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Ashley Solomon, Psy.D is a psychologist who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, body image, trauma, and serious mental illness.

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29 Oct

Facebook does not cause eating disorders: How to read statistics and cut through the media’s crap

Education, Media Literacy 6 Comments by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul

{image via pinterest}


Once I learned that as a graduate student in psychology, I would be forced to take at least two semesters of statistics courses, it suddenly became my prerogative to figure out how minimize this trauma. When I was interviewing for various programs, I would ask the current students about their experience in the class, the professor, the rigors and challenges.

“Don’t you want to know how many graduates get jobs or if we feel respected by our faculty?”

“No, I just need to know if I have chance in hell of passing that stats class. Thanks.”

A surprise ending

For all of my whining and foreboding, I turned out to not be a half-bad amateur statistician. And while I would never profess any kind of love for this mathematical science, I can honestly (and with a straight face) say that I’ve come to appreciate my statistic training immensely.

Why? Well, I’ve oddly discovered that I enjoy research. And while conducting studies isn’t currently a major part of my work, I find myself using research constantly. And beyond that, I can now easily see through the loads of statistical crap thrown at me in the media.

Being able to apply a critical eye to what we hear, see, and read makes us smarter consumers and can prevents us from getting totally duped. Or unnecessarily panicked, as is often the case.

Facebook causes eating disorders?

Take for example, the claim that spread like wildfire mid-last year. Headlines around the globe touted, “Facebook causes eating disorders.” In The Register article posted online, the headline was followed by the first line, “A survey carried out in Israel shows that the more time young girls spend on Facebook the more likely they are to develop an eating disorder.”

So what you’re telling me then is that Facebook does NOT cause eating disorders?

This is an example of likely the most common error the media makes in reporting research. They report correlation as causation. Here’s a primer: Correlation means that two things (Facebook usage and eating disorders, in this case) are related in some way. When there is a positive correlation, as the rate of one increases (time on Facebook), the rate of the other increases (eating disorders).

But take this classic example to see why this does not mean that one causes the other. Researchers have found a positive correlation between ice cream sales and murders in a small town (really, I’m serious). Does that mean that ice cream causes murder? Are there enraged lactose-intolerant violent criminals out there who just can’t handle their sundae and turn into predators? Simply, no. In this case, researchers suspect that there’s actually a third variable that contributes to both of these – high temperatures. But if we’re not measuring that third variable, we get lost in believing that our Rocky Road is jail bait.

Chicken or the egg?

For those of you who are curious, the Facebook study looked at 248 Israeli girls’ media habits and eating issues. The problem is that this correlation does not reveal which direction the relationship goes. Meaning, it could be (and it would be my contention, to go out on a limb here) that girls who have or are likely to develop eating disorders spend more time on Facebook, rather than the reverse (that they “catch” eating disorders by being on Facebook). It makes much more intuitive sense that girls who are more focused on image, concerned about body weight and shape, possibly somewhat isolated (i.e. girls with risk factors for eating disorders) would spend more time on social networking sites. And sometimes intuition is just as important as hard data.

Generalizing schmeneralizing

So say a study actually does involve experimental conditions, meaning it can point us to causation. Does that mean that the results are going to be true for all of us? Absolutely not. As you probably know, the majority of studies are conducted using participants from the college campuses where the researchers work, meaning that the sample is quite often college students. Not only does this mean that the participants are usually of a certain age range (18-23), but they also disproportionately represent a certain segment of the population – those that go to college. While some diversity exists, we can reasonable conclude that certain segments are going to be underrepresented, such as the poor, the illiterate, racial and ethnic minorities, and people following Bill Gates lead.

It’s also important to consider where the study is being conducted, meaning what geographic area. If the study took place in Israel or Poland or Texas, it makes a difference. Even subtle things that one wouldn’t assume would depend on location (e.g. genetically determined variables) can be impacted.

The point is, you have to know who exactly the study was looking at and where before assuming that it applies to you.

What are you telling me, really?

