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“Not all my fault”: Genetics, stigma, and personal responsibility for women with eating disorders


  • Easter, Michele M.


Medical researchers and clinicians increasingly understand and present eating disorders (anorexia and bulimia nervosa) as biologically-based psychiatric disorders, with genetic risk factors established by high heritability estimates in twin studies. But there has been no research on interpretation of genetic involvement by people with eating disorders, who may hold other views. Their interpretations are particularly important given the frequent presumption that biogenetic framing will reduce stigma, and recent findings that it exacerbates stigma for other mental illnesses. To identify implications of genetic framing in eating disorders, I conducted semi-structured interviews with 50 US women with a history of eating disorders (half recovered, half in treatment; interviewed 2008–9 in the USA). Interviews introduced the topic of genetics, but not stigma per se. Analysis followed the general principles of grounded theory to identify perceived implications of genetic involvement; those relevant to stigma are reported here. Most anticipated that genetic reframing would help reduce stigma from personal responsibility (i.e., blame and guilt for eating disorder as ongoing choice). A third articulated ways it could add stigma, including novel forms of stigma related to genetic-essentialist effacing of social factors. Despite welcoming reductions in blame and guilt, half also worried genetic framing could hamper recovery, by encouraging fatalistic self-fulfilling prophecies and genetic excuses. This study is the first to elicit perceptions of genetic involvement by those with eating disorders, and contributes to an emerging literature on perceptions of psychiatric genetics by people with mental illness.

Suggested Citation

  • Easter, Michele M., 2012. "“Not all my fault”: Genetics, stigma, and personal responsibility for women with eating disorders," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 75(8), pages 1408-1416.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:socmed:v:75:y:2012:i:8:p:1408-1416
    DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2012.05.042

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    Cited by:

    1. Kvaale, Erlend P. & Gottdiener, William H. & Haslam, Nick, 2013. "Biogenetic explanations and stigma: A meta-analytic review of associations among laypeople," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 96(C), pages 95-103.


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