Why Are People Bulimic? Causes and Risk Factors for Bulimia

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Culture and the Media

Why are people bulimic? There are several factors that can contribute to bulimia, and one of the most frequently cited is the influence of Western culture. In Western society, thin equals good, and fat equals bad. Successful people are almost always portrayed as thin and beautiful, and peer pressure pushes people to do whatever they can to be thin. The media displays and revels in images of Barbie-like models and movie stars, all of whom have no extra ounces of fat on their bodies. All of these cultural factors can make it difficult for women to feel good about the way they look. Bulimia often stems from a desire to be thinner, and bulimics tend to think of themselves as fat even when they are of normal weight.

Biological Causes

If your sibling or parent has been bulimic, you are more likely to become bulimic. Although some of this is due to non-biological factors (e.g., social pressure, a culture of dieting in the family, an attitude towards the importance of thinness), it does point to a genetic link. There may also be a deficiency of serotonin in people with bulimia. Serotonin is an important brain chemical that is related to a person’s mood.

Why are People Bulimic? Emotional Stress

Emotional stress can also lead a person to become bulimic. Even basic stresses such as navigating a new school or workplace can trigger bulimia, and incredibly traumatic events, such as rape, can do so as well. These stresses can lead a person to feel like they must control something, so they work on the one thing that is in their control to some degree - their own body.


A person’s personality can influence whether or not they become bulimic. People who feel hopeless or moody often may be more likely to develop bulimia. The same holds true for people who have difficulties either expressing their negative emotions or controlling their impulses. People who are perfectionists may develop bulimia for the same reason as people under emotional stress may do: it is a way to feel that they have some sort of control over their lives. In addition, psychological or emotional problems can contribute to bulimia as well.

Risk Factors

There are other factors that can put a person at risk for developing bulimia. Simply being female makes you more likely to become bulimic, since bulimia is much more common in girls and women than in boys and men. Late adolescence or early adulthood is the typical time period when bulimia develops, so being in that age span is another risk factor. A third risk factor is having a family history of eating disorders (even one that is not bulimia), or having families who are critical, which can make individuals feel more insecure than they might otherwise be.

People who are dieting have a higher risk of developing bulimia, as do those with emotional disorders such depression, OCD, and anxiety disorders. Although none of these risk factors fully the answer the question, “Why are people bulimic?” - they can help you understand which people are at the highest risk of developing this eating disorder.