Academic Perfection and Eating Disorders

Academic Perfection and Eating Disorders

Authored by Pin Ng PhD

Edited by Hugh Soames

Reviewed by Michael Por, MD

Does striving for academic perfection cause eating disorders?

Academic pressure has been linked to eating disorders in teenagers. Studies have found that the incredibly high pressure on teenagers to achieve in the academic arena may trigger eating disorders with female students being the most vulnerable.1

Pressure can come from several areas resulting in teenagers seeking some sort of outlet. The outlet that is selected isn’t always the healthiest or most constructive. Society, schools, and parents can all create pressure on teenagers to do well academically. These three groups can pressure an individual to aim for perfection, which is an impossible task.

The competition for places in college, university, and/or the workforce has led to a greater degree of pressure. Striving for academic perfection can result in negative forces applied to a teenager’s mental health.2

The fight for perfection

A lot of parents put pressure on their kids to achieve perfection in their academic careers. Whether it be perfection in the classroom or on a school sports team, young people can feel weighed down and suffocated by the pressure.3 Many parents that ask for perfection from their children were not perfect in their academic years. Nor are they perfect as grown-ups making their desire for flawless academic work to be hypocritical.

Failure is used to describe someone that has not succeeded. However, the word is thrown around all too often leaving teenagers feeling like success and failure in life are black and white. There are grey areas in life and simply being imperfect is not the be all, end all to success.

Academic success and anxiety

Striving for academic success can build anxiety in teenage students. As a young person moves through high school, the pressure to do well increases. They may want to obtain a university scholarship, certain test score to get into a prestigious university, or do well on an interview to land an internship. The pressure to achieve these items can build anxiety.4

Perfectionism in childhood can produce eating disorders as individuals grow older. A person’s life can be greatly altered by striving for perfectionism. They do not know how to deal with the stress and anxiety, and thus have a poor relationship with food as the outcome. Mental health issues can result and these can be life-endangering. Eating disorders can also be life-long and as the teenager becomes an adult, become greater due to even more pressure being experienced.5

The link between perfectionism and eating disorders

There is a misconception that eating disorders develop because an individual wants to lose weight. An eating disorder doesn’t always come out of someone seeking to drop a few pounds. Perfectionism in academia and eating disorders demonstrate how mental health issues can develop in young people.

Eating disorders develop out of underlying emotions, thoughts, and feelings. These drive a person to behave in certain ways. On the surface, most people would consider an eating disorder to be about food. However, there are typically underlying issues such as academic perfection pressure that creates the eating disorder.6

Treatment programs help individuals treat the underlying problems in eating disorders and not just the symptoms. Parents can play a key role in the treatment of an eating disorder brought on by perfectionism by explaining to their teenagers that failures occur in life.7 In addition, showing their child that academia doesn’t have to be black and white can perform wonders for a teenager’s mental health.

References: Academic Perfection and Eating Disorders

  1. American Psychiatric Association. (4th ed). Washington,; DC.: 1994. American Psychiatry Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. []
  2. Hoek HW, Hoeken D. Review of the prevalence and incidence of eating disorders. International Journal of Eating Disorders. 2003;34:383–96. [PubMed] []
  3. Fichter MM, Quadflieg N. Twelve-year course and outcome of bulimia nervosa. Psychology Med. 2004;34:1395–1406. [PubMed] []
  4. Kaye WH, Greeno CG, Moss H et al. Alterations in serotonin activity and psychiatric symptoms after recovery from bulimia nervosa. Archives of General Psychiatry. 1998;55:927–935. [PubMed] []
  5. Cooley E, Toray T. Disordered eating in college freshman women: a prospective study. Journal of American College Health. 2001;49:229–35. [PubMed] []
  6. Turcotte D, Trocmé N, Dessurault D . Ministère de la Santé et des services sociaux. Quebec, QC: 2007. Direction de la protection de la jeunesse au Québec La situation en 2003 [Maltreatment incidence and characteristics reported to the Youth protection division in Quebec. []
  7. Polivy J, Herman CP. Academic Perfection and Eating Disorders. Annual Review of Psychology. 2002;53:187–213. [PubMed] []
  8. Hege MA, Stingl KT, Kullmann S, Schag K, Giel KE, Zipfel S, Preissl H. Attentional impulsivity in binge eating disorder modulates response inhibition performance and frontal brain networks. International Journal of Obesity. 2015;39:353–360. [PubMed] []
  9. Hudson JI, Lalonde JK, Berry JM, Pindyck LJ, Bulik CM, Crow SJ, … Pope HG. Binge-eating disorder as a distinct familial phenotype in obese individuals. Archives of General Psychiatry. 2006;63:313–319. [PubMed] []
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