersection of identity and eating disorders. There are several practical ways that parents can help foster a healthy self-identity in teenage girls. 

Examine your family’s beliefs about beauty. Families that praise certain body shapes may be inadvertently sending teens the message that their body needs to look a certain way. Avoid making comments about anyone else’s physical appearance in front of your teen.

Model positive self-talk and healthy body image. Parents can set the example for a healthy self-identity by not talking negatively about their bodies in front of their teens. Teach them how to care for their bodies in a manner that is empowering and sustainable. 

For example, parents who exercise regularly can talk about how it helps them feel stronger, sleep better, or prevent pain from an old injury. All of these qualities can show teens how to maintain healthy behaviors without an aesthetic focus. 

Teach your teen to recognize cultural influences that negatively affect their body image. Talking negatively about one’s body or conversing about diet trends becomes the norm in some social circles. Help your teen recognize when these normalized conversations are harmful. 

Equip your teen with tools to cope with cultural norms that may be damaging to their relationship with food. Parents can help teens by practicing how to change the subject when their peers start talking about dieting. They can also show how to set healthy boundaries if someone comments on their body. Being prepared can help teens confidently manage uncomfortable or triggering situations.

Empower your teen to participate in activities that will develop healthy self-esteem. Kids build resilience when they are immersed in experiences where they can learn for themselves that they are capable of overcoming challenges. 

Sports are commonly used as a way to boost self-esteem. However, participation in sports is often not recommended during eating disorder recovery. There are plenty of other activities that can build resilience in teens, including the following: 

  • Art, such as painting, drawing, or ceramics
  • Music, such as learning to play an instrument 
  • Photography
  • Writing short stories or poetry
  • Sewing, knitting, or crocheting
  • Babysitting 
  • Volunteering
  • Speech and debate
  • Creating a small business

It may take time for teens to disconnect their identity from their eating disorder. Overall, the goal is to help teens find meaning apart from their physical appearance. 

The Role of Cultural Competency in Healthcare and Treatment

It is important for individuals seeking eating disorder treatment to work with practitioners who understand cultural nuances. Religious beliefs and societal influences shape one’s worldview and, therefore, play a significant role in their recovery. 

For example, those who prefer cultural foods that are less common to their geographical location should talk with their treatment team to create an individualized meal plan. This can help teens learn how to incorporate balanced eating patterns while continuing to honor their cultural identity. 

Individual therapy can help teens differentiate between eating disorder thoughts and cultural norms to bring balance and healing. Treatment options like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) can help teens shift to healthier thought patterns and promote emotional regulation skills. 

Our compassionate staff are sensitive to the intersection of eating disorders and cultural identity. Toledo Center provides individualized care for teens of all beliefs, cultures, and backgrounds.

To learn more, contact us at 419-885-8800. 


  1. Migration, cultural bereavement and cultural identity – PMC (nih.gov)

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