What is anorexia?
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that causes people to obsess about their weight and the food they eat. The disorder is primarily characterized by excessive weight loss and self-starvation, or a refusal to eat the amount of food required to maintain a healthy body weight. Anorexia is often found in people who have also been diagnosed with body dysmorphic disorder, causing them to desire a body much different than their own.
Anorexia nervosa’s typical onset age is around 17 years old, and folks between the ages of 14 and 25 tend to be at the highest risk of developing this disorder. Often times, our first exposure to this disorder is through the media, which typically reinforces harmful stereotypes about who develops an eating disorder and what it looks like. That being said, anorexia DOES NOT discriminate. It can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, sex, sexual orientation, weight, or economic class. If you’re struggling with anorexia, you are not alone and the challenges you are facing are valid.
What causes anorexia?
While an exact cause can be difficult to determine, anorexia nervosa is generally caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Anorexia nervosa is also a psychological disorder, which means people who develop this disorder tend to have certain personality types, such as perfectionism, neuroticism and low self-esteem. Recently, studies have reported a connection between body image issues and popular culture.
Other Common Causes
- Broken relationships
- Exposure to new situations
- Extreme dieting
- Abuse and trauma
- Peer pressure
- Family history of addictive personalities
What are the warning signs?
Some people with anorexia nervosa may show off their weight loss with revealing or tight-fitting clothing, but not everyone is comfortable showing off their bodies. Another common practice is to wear baggy clothing to cover up the amount of weight they have lost, to stay warm (less body fat means less insulation for body temperature regulation), or in shame of their bodies. Remember, not every skinny person is dealing with an eating disorder and people of all body types can be struggling with anorexia. It’s best not to make assumptions.
Other warning signs include:
- Eating very little, if at all
- Extreme weight loss
- Using ritualistic eating patterns, such as cutting food into tiny pieces, eating alone, and/or hiding food
- Withdrawal from social situations, especially those involving food
- Frequently using the excuse that they ate before hanging out
- Frequent comments about or preoccupation with food, calories and fat
- Thinning hair or development of lanugo; soft, thin hair covering the body
- Forgetfulness or lack of concentration
- Excessive exercise or strict adherence to an exercise program
- Only eating alone
- Excluding certain types of food from one’s diet, such as carbohydrates or foods high in saturated fat
- Irregular/nonexistent menstrual cycles in women
How is anorexia nervosa different from other eating disorders?
Anorexia nervosa is similar to other eating disorders, like bulimia nervosa and binge eating, in that it is generally connected with a distorted body image and altered eating habits. Even if all the evidence points to the contrary, a person with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or a binge eating disorder will convince themselves that they are overweight. No matter how much weight they lose, they will always think they have to lose more.
However, anorexia is different from the other two because of the severe restriction of the amount of food consumed. People suffering from anorexia may go through periods of binge eating or purging, but these episodes may occur less often than with people suffering from a different disorder.
How to Get Help
If you think you or a friend might have any one of these symptoms, there are options available to aid in reversing the disorder. Besides therapy—both group and personal—there are body image resources out there.
Your own personal body image may not be the only issue causing the disorder. Anorexia nervosa is a psychological disorder, which means treatment from a mental health professional may be necessary to address the root causes of the disorder, not just the effects. The sooner a person receives treatment, the easier it will be to recover. Also, the way that other people see a person takes a toll on how they see themselves. It is important to surround yourself with people who support you getting better.
What are your thoughts on how media and popular culture play into our body image? Share your thoughts in the comments below!