What Causes Eating Disorders?
“An eating disorder doesn’t just pop up out of nowhere. It’s a symptom, a signal that something is wrong in a person’s life.”—Nancy Kolodny, social worker.
EATING disorders are not new. Anorexia nervosa was first formally diagnosed in 1873, and the symptoms have reportedly been observed as far back as 300 years ago. Since World War II, however, the number of anorexics appears to have increased dramatically. The situation is similar with bulimia. The condition has been known for centuries, but in recent decades it has, as one book on the subject puts it, “exploded onto center stage.”
What is behind eating disorders? Are they inherited, or are they an unusual reaction to a culture that glorifies thinness? What part does family environment play? These questions are not easily answered. As social worker Nancy Kolodny says, defining an eating disorder “isn’t as straightforward as diagnosing a medical condition like measles or chicken pox, where a doctor knows exactly what the cause is, how you catch it, how long the illness will last, and what the best course of treatment is.”
Nevertheless, researchers point to a number of factors that may contribute to the development of eating disorders. Let us consider a few of them.
The Culture of Thinness
In affluent lands the fashion industry parades stick-thin models before young and impressionable onlookers, indoctrinating them with the notion that a girl is only as beautiful as she is thin. This distorted message compels many women to strive for a body weight that is both unhealthy and unrealistic. Dr. Christine Davies observes: “The average woman is five feet, five inches [165 cm] and 145 lb [66 kg]. The average model is five feet, 11 inches [180 cm] and 110 lb [50 kg]. Ninety-five percent of us don’t match up and never will.”
Despite this fact, some women will go to extremes to acquire what they perceive to be the ideal body. For example, in a 1997 survey of 3,452 women, 24 percent said that they would be willing to give up three years of their life to attain their weight goal. For a significant minority, the survey said, “life is worth living only if you are thin.” Since 22 percent of those surveyed said that fashion magazine models influenced their body image when they were young, the report concluded: “It’s no longer possible to deny the fact that images of models in the media have a terrible effect on the way women see themselves.”
Of course, those who are most likely to fall prey to the media’s artificial ideal are those who do not feel good about themselves to begin with. As clinical social worker Ilene Fishman says, “the bottom line is self-esteem.” It has been noted that people who accept the way they look rarely develop obsessions with food.
Eating and Emotions
Many experts say that there is more involved in an eating disorder than food. “An eating disorder is a red flag,” says social worker Nancy Kolodny, “telling you that you need to pay attention to some situation in your life that you’re ignoring or avoiding. An eating disorder is a reminder that you aren’t giving voice to whatever stresses and frustrations you may be experiencing.”
What type of stresses and frustrations? For some it might involve trouble on the home front. For example, Geneen Roth recalls that during her childhood, food—in particular, sweets—became her “defense against slammed doors and raised voices.” She says: “When I sensed a parental fight brewing, I would switch my awareness, as easily as you switch a TV channel, from feeling at the mercy of my mother and father to a world in which nothing existed but me and the sweetness on the roof of my mouth.”
Sometimes an eating disorder has even deeper roots. For example, The New Teenage Body Book notes: “Studies show that those who have sexual trauma (abuse or molestation) may unconsciously try to protect themselves by making their bodies sexually unattractive and by focusing their attention on something safe like food.” Of course, people should not jump to the conclusion that one suffering from an eating disorder has been sexually molested.
The seeds of an eating disorder can be sown in what may appear to be tranquil soil. Indeed, a prime candidate for anorexia may be a girl who lives in an environment in which she is not free to make any of her own decisions or to express her negative feelings. Outwardly, she complies; but inwardly, she is in turmoil and feels that she has no control over her life. Not daring to rebel openly, she focuses on the one part of her life that she can control—her body.
It should be noted, however, that eating disorders are not always the result of family turmoil or sexual trauma. For some, eating disorders develop simply because weight is a dominant issue in the family. Perhaps a parent is overweight or is constantly dieting and engenders an overly cautious—or even a fearful—attitude toward food. For others, the onset of puberty is in itself a factor. The bodily changes that are part and parcel of the transition to adulthood can make a girl feel that she is fat—especially if she matures more quickly than her peers. She may take extreme measures to stave off the curves of womanhood if she finds this transition to be frightening.
In addition to citing emotional factors, some researchers say that there may be a physical factor involved. For example, they point out that bulimia may be rooted in the sufferer’s brain chemistry. They claim that the part of the brain that controls moods and appetite is involved and that this may explain why antidepressants are at times effective in alleviating the bulimic’s symptoms.
In any event, it is difficult for researchers to isolate a single factor that causes anorexia or bulimia. But what can be done to help those who are struggling with these eating disorders?
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Anorexics often have a distorted view of their appearance
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The media promote the idea that thin is beautiful