Speaking With My Body: The Forces behind Disordered Eating
28 February 2009
Eating disorders are a problem that has plagued society for hundreds of years. The first
cases of anorexia nervosa were documented in the 1870s, and the number of people diagnosed with
anorexia and bulimia climbs yearly (“Brief” 1). One question lies at the bottom of all inquiries into
the nature of disordered eating: What causes it? What compels people to reject food and
methodically destroy their bodies by starving and purging?
There are several different opinions when it comes to explaining what causes eating
disorders, and among the general public the idea is that eating disorders are mostly about wanting
to be thinner, or are merely “a diet gone too far” (“Dieting” 3). Anorexia Nervosa, which involves
compulsively maintaining an extremely low body weight coupled with a distorted body image, is
typically blamed on a fear of growing up and a desire to look like stick-thin models. Bulimia
nervosa, or binge-purge disorder, is commonly referred to as a ‘plan B’ for girls who want to eat
and not gain weight, or as a symptom of an out-of-control personality. These generalizations not
only misrepresent the reality of an eating disorder, they further the pervasive misunderstanding of
While several studies have linked factors such as media messages (Goodman 19) and
clinical depression (Casey 118) to eating disorders, the true roots are much more varied and
complex. Some of the many different forces that are documented as influencing disordered eating
include low self-esteem, lack of social support structures, food-related trauma, damaged familial
relationships, and inability to otherwise cope with stress. While all of these factors certainly play a
part in the overall picture of an eating disorder, it is difficult to pinpoint which factors play what
roles. Many symptoms that are attributed as either a cause or effect of the disorder are also signs
of starvation, and many psychological dynamics that make one prone to an eating disorder are also
exacerbated by the strain a disorder puts on the body and on an individual’s relationships.
I chose to write on this topic because, as a part of several research projects, I have become
very close with a group of disordered eaters. I have seen first-hand how EDs destroy lives, and
how different these people are from the popular image of shallow girls dieting to be thin for prom.
One thing all of their stories had in common was the depth and diversity of factors that influenced
their disordered eating1.
Many clinical works and popular articles give the impression that eating disorders spring to
life when the right combination of social pressure and media influence appears (Goodman 81). I
interviewed fifteen girls about the factors that influence their disorders, and received radically
different examples of causes.
One theme that came up again and again was that an eating disorder only came about as a
coping mechanism for unrelated stressors:
“When my life started to get more stressful in high school, restricting made me feel like I
was managing that stress. It made me feel quot;above it allquot; and separate and detached, which
was helpful, given that the simple fact of living seemed far too overwhelming to confront
head-on. It started almost as a distraction, then evolved (devolved?) into this massive part
of my life, one that ironically causes me more pain than it relieves.” – Kelly2
As Kelly put it, the forces that sparked her eating disorder had nothing to do with wanting to be
model-thin or internalizing harmful media ideals. She adds that “The notion that eating disorders
are simply diets that have quot;gone too farquot; is an incredibly harmful one, simply because it is so
utterly reductionistic. It reduces an eating disorder to no more than a vaguely silly quot;phasequot; in one's
life that can eventually be overcome through eating normally.” Since her disorder was intrinsically
In this paper I chose to focus primarily on the two most prevalent eating disorders, anorexia nervosa and bulimia
nervosa, as well as the Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (ED-NOS) label. This was not meant to discredit or
overlook other disorders such as compulsive overeating or binge-eating disorder, but merely to keep the length of
the paper to a manageable size.
The names used are what the individuals elected to be called for this paper, and may or may not reflect their actual
names. The forum through which I collected these interviews is unnamed as per their request.
tied to external stressors, it goes much deeper than a disrupted model of eating. Her disorder is an
active coping mechanism that has more to do with stress than with dieting.
Kay Martin expresses a similar idea, that her disorder sprang mostly from a need to cope
with other strains in her life: “An eating disorder paved over the cognitive dissonance, helped me
to outsource my pain into food and weight; gave me something to focus on other than that
sadness.” She adds that her disorder came as a conscious choice of one damaging coping
mechanism over another: “I thought it through and decided that anorexia was a more desirable
problem than my previous one (cutting), and if I was going to be [messed] up, I might as well be
[messed] up and thin.” Again, the development of her disorder was not influenced by societal or
media pressure, but as a way of synthesizing unbearable personal stress. As the primary force
currently driving her disorder, Kay says it is simply “fear. Fear of failure and fear of being a
success…Fears I don't even know how to name and explain, but fear.”