Yet another question to ask ourselves in this confusing web of statistics reporting is: Is any of this really meaningful? And, further, is it useful to me personally?

I read an article recently claiming, “Soy doesn’t boost brain power in older women, says study.” Okay… I’m not exactly sure my life was enhanced by knowing this fact. It doesn’t make me want to kick my tofu to the curb (it didn’t say it lessens brain power, after all). You have to consider how meaningful the statistics really are, because before you know it you become that 8%* who spout totally useless information just to sound smart. (*Disclaimer: I made that up.)

And more importantly, statistics often don’t mean a whole lot when it comes down to your individual life. Take the recent study that claims that delivering a baby via cesarean section increases the chances of the child being obese by age three. Last time I asked any woman delivering her child, she wasn’t making the decision to deliver vaginally versus a c-section based on her child’s future penchant for Capri Suns. In fact, she wasn’t basing it on anything other than what her doctor and she decided was best for her and the child (let’s be honest, usually the child) in that moment. No woman I know who’s had a c-section made the decision lightly, and research like this, though potentially valuable in certain ways, isn’t useful when it’s directed at mothers who already feel guilty for just about every little thing they do. Because, after all, mothers are to blame for everything, right?

The bottom line

The bottom line is that you have to be careful when interpreting statistics, and even more careful when deciding how much stock to place in them. Because, honestly, when it comes down to it, when you learn you have a 10% chance of getting an illness, and then you get it, your chance just went to 100%. And that’s all that really matters.

12 Sep

“Enough Already!” :: Making Anger Worth Your While {Self-Discovery, Word by Word}

Advocacy, Word by Word 6 Comments by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul


{image credit :: inf3ktion}

With half of second grade under my belt, I sauntered up to my mother, who was undoubtedly weary from dealing with the likes of me, and told her that I’d had enough.

“Enough of what, honey?” she asked, with just the right hint of interest to mask her involvement in her novel.

“Enough of all the boys winning on t.v.!” I said incredulously. I then went on to detail how all of the television commercials for board games featured the little boy of the group shaking his hands above his head in victory as the other children looked on in admiration. What I didn’t even realize at the time was that not only were the girls being left to be wallflowers, but the African American and Latino/a children weren’t even invited to the party.

So at the ripe age of six, I decided to write a letter to several of the board game companies who engaged in this boy-take-all practice. Milton Bradley, Hasbro, and all of the big game-makers received my pre-pubescent wrath. And when I saw a commercials airing years later that featured the blond darling girl as the champion, I felt victorious myself (I had given up on seeing someone who looked like me as the starlet).

Whether or not my second grade letter writing campaign produced a societal shift in advertising practices, we’ll never know (though I like to think so!). But what I do know is that the passion summoned to make my little voice heard was borne out of a decision that I’d had quite enough – enough bias, enough injustice, enough lack of progress in gender equality.

I might not have had the words to articulate what I knew, but I was quite certain when enough was enough. I think that we all know – somewhat inherently – when what we encounter just doesn’t feel right anymore. When we’ve reached our limit of tolerance and we just can’t take sitting back and observing.

I’m not generally an angry person, but I am a passionate person. And just like I felt as a young girl, I often find myself fed up with society. Here are some things that recently have made me want to shout, “Okay already, I’ve had enough!”

People being discriminated against due to the body shape or size.

Reality shows that promote distorted values.

Bashing parents for mental illness.

Writers being rude.

The sexualization and objectification of little girls.

Magazines offering quick (dangerous) fixes.

Companies making light of disordered eating.

Not being allowed to be sad.

And so much more…

So what do I do when I’ve had enough? Getting angry isn’t enough. So, sometimes I still write letters. I also blog as a means of sharing my perspective and generating new perspectives. I seek out the wisdom of others. I discuss and debate. I donate and urge others to do so.

What has made you say “Enough!” recently? How do you direct your frustration toward changing the world?

This post was written as part of the Self-Discovery, Word by Word series. To take part and share your thoughts on what ENOUGH means to you, head on over for details from this month’s incredible host, Miss Mary Max.


