Developmental psychologist digs into the complexities of eating disorders and body image
Published March 5, 2012
Eating disorders are often thought to be a female problem, but developmental psychologist Elizabeth Blodgett Salafia’s research has proved that idea wrong. She has found poor body image and eating disorders are problems for males, too.
Salafia, assistant professor in human development and family science, has researched eating disorders, body image and how different relationships affect both for four years at NDSU.
She became interested in this area of research while working on her doctorate in developmental psychology at the University of Notre Dame. Her adviser’s research focused on how parenting affects adolescent adjustment. Salafia noticed little research on how parental relationships affect eating disorders and body image, which became the focus of her dissertation.
Since then, her research has revealed more about the causes, what the general population knows and how different relationships affect the development of eating disorders.
Eating Attitudes Study
The Eating Attitudes Study is a two-year study on parent, sibling and peer influences on adolescents’ eating disorder attitudes and behaviors. Salafia and student researchers surveyed middle and high school girls and boys in Bismarck, N.D. The researchers asked about dieting, body image, stress and relationships with different people in their lives.
Through this study, Salafia found connections between parents’ marital conflict and eating disorders in girls. However, girls who had quality relationships with their parents, despite martial conflict, tended to be healthier than girls who witnessed marital conflict and had poor relationships with their parents. “Clearly, family has a significant role in promoting the health of girls and young women,” Salafia said.
The study also found that girls reported higher levels of stress than boys and that stressors that led to body dissatisfaction, dieting and bulimic systems were different for girls and boys. For girls, performance, relationship and family stress were associated with body dissatisfaction and dieting, but stress was not associated with bulimic symptoms. For boys, performance, relationship, education, financial and family stress were associated with body dissatisfaction. Relationship, education and financial stress were associated with dieting, and education and family stress was associated with bulimic symptoms.
Salafia will continue to analyze and report data from this study during the next few years, she said.
Causes of Eating Disorders Study
The Causes of Eating Disorders Study focuses on what people who do and don’t have eating disorders think causes them. Study participants also were asked where or how they learned about the cause of eating disorders.
Salafia found that people who have been clinically diagnosed with eating disorders gave answers in line with research findings on the causes. People who don’t have eating disorders tended to blame media for portraying unrealistic body images. They reported they considered that information to be common knowledge. “The general population is not getting the right information,” Salafia said.
Body Image and Sexual Activity Study
For the Body Image and Sexual Activity Study, Salafia collaborated with another faculty member, Kristen Benson, to conduct online surveys of 500 women attending NDSU, the University of North Dakota, Minnesota State University Moorhead and Concordia College.
She looked at whether dating status and body mass index affect how women perceive their bodies and sexuality. She found that women who have higher body mass indexes had more body dissatisfaction but still believed they were good sexual partners. “That is a very encouraging finding,” Salafia said. She also found women who were dating had better body images and believed they were good sexual partners. Another finding was that women who had liberal attitudes about sex had better body image that led to increased sexual activity.
Hands-on research experience
Salafia involves students in the whole research process from study design and data collection to co-writing articles and presenting at conferences.
Graduate research assistant Emily Haugen conducts literature searches, runs analyses, codes data, searches for grant funding, prepares posters and abstracts for conference submission and edits papers. She is also co-writing a paper and basing her master’s thesis on results from the Eating Attitudes Study.
“I’ve learned you don’t have to be a statistics genius to understand research and be involved in this field,” Haugen said. “Statistics is not my strong point, but Dr. Salafia has worked with me to understand it and apply it in a meaningful way for my thesis.”
As a graduate research assistant, Haugen has gained an in-depth knowledge of eating disorders, which will help her in her career as a marriage and family therapist. “I feel that my experience with body image and eating disorder research will be very helpful when working with the adolescent or young adult populations as well as families impacted by this devastating condition,” she said. “Eating disorders are a great example of an area where researchers and clinicians can collaborate to provide the best care possible for families.”
Being involved in research also has caused Haugen to consider pursuing a doctorate someday. “I don’t think I would have even considered this option if I hadn’t had the positive experience here with research,” she said. “I feel that my studies in my program and my work with Dr. Salafia have prepared me tremendously well if I do continue on with my education.”
Salafia looks forward to getting more undergraduates involved when renovations on the Eating Disorders and Body Image Lab at the Graduate Center are complete. She plans to conduct research there as well as offer programming to reduce body dissatisfaction and dieting behaviors among girls and young women in the community. Her long-term goal is to take her outreach programs to school settings because of the significant influence peers have on boys’ and girls’ body image and eating behaviors.
“I would like the work I do, both in the classroom and through my research, to spread awareness of eating disorders,” Salafia said. “It is important for people to know that disordered eating among youth is also a serious concern and may start in the form of body dissatisfaction or dieting and lead to a clinically diagnosable eating disorder.”