Erin T., who also struggles with anxiety issues surrounding food, says that her disorder
grew out of her depression. “I was severely depressed/suicidal for a few years before I developed
an eating disorder. I absolutely hated myself and wanted to be as small and invisible as possible. I
wanted to not feel anything.” Brandi R. also spoke about anxiety in tandem with her disorder, and
added her insight into the weight-obsession aspect of her disorder:
“I also hate that some people think its all about weight. I am obsessed with my weight, as
are many disordered people, but when it comes down to it, almost everyone has underlying
reasons. I think even some people who may think its all about losing and weight for them,
there is most likely a subconscious reason to why they do it or how it started.”
An anonymous contributor agreed, saying “…disordered eating is merely a reflection of a complex
set of unsettled fears, irrational thinking, etc.” Seen this way, the disorder itself can be seen as
symptomatic of unaddressed anxiety, rather than the other way around.
As these and several other interviewees expressed, external forces of stress and anxiety
pushed them into patterns of disordered eating as a way to cope. Katy echoes this, saying “I think
part of me transferred all my worries and anxieties into my ED. I use it to avoid facing reality and
avoid dealing with my real issues and worries. I guess it's like a coping mechanism?” S. P. was
emphatic about the specific influence: “I was never overweight, never went on a diet, never even
liked fashion. It was a response to overwhelming stress. That was my senior year in high school, so
on top of my family falling apart I was dealing with the prospect of moving out into the real
world...My relapses are always stress related.”
One individual identified only as C. detailed her descent into disordered eating as a way of
expressing her unutterable feelings of depression:
“I had spent so much time pretending to be this perfectly happy person when I was really
screaming on the inside. Maybe, just maybe if I lost enough weight, people would see
through my facade and know how depressed I actually was. I didn't want sympathy or
attention, I just wanted people to know the truth. I never could express myself verbally, so
my eating disorder was a different way to express myself. Speaking with my body. And
that's how this whole losing weight and looking skeletal thing became an obsession.”
Similarly, an anonymous commenter traced her disorder to a period of depression in her early
teens, and was quick to point out “I don't think that the ultra thin look is attractive and it really
bothers me that people are so quick to boil down these disorder to just wanting to be thin…
Logically I know I'm already thin but it doesn't matter.”
These personal accounts point to one conclusion: the real causes of eating disorders are
much more complex that simply hating ones body and wanting to be thinner, and many spring up
as a way of coping with unbearable stress, or as a result of anxiety and depression. In this aspect,
the eating disorders seen here have more in common with other methods of self-harm such as
cutting and burning than they do with dieting. It also suggests that many assumptions about the
root causes of eating disorders are not only mistaken, but inherently opposite to what many eating
disordered persons experience. As possible methods of prevention, teaching healthy and effective
methods of stress management may be beneficial to people at risk of eating disorders, as well as
catching disordered behavior before it has a chance to escalate.
Fundamentally, everyone who is struggling with an eating disorder should be treated with
the respect and dignity owed to an individual, not simply labeled as a vain, shallow teenager who
wants to be thin. W. put it clearly and honestly when saying that “all misconceptions about eating
disorders bother me. They are too complex and unique to each individual for anyone to be able to
summarize them or describe them in simple terms. They're not about vanity. They're not just about
control, they're not just about the media, and they are not something that someone can just quot;get
“A Brief History of Eating Disorders.” Mental Health Matters 20 Jan 2009. 28 Feb 2009.
“Dieting Can Lead to Eating Disorders” Medical News Today 20 Oct 2006. 27 Feb 2009.
Casey, John. “The Media Do Not Contribute to the Incidence of Eating Disorders.” Eating
Disorders. Ed. Jennifer A. Hurley. Opposing Viewpoints Ser. San Diego: Greenhaven P,
1995. 82-86. Rpt. of “Thin Advice From Thick Doctors.” Evening Standard. 31 May 2000.
Goodman, Ellen. “The Media Contribute to the Incidence of Eating Disorders.” Eating Disorders.
Ed. Jennifer A. Hurley. Opposing Viewpoints Ser. San Diego: Greenhaven P, 1995. 78-81.
Rpt. of “Teaching Young Girls To Harm Themselves.” San Diego Union Tribune. 28 May