Perfectionism and eating disorders: A complex issue

Two aspects of perfectionism are involved in body dissatisfaction and the development of eating disorders, according to a study of over a thousand women published this week in BioMed Central’s open access journal, Journal of Eating Disorders. Adaptive perfectionism is high standards driving a person towards achieving a goal body image, and maladaptive perfectionism is concerned with mistakes and other people’s opinions.

The finding indicates that both are involved in heightened concerns about body image, which in turn places people at risk of developing an eating disorder.

Over a thousand women representing a cross section of the population (aged 28-40) were involved in this study. They ranged from underweight to morbidly obese, with a BMI of 14 to 64, and overall, the further these women were away from a healthy BMI, the bigger the difference between their current and ideal body images.

While perfectionism is recognised as an important factor in eating disorders, the exact role of perfectionism in perceived body image has been difficult to pin down. Tracey Wade and Marika Tiggemann, from Flinders University, found that women who desired the lowest BMI and the smallest body size tended to be more concerned about making mistakes, and more worried about organisation and higher self doubt than everyone else.

Prof Tracey Wade explained, “While some perfectionism is normal and necessary there becomes a point at which it becomes and unhelpful and vicious cycle. Knowing that perfectionism of any sort is a risk factor for eating disorders suggests we should tackle ‘all or nothing’ attitudes with clients, as well as helping them to become less invested in defining their self worth in terms of their ability to achieve high standards.”

Open access publisher BioMed Central is proud to announce the launch of the Journal of Eating Disorders. This journal launch marks a significant development in this area of research; as it is the first open access journal of its kind. Journal of Eating Disorders is co-edited by Prof Phillipa Hay, University of Western Sydney and Prof Stephen Touyz, University of Sydney.

Eating disorders are mental illnesses that cause serious disturbances in a person’s everyday diet. It can manifest as eating extremely small amounts of food or severely overeating. The condition may begin as just eating too little or too much but obsession with eating and food over takes over the life of a person leading to severe changes.

In addition to abnormal eating patterns are distress and concern about body weight or shape. These disorders frequently coexist with other mental illnesses such as depression, substance abuse, or anxiety disorders.

Eating disorders when manifested at a young age can cause severe impairment in growth, development, fertility and overall mental and social wellbeing. In addition, they also raise the risk of an early death. People with anorexia nervosa are 18 times more likely to die early compared with people of similar age in the general population.

Who gets eating disorders?

Eating disorders can affect both men and women and are slightly more common among women. Often these disorders begin during adolescence or young adulthood but may also develop during childhood or later in life.

Types of eating disorders

  Anorexia Nervosa – This is characterized by an intense fear of being obese and a continued pursuit of becoming thin.
  Bulimia nervosa
  Binge-eating disorder
  Eating disorders not otherwise specified (EDNOS) – this includes eating disorders that do not meet the criteria for anorexia or bulimia nervosa. Binge eating could be a type of EDNOS. EDNOS is the most common diagnosis among people who seek treatment


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Dr Hilary Glover

Scientific Press Officer, BioMed Central
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