Education and ED risk

A recent study found that higher parental and grandparental education and higher grades increases a person's risk for an eating disorder. This makes a whole lot of sense to me. And I'm not talking about how parents with higher levels of education might push their kids harder, etc. Or even how more educated parents have more money and therefore their kids experience more pressure to be thin. This could be true- I don't know. But I think the relationship is much more subtle than that.

One of the characteristics of an eating disorder is a drive for thinness. Considering that, through the ED, I defined "thinness" as "success" and/or "perfection," the drive for thinness in me (and in others I've spoken with) seems to be an offshoot of perfectionism. Indeed, even in non-ED university students, researchers found a relationship between stress, perfectionism, and drive for thinness.

Besides the eating disorder, my other main perfectionistic focus has been school. I skipped half of my brother's high school graduation party to study for an 8th grade history test. I worked until all hours of the night in high school, and usually through dawn in college. Driven by fear and anxiety, and fueled by pots of coffee, I stayed at the top of my class.

From the outside, I was a success. I sure looked the part. My parents were proud- why wouldn't they be? Over-achievement wasn't going to worry my parents, especially not after my brother! And this drive, this ineffable need to do more, do it better, was hauntingly familiar to both my parents, but especially my mother. It wasn't abnormal or pathological, right? It was familiar.

This post is not intended as any sort of mother-bashing (though several of my therapists have had a field day with what I am about to share), but my mom was pretty darn obsessive and perfectionistic about school and, instead of food/weight, her other obsession was cleaning. She skipped out on dates with my dad because she had to study. My dad, who had tickets to a concert/play/whatever, didn't want to waste the tickets, so he took my mom's mom instead.* And, also just like me, my mom excelled at school. She placed top in the state in her subject exams upon college graduation.

Both my parents graduated from college- my dad did so somewhat grudgingly, as school was never his "thing," but graduate he did. I know my mom's dad graduated from college, but I'm not sure about my dad's dad. I know neither of my grandmothers went to college, but everyone finished high school.

What I see in my family is not so much a legacy of high parental expectations, but a legacy of perfectionism and drive to succeed. Did my parents have high expectations? Maybe, but my freakishly higher expectations of myself were what drove me. So I fundamentally disagree with the authors' conclusions that:

"Thus, higher parental and grandparental education and higher school grades may increase risk of hospitalization for eating disorders in female offspring, possibly because of high internal and external demands."

Internal demands, yes. This is how the perfectionism manifests itself in myself, my mother, and many of my maternal relatives (of whom I know the most about). My dad is also a perfectionist, though in a very different way than my mother and I. So the link between higher grades and higher parental/grandparental education does make sense, but not in the way the authors might have assumed.

Anxiety can drive success. People have told me they wish their kids could have my GPA and "work ethic" and I have to tell them no, you really don't wish that. I love learning and enjoyed many of the aspects of school, but my high school and undergrad years were pretty hellish. I was lucky, in a sense, that the symptoms of my mental illness helped me succeed, but it also makes it harder for lots of people (myself included) to understand that these personality traits--the drivenness, the perfectionism--have downsides, too.

Note: I realized as I was blogging that the study seemed awfully familiar, and I remembered that Laura also posted about the study and its conclusions here.

*My grandmother, at that time, looked rather young and not unlike Doris Day, so they probably pulled off the whole "couple" routine. It's the epitome of putting the "fun" in "dysfunctional." She also appeared in the newspaper around this time to share the recipe for her "legendary" ham loaf. I have the picture somewhere- I should post it. It's a hoot.

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Hopeful Mom said...

I see the truth in this although I don't think I obsessed over my grades. I'm able to memorize quickly which is an asset in the sciences. I'm proud of my GPA but had a life other than studying. I hoped I had passed that along. My husband also had high grades (.03 higher than mine) and was more obsessive, although he also played sports for fun in college. Our oldest son did only as much as necessary in school but the younger one, who has ED, has always worked very hard. There are other differences in school and social history between the boys but why one and not the other to develop ED? Nature v nurture, again.

A:) said...

Did the researchers control for socio-economic status?

Educated individuals are more likely want and have access to medical care (ex. family doctor). These individuals are also more likely to make a wage that allows them to access this care for routine visits.

Is it possible that the relationship between EDs and education is not completely causal? Individuals who see doctors more often are more likely to be diagnosed with any disease and therefore are more likely to be referred to tertiary care. These individuals could be over-represented in an ED treatment population

Just thoughts.

Cammy said...

As usual, I relate to what you said about your own experience. I come from a family that is competitive and seeks achievement, but I don't think I was ever pressured. I had no older siblings to live up to. But still, I studied pathologically in high school, and my mom would actually try to get me to take days off from school for trips, special events, or just to rest, but I always refused. I can never remember being told that I "had" to get A's, I just didn't consider anything else an option for myself. Also as usual, I tend to favor genetic explanations for at least some of these effects, although the points above about socioeconomic correlations are good and probably play at least some role.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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