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Socio-cultural influence, language and cognitions in eating disorders.

Contact: PD Dr. Markus Moessner(markus.moessner(at)

Project management: M. Wolf, F. Theis & H. Kordy in cooperation with mit C. Bulik, University of North Carolina und INTACT Research Group

Models of eating disorder etiology assign an important role to societal and socio-cultural influences in addition to genetic, biological, psychological, and familial predisposing factors. Mass media have received special attention in the study of risk factors. For example, there is criticism that an unrealistic ideal of beauty is conveyed in print media, on the Internet, or in popular television series, e.g., via the portrayal of extremely thin models. Experimental studies were able to prove the negative effect of the media. Thus, exposure to the slimness ideal conveyed in the mass media was shown to evoke negative affect in young women and to exert a consistent, albeit moderate, negative effect on satisfaction with one's own body. A number of studies conducted within the European research network INTACT are investigating the influence and mode of action of mass media on psychological risk factors of eating disorders.

The aim of a previously completed study was to experimentally test the effects of exposure to thin models as printed in popular fashion magazines on a student sample. In addition, the influence of moderator variables and mediators discussed in this context, in particular the tendency to make social comparisons, was to be investigated in a causal model. Compared to previous studies, in which the comparison stimuli were inanimate objects, among others, photos of attractive but normal-weight, or so-called plus-size models were chosen as control stimuli in the current study. The photos of thin and normal models were selected from a pool of images. The pictures were evaluated in a pretest with regard to attractiveness and slimness of the depicted models and differed only with regard to the estimated slimness of the models. Among the 150 women included in the study (age M = 23.2 years; p = 4.2), there was no negative effect of exposure on state dissatisfaction with body and mood. BMI, trait dissatisfaction, and self-esteem did not affect media exposure or affected it only moderately. Accordingly, the negative influence of media images could not be confirmed in the studied sample.

Further research is devoted to the possible effects of so-called Pro-Ana websites, as well as the potential mechanisms of media influence. In a recently completed study, the language used in Pro-Ana blogs was examined. 90 blogs freely available on the Internet (31 pro- eating disorder blogs, 29 eating disorder self-help blogs, 27 neutral blogs) were examined using computer-based text analysis. In comparison, the pro- eating disorder blogs were characterized by a lower level of cognitive linguistic features, less flexible word choice, fewer linguistic social references, and significantly more eating disorder-specific content. This language pattern can be interpreted as an expression of a self-stabilizing communication strategy that focuses strongly on identity as a member of the Pro-Ana movement. In particular, readers with a latent eating disorder and/or self-esteem issues might be attracted to the affirmative nature of Pro-Ana blogs. Self-help blogs, on the other hand, were more characterized by expressions of anxiety and introspection as well as cognitive language features, a pattern that reflects the authors' difficult situation in coping with the eating disorder.

In a currently ongoing experimental study, one of the aims is to clarify whether Pro-Ana blogs have the generally negative influence on readers that is suspected, or whether women who are already at risk of developing an eating disorder in particular are negatively influenced by Pro-Ana blogs. The study will be conducted in parallel as a laboratory experiment and as an Internet study. 400 young women who are not currently undergoing treatment for an eating disorder will be analyzed. Participants will read either a pro eating disorder blog, a self-help blog, or a blog with no eating disorder-related content. Prior to exposure, a screening questionnaire is used to assess individual risk for an eating disorder. Target criteria recorded after exposure are the level of negative affect, satisfaction with one's own body, and self-esteem. In addition, participants note their spontaneous thoughts about the blog according to the "thought listing" method. Going beyond the assumption of a generally negative effect, the study will allow a more differentiated assessment of the effect of eating disorder blogs and provide important information on relevant influencing variables on the part of the readers.


Wolf, M., Sedway, J., Bulik, C. & Kordy, H. (2007). Linguistic analyses of natural written language: Unobtrusive assessment of cognitive style in eating disorders. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 40, 711-717

Wolf, M., Theis, F. & Kordy, H. (2013). Language Use in Eating Disorder Blogs: Psychological Implications of Social Online Activity. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 32(2), 212-226.