Anorexia nervosa is a disorder that is becoming increasingly prevalent in American society. Women are bombarded with the message from a very young age that in order to be successful and happy, they must be thin. Unfortunately, this societal value has led to a rise in eating disorders.
Television and magazine advertising that show images of glamorous and thin models are everywhere. Thousands of teenage girls are starving themselves daily in an effort to attain what the fashion industry considers to be the ideal figure. An average female model weighs 23% less than the recommended weight for a woman. Maintaining a weight 20% below your expected body weight fits the criteria for the emotional eating disorder known as anorexia (Pirke & Ploog, 1984). According to medical weight standards, most models fit into the category of being anorexic (Garfinkle & Garner, 1990).
Physicians now believe that anorexia has existed for at least 300 years (Pirke & Ploog, 1984). However, it was only about one hundred years ago that Professor Ernest Lasegue of the University of Paris finally identified anorexia as an illness (Pirke & Ploog, 1984). The term anorexia nervosa” literally means nervous loss of appetite. Most researchers and physicians agree that the number of patients with this life-threatening disease is increasing at an alarming rate. Garfinkle & Garner define anorexia as “an emotional disorder characterized by an intense fear of becoming obese, lack of self-esteem, and distorted body image which results in self-induced starvation” (1990).
The development of this disease generally peaks between the ages of 14 and 18 but can occur later in life. It is not uncommon to see it in women in their early 40s. Recent estimates suggest that 1% of American girls between this age span will develop anorexia to some degree (Garfinkle & Garner, 1990). It has also propagated in many college campuses and is spreading. Studies have shown that nearly 20% of college women may suffer from anorexia or bulimia (Pirke & Ploog, 1984). The disease develops slowly over a period of months to years during which the sufferer changes her eating patterns to a very restricted diet. As stated previously, an anorexic is diagnosed by having a body weight 20% below the expected body weight of a healthy person at the same age and height of the eating disorder patient.
The anorexic may often become frightened of gaining weight and even of food itself. The patient may feel fat, even though their body weight is well below the normal weight for their height. Some may even feel they do not deserve pleasure out of life and will deprive themselves of situations offering pleasure, including eating. This fear becomes so difficult to manage that the sufferer will gradually isolate themselves from other people and social activities. This happens so the sufferer can continue the exhausting anorexic behaviors. Although the mortality rate is high (30% of anorexics will eventually die from the disease), approximately one third are able to overcome the disease with psychiatric help (Pirke & Ploog, 1984).
Warning signs to look for in someone suspected of anorexia include physical signs such as intolerance of cold due to the absence of the body’s natural insulator (fat), dizziness, fainting spells, dry skin, loss of muscle, and an obvious weight loss of about fifteen percent. There are also behavioral changes in an anorexic person, including restricted food intake, odd food rituals, an increased fear of food, hyperactivity, dressing in layers, and regular weighing. Some odd food rituals” include cutting food into small pieces, counting bites, or even talking to their food. Anorexics are not repelled or revolted by food; in fact, their minds are often dominated by thoughts of food. While the exact cause of anorexia is still unknown, a combination of psychological, environmental, and physiological factors is associated with the development of this disorder (Cove, 1998).
The most common cause of anorexia in women is an incorrect self-perception of their weight. Anorexics feel as if they are heavier than others around them and believe the quickest way to lose weight is to simply stop eating. Anorexia survivor Nanett Pearson, Miss Utah 1996, explains, I became obsessed with body image. I kept journals, and in one pathetic passage, I described how I went for sixteen days on water, and only about two glasses a day” (1998). At first, this method may seem to work, and the subject loses weight, but their bodies will soon adjust to the lack of food and learn to use it.