Governments are justified to prevent very skinny models from walking the catwalk and ban photographs and advertisements suggesting that extreme thinness is attractive, according to a group of researchers who found that that social and cultural environment influences on young women is largely responsible for the spread of chronic eating disorder.

“It is becoming increasingly apparent that standards of physical appearance are important and powerful motivators of human behavior, especially regarding health and food,” the authors wrote.

Investigators found that eating disorders are socially transmitted diseases that are largely influenced by the self-perceived ideal body image, and young women, who researchers say make up 90 percent of anorexia nervosa cases, are significantly influenced by the size and weight of their peers.

“Anorexia together with other food disorders such as bulimia nervosa can be characterized by a distorted body image accompanied by an eating obsession. Eating disorders can have damaging, and even devastating and life-threatening effects.  About 6percent of those who suffer from anorexia nervosa die from it,” the authors wrote.

Dr. Joan Costa-Font and Professor Mireia Jofre-Bonet of City University in London conducted the world’s first economic analysis of anorexia, consisting of 3,000 women between the ages of 15 to 34 in Europe and found that the eating disorder was mainly socially induced, and that the larger the peers’ body-mass, the lower the chance the individual will be anorexic. 

Consistent to previous studies, the women’s body weight significantly correlates with their self-image, and younger women are more likely to trade off their health for obtaining ideal self-image, or what they believe is most attractive.

"Government intervention to adjust individual biases in self-image would be justified to curb the spread of a potential epidemic of food disorders,” the researchers wrote.

"The distorted self-perception of women with food disorders and the importance of the peer effects may prompt governments to take action to influence role models and compensate for social pressure on women," they added.

The researchers added that governments could take alternative approaches in curbing eating disorders by supporting social media campaigns that promote healthy weight as being attractive, which could be effective in changing the face of advertising and modeling.

Of all the 17 European countries studied, women in Austria were had the lowest average body mass index, a measurement of weight compared to height, at 23.67, which was lower than the European average of 25.  Italy had the lowest average BMI for young women at 21.40.

The findings correlated with anorexia rates, with Austria, Italy and Ireland having the highest eating disorder rates.  Austria’s anorexia rate was 1.35 percent among all women and nearly three times higher at 4.02 percent among young women.