Perfectionism link with eating disorders

Body dissatisfaction, from Shutterstock

Targeting perfectionism may be of benefit in buffering young people against the development of eating disorders, a Flinders University study has found.

Conducted by Professors Tracey Wade and Marika Tiggemann from the School of Psychology, the study examined the relationships between different aspects of perfectionism and body dissatisfaction – a strong risk factor for disordered eating.

Their research confirmed that both adaptive perfectionism (organisation is important to the person and having high standards which drive a person to achieve a body image goal) and maladaptive perfectionism (being concerned with mistakes and other people’s opinions) are relevant to body dissatisfaction.

In the study, 1083 women, aged between 28 and 40 years, self-reported on their current and desired Body Mass Index (BMI) and ‘ideal figure’, based on six dimensions of perfectionism: setting of personal standards, and organisation and neatness (adaptive perfectionism); concern over making mistakes, doubting one’s own actions, parental expectations, and parental criticism (maladaptive perfectionism).

The results demonstrated that a higher level of perfectionism was associated with a lower desired BMI, with concern over mistakes and organisation having the biggest influence.

Similarly, a higher level of perfectionism was associated with a thinner ideal, to which doubts about actions were an additional factor.

Professor Wade said while some perfectionism is normal and necessary, there comes a point at which it becomes “an unhelpful and vicious cycle”.

“Knowing that high levels of perfectionism of any sort are a risk factor for eating disorders suggests we should tackle ‘all or nothing’ attitudes with clients,” Professor Wade said.

“We should also help clients to become less invested in defining their self-worth in terms of their ability to achieve high standards,” she said.

Professor Wade said the results confirm previous indications that while only maladaptive perfectionism is associated with most types of psychopathology, such as depression and anxiety, eating disorders have uniquely been shown to be associated with both maladaptive and adaptive perfectionism.

“Higher levels on both these types of perfectionism can place people at risk of problems with eating,” she said.

The results were published this week in the inaugural edition of the open access Journal of Eating Disorders.

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