04 Aug

When Woman Meets Food: A Complicated Relationship

Current Events No Comments by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul



Just a quick post to share that I recently had the distinct privilege of writing an article on disordered eating for Sashay Magazine, an eco-minded publication that covers topics of food, travel, health, art, and more. Here’s a short excerpt…


Whether she’s our sister, our co-worker, or the girl who looks as though she’s going to collapse from dehydration at the gym, many of us are aware of someone in our lives with an eating disorder. We see the tell-tale signs in the sunken cheekbones, the uneaten slice of cake, and the wringing hands when it comes time to put in a lunch order. We often sigh to ourselves and wonder how they manage to have that infamous “willpower,” resting assured that we could never do something like that to our bodies.

But what about our own little food rituals – the way we hate eating desserts in front of other people or refuse to use real sugar? The mistake that many of us make is seeing ourselves as separate and distinct from those with eating disorders, when “normal eating” is actually more on a continuum. Unhealthy eating patterns are more the norm than the exception, particularly as we face increasingly unrealistic expectations for our bodies, and become busier and less connected as a society.

Read more here!



27 Jul

Wrinklexia? :: An Open Letter to Glamour Magazine

Advocacy, Current Events 10 Comments by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul

Dear Glamour Editors,

I am writing to bring to your attention an issue in which you are certainly not alone. In your July issue, you included a short piece titled, “Stop the Wrinklexia!,” yielding to a disturbing trend of “exia”-ing issues with which individuals struggle.

In this particular piece, you were highlighting the recent uptick in anti-aging injections, which you suggested indicated a unhealthy focus on the status of our skin. You defined “wrinklexia” as “obsessing over the the fine lines of aging before you’re actually aging.”

As a body image advocate and a woman, I truly appreciate the inclusion of articles like this one in your magazine. As I have mentioned several times on my blog, I believe that magazines such as yours have incredible, and often untapped, power to foster positive change in the way that individuals perceive their beauty and sense of themselves. Bringing to light issues of the unnecessary increase in cosmetic procedures is one such way of doing this, and for that I applaud you.

As an eating disorder specialist, however, I am disappointed to see your magazine sharing in the disheartening trend of labeling obsessions and dangerous practices with the suffix “exia.” Your article comes on the heels of the recently dubbed “drunkorexia,” which reportedly refers to the trend of self-imposed starvation combined with alcohol abuse. “Pregorexia” is another distressing example, and refers to to preoccupation with controlling one’s weight while pregnant.

These terms obviously garner their meaning from their parent word, anorexia, which refers to the psychiatric and medical disorder, anorexia nervosa. (Though commonly misused, “orexia” derives from a Greek word which means “appetite.”) While using this clever wordplay might draw the attention of readers and even speak to the level of distress caused by these practices, what is also does is diminish the significance of this very real psychiatric diagnosis.

Eating disorders, including anorexia, affect over eleven million individuals in the United States alone, and can be absolutely devastating to individuals and their loved ones. In fact, eating disorders kills more individuals each year than all other mental illnesses. These brain-based diseases can wreck havoc on the minds and bodies of those suffering with them, and yet unfortunately they continue be regarded with less seriousness than other illnesses, as shown by the lack of equal treatment and insurance coverage.

When popular media trivializes eating disorders by labeling recent trends with the same terminology, individuals with eating disorders suffer. We have a large body of evidence suggesting that words are powerful in shaping beliefs and values, and so is the media. Terms such as “manorexia” or “wrinklexia” serve to desensitize us to the seriousness of the very real illnesses from which these labels derive. Simply stated, eating disorders deserve to be regarded with the utmost gravity.

Thus, while I commend your attention to issues of body image and unhealthy practices, I encourage you to reconsider the language in which you frame these issues. By doing so, you will be speaking out for the unnamed and countless number of women who read your magazine and suffer from anorexia.


With kind regards,

Ashley Solomon, Psy.D





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