CHICAGO -- About six out of 10 high school girls with eating disorders or related symptoms do not believe they need counseling for their behaviors, a new study shows.
The results suggest that eating disorder behaviors have become so common among adolescent girls that they are often not considered a problem, said Dinah Meyer, author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University's Marion campus.
"Eating disorders have almost become normalized in our culture because of the emphasis on thinness," Meyer said.
Meyer presented results of her study Aug. 17 in Chicago at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association.
The study involved 238 junior and senior girls at high schools in the Midwest and Southeast. The girls were given questionnaires that examined their eating disorder behaviors and their feelings about seeking psychological help.
The results showed that 16 percent of the girls had full-blown eating disorders, and an additional 33 percent showed serious symptoms of such disorders.
"The girls who are classified as symptomatic were exhibiting severe symptoms of eating disorders, not just a minor purging episode once in a while," Meyer said.
These prevalence figures are similar to what other studies have found, Meyer said.
The most common symptoms were purging behaviors, such as vomiting, fasting and use of diuretics.
Meyer said she was most interested in finding out how many of the symptomatic girls were seeking counseling or realized they needed such help.
She found that only two of the girls with eating disorders were currently seeking counseling, and two reported seeking counseling for their eating concerns in the past.
About 40 percent of the girls with full-blown eating disorders believed they did not need counseling, as did 65 percent of those with serious symptoms -- for an overall rate of 57 percent.
For those with eating disorders who did not believe they needed counseling, the most common reason they gave was that the "problem was not worrisome enough to me." The second-largest response was that they "don't believe I have a problem at all." The third-largest response was that they "don't want anyone to know" about their disorder.
Very few of them said they avoided getting help because they had a fear of counseling.
The results suggest the need for a concentrated education program to emphasize that eating disorder symptoms such as purging are not normal -- no matter what other girls are doing, Meyer said.
"I think a lot of young girls start to believe disordered eating is normal because they see their friends doing it," she said. "They minimize the behavior and say it's no big deal.
"Many of the girls with serious symptoms may be on their way to developing full-blown eating disorders," Meyer said. "It is important to intervene before their eating behaviors get worse."
Parents also need to be educated about recognizing eating disorders.
"Just as parents are taught to look for drug use in their teens, they should be taught to look for eating disorder behaviors too," Meyer said.