In an effort to keep up my All Eating Disorders, All the Time round-the-clock coverage for you (kidding – I swear this is the last post on this for a while), I bring you Charlotte’s List of Why People Have Eating Disorders.
When I tell people about my eating-disordered past, and even more so since the 20/20 & FOX interviews, someone inevitably says, “Oh, I could never have an eating disorder! I just love food too much!”
If I had a nickel for every time I have heard this then believe me, I would not be grading SAT essays for a living. The thing is, a LOT of women have disordered eating patterns so before you get all that-could-never-happen-to-me about it, check out this new research from Self Magazine and the University of North Carolina.
Thousands of women were asked detailed questions about their eating habits. Here’s the main finding:
Fully 75% of American women reported disordered eating behaviors or a full-blown eating disorder.
In addition to this, as was found in the “contagious eating disorder” study (it’s contagious! Panic!!), eating disorders cluster because we learn the behaviors from those who are closest to us: our friends and family.
Another interesting finding from the study is that 67% of respondents (excluding those with active eating disorders) are trying to lose weight. 53% of dieters are already at a healthy weight and are still trying to lose weight. That is a recipe for an eating disorder if I’ve ever heard one.
Why People Have Eating Disorders
1. Genetics. It’s hard to tease apart the effects of nature versus nurture in something so basic to our survival as food but I believe there is a strong genetic component. As the saying goes, “Genetics load the gun, environment pulls the trigger.” Disordered eating has been passed down through my family from generation to generation, just like our recipe for “goop rolls” and our distinctive “Hilton squint.”
2. Control. And I do not mean self control. People always say to me “oh, you must have had so much self control as an anorexic!” It’s fear, people. It’s about controlling the one thing you have absolute control over – what goes in your mouth – in a society that can feel very out of control. Every major flare up of my disordered eating has occurred around a great stressor in my life. It’s a coping technique. A bad one, but still a coping strategy.
3. Perfectionism. I’m a perfectionist. Always have been. My mother will tell you that I cried when I came out of the womb because I only got a 9 on my APGAR. I’ve never got anything less than an “A” in school (seriously). I’ll get sick or faint rather than drop out of a race. If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do in 100%. In some areas of life, this perfectionistic drive is a bonus but in a society that values thinness over almost anything else? Disaster.
4. Black and White Thinking. Despite all of my husband’s attempts to train it out of me, I’m still a notoriously black-and-white thinker. I understand the world is nuanced but when it comes to myself, well, I’m either good or bad. And food is either good or bad. When I hear advice like “trans fats are bad for you” I take out all transfats from my diet. I don’t think “well, they’re not great for me but I’m not going to die if I eat a ding dong.” It was this kind of thinking that led to my orthorexia.
5. Endorphins. The starvation cycle is self-reinforcing. Once you deprive yourself long enough, the body kicks in some extra energy which, if you were truly in an environment with no food, would give you an extra boost to go find some food. However, in an anorexic who is surrounded by food this hollow feeling can be rather addictive.
6. Self punishment. This probably goes along with black and white thinking but I’m very hard on myself and I think a lot of eating disordered people are too. So yes, sometimes I would use food as a reward for being good or take it away as a punishment for being bad.
7. Depression. When you are severely depressed, you may think “What’s the point of eating anyhow?” Some depressed people overeat, some undereat but changes in eating patterns are often one of the first and best signs of depression.
8. The desire to be thin. Thin is greatly rewarded in our society. I’m not saying it’s right – in fact, I think it’s a travesty that is wreaking havoc in the souls of our daughters – but it is the truth. And those of us who are perfectionistic people-pleasers will do our best to be what society deems acceptable. Even more so when many of our friends and/or family members are doing it.
Did you notice that not a single reason listed was about food? It’s not about the food. Some of the anorexics I have known have been the most passionate people I’ve ever met about food. They spend hours combing through recipes and baking and serving and planning and cooking. They love food. They just don’t love themselves.
So please, please stop saying “Oh, I could never have an eating disorder!” Because you could. And if you truly don’t (and remember there are lots of ways to have an unhealthy relationship with food – binge eating, overeating, undereating, taking out whole food groups and so on) then be grateful. And then help the rest of us get to where you are – by lifting us up – not by shunting us into some subgroup of psycho.