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Keywords:

  • bulimia nervosa;
  • mental health literacy;
  • prevention;
  • risk factors.

Objective:  To examine the beliefs of women concerning causes and risk factors for eating-disordered behaviour.

Method:  Face-to-face interviews were conducted with a community sample of 208 women aged 18−45 years. Respondents were presented with a vignette describing a fictional person meeting diagnostic criteria for bulimia nervosa (BN) and were asked to indicate whether each of several factors was ‘very likely’, ‘likely’ or ‘not likely’ to be a cause of the problem described, which factor was most likely to be a cause, and whether particular subgroups of people would be ‘more likely’, ‘less likely’ or ‘equally likely’ to have or develop the problem described.

Results:  ‘Having low self-esteem’ was considered very likely to be a cause of BN by 75.0% of respondents, and the most likely cause by 40.5% of respondents. Other factors perceived as significant were ‘problems from childhood’, ‘portrayal of women in the media’, ‘being overweight as a child or adolescent’ and ‘day-to-day problems’, while genetic factors and pre-existing psychological problems were perceived to be of minor significance. Most respondents believed that women aged under 25 years were at greatest risk of having or developing BN.

Conclusions:  Women's beliefs concerning causes and risk factors for BN are generally consistent with empirical evidence. However, information concerning the increased risk associated with pre-existing anxiety and affective disorders might usefully be included in prevention programs. Systematic investigation of the benefits of addressing individuals’ beliefs concerning risk factors for eating disorders − as opposed to risk factors per se − would be of interest.