Teenage girls studying in all-girls schools are twice as likely to have an eating disorder compared to those educated at mixed schools, according to a new study.
This could be an unintentional effect of an “aspirational culture” in those academic institutions, according to Oxford University researchers who also found a higher prevalence of eating disorders in schools with high rates of university-educated parents.
“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,” said child and adolescent psychiatrist and lead researcher Dr. Helen Bould, who worked with other scientists from the University of Bristol, UCL, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Sweden’s Karolinska Institute.
The team studied over 55,000 Swedish pupils who finished secondary education from 2002 to 2010, finding that 2.4 percent of them suffered an eating disorder. After they accounted for individual factors, they saw the figures significantly vary depending on the kind of school attended as well as the students’ background.
Those who attended in all-girls schools and came from well-educated families were twice as likely (3.3 percent) as those from mixed schools and with less-educated backgrounds (1.3 percent) to have an eating disorder — including anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and binge eating disorder.
The findings suggest that girls can develop one of these disorders after seeing peer behavior, particularly in “single-sex” school populations. For Bould, it could either be the aftermath of these selected schools’ culture that urges perfectionism, or simply the result of other schools better identifying the disorders in their students for proper diagnosis and treatment.
Eating disorders affect 5.7 percent of adolescent girls, or nearly two in a 30-person class. They are considered serious illnesses: a young girl with anorexia, for instance, is about six times as likely to die young as her peers without the condition.
Psychotherapist Harriet Parsons from BodyWhys, the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland, said that based on their experience, attending a same-sex school is not a contributing factor in developing eating disorders.
“Our experience at BodyWhys has been that our services are being sought out by more and more boys schools and mixed schools,” Parsons said, debunking the prevailing belief that these are only a female issue.
The findings were published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.
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