CN: brief mention of physical and sexual abuse.
It’s natural to wonder what causes anorexia, a mental illness. In some ways, it would simplify things to have a straightforward explanation. Anorexia is a diagnosable mental illness, but that’s not really an explanation, just a categorization. What causes anorexia? Ultimately, there is no single reason. Instead, there are several factors that may intersect.
Families Are Not to Blame
One important note is that families, and specifically parents, are not to blame if their child develops anorexia or another eating disorder. In the past, parents were blamed for the development of eating disorders. Many professionals thought that rigid, over-protective, and intrusive families were to blame. However, this theory has been thoroughly debunked. Unfortunately, this belief caused much heartache for families and impaired recovery from anorexia, a mental illness.
In fact, families are often an essential part of the recovery process. This is especially true for young people who are still living at home. With professional guidance, families can support their loved one with an eating disorder, offering a safe and welcoming atmosphere for healing.
Research points to a genetic component to anorexia and mental illness. People with a first-degree relative such as a parent, sibling, or child with an eating disorder are more likely to develop an eating disorder themselves, according to the Mayo Clinic. While genetics are not the whole story, we learn more all the time.
Additionally, there are some inheritable personality traits that may also contribute to an eating disorder. One of these is perfectionism, which is often driven by shame. Setting unattainable goals leads to frustration, and it’s particularly challenging when applied to eating, as we naturally crave a variety of foods. When we restrict food, it triggers a need to eat more to compensate for those restrictions, leading to “imperfect” eating and a cycle of guilt and shame.
Obsessive thinking, neuroticism, and rigidity are also traits often found in people with eating disorders. These traits, obviously, don’t always lead to eating disorders, as many people have these traits without every developing anorexia or another eating disorder.
Anorexia Is Connected to Other Mental Illnesses
Anorexia is closely tied with other mental health issues. For example, many people with anorexia also have an anxiety disorder. Some develop an anxiety disorder before developing an eating disorder, and the eating disorder may, in some ways, be a coping mechanism.
Some people with anorexia also have obsessive-compulsive disorder, with food restricting as a part of the illness. Depression is also common in those with eating disorders. Other mental illness diagnoses do not necessarily cause eating disorders, but they may make people more susceptible.
People with eating disorders such as anorexia may have experienced trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse. Food restriction becomes a way of coping with the abuse and the resulting feelings of guilt or shame. It’s an attempt to regain the control that was lost. For those who have experienced trauma, it’s essential to address it in conjunction with the eating disorder.
Diet Culture, Fatphobia, and Anorexia, a Mental Illness
Our culture has a very specific idea of the “perfect” body. In movies, television, and advertisements, women are typically tall and thin, while men are either slim or well-muscled. These bodies are challenging and unrealistic for most of us to attain, but we still feel the weight of those expectations. Young people, in particular, are vulnerable to measuring themselves against these unattainable standards and feeling that they fall short.
This is where the “wellness” industry and diet culture come into play. It can feel like everyone is on a diet in a quest to make their bodies smaller. Many people who develop an eating disorder such as anorexia may start with dieting. Dieting is a type of food restriction, which our bodies don’t respond well to long term. Studies show that most people who diet regain the weight they initially lost.
When dieting inevitably fails, people often blame themselves rather than the diet. They may try another diet, and then another, seeking the right food plan. Our culture encourages dieting, especially for those who live in higher-weight bodies. This leads to a cycle of criticism, self-doubt, and restriction.
Most people who have an eating disorder have a history of dieting, and many started trying to change their bodies at a young age. An essential part of recovery is recognizing the harm that diet culture has caused, and that most of us don’t have bodies that measure up to the idealized bodies we see in the media. Because our culture is fatphobic, we learn that fat is “bad,” and that we should go to extreme measures to avoid being fat or gaining weight.
Acknowledging the harm that we’ve experienced due to diet culture is essential to recovering from anorexia and other eating disorders. Our bodies are fine, just the way they are.