It’s the question well-wishers and psychologists always want us to answer – 'But sweetie, why are you really doing this?' There are lots of convincing psychological theories to explain why some people develop eating disorders. Believe me, I’ve read a lot of them in the hopes of having that ‘Bingo!’ moment when all will be explained and I’ll understand myself fully. Freud saw anorexia as a neurotic response to the onset of adulthood and sexuality. Susie Orbach thinks it has more to do with the pressure that society puts on women to conform to stereotyped ideals of femininity. The therapist Minuchin sees it as a passive yet defiant response to a stifling family environment. Yet others argue for a genetic component. My hunch is that eating disorders have multiple causes, many of which will be unique to each suffer. What’s important, is finding an explanation that makes sense to you.
Here are a few things that I believe contributed to my eating disorder:
1. Anxiety I’m a worry-bug. In the past, I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder, which basically means there’s pretty much nothing I don’t worry about. Terrorist attacks? Missing the bus? Getting dumped? Malaria? Exams? - you name it, I’ve probably worried about it today. I’ve used under-eating to keep my worries at bay by numbing my emotions, and to help me feel more in control.
2. My mum I really don’t want to admit this, because I love her, but I do think she’s had an inadvertent effect on my relationship with food and weight. She’s super-skinny and, even though she usually eats three meals a day, she has the ability to go for long stretches of time without eating very much. I don’t know to what extent her skinniness is natural or deliberate, because I’m too close to her to judge objectively and, frankly, I’d rather not go there. But the fact remains that, growing up with my mother as a model of women-hood, has made my own relationship with food and my body that much more fraught.
3. Self-hatred From about the age of 11 I’ve had a complicated relationship with the mirror. But beyond that, I’ve had difficulty loving and accepting myself – soul and mind, as well as body – for as long as I recall. I was mad enough to believe that, with a new body, would emerge a new me, a better, prettier me, that I could love.
4. My body This relationship’s not so peachy either. I started getting IBS in my mid-teens (again, like so many other people), and found the experience of my body behaving in a way that was so uncontrollable and unpredictable (not to mention gross) profoundly upsetting. I believe dieting was my own cruel way of reminding my body who’s boss.
5. The black dog There’s a lot of debate about whether depression is a cause or consequence of anorexia. Obviously, it’s different for everyone, but my hunch is that it’s usually both. It certainly was for me. Like my anxiety, my feelings of profound emptiness and sadness was numbed when I stopped eating. On another level, I also now suspect that starvation was my subconscious attempt to way of communicate my feelings to the people around me.
6. The media I’ve read too many fashion magazines and have taken them too seriously.
7. My friends Too many of them have had too many of the same problems I have. The other side to this coin, however, is that a recovered or recovering friend can be a tremendous support when you’re trying to recover too.
8.ME! None of the above explanations take away the fact that I chose and have continued to chose, to obsess about food and weight instead of filling my mind and sould with more important things. When I look at all of the explanations listed here, I realise that I have not struggled with anything that most privilaged Western girls and boys haven't also encountered. What makes me different from healthier people is the dysfunctional and irrational way I chose to deal with these minor difficulties. And I have to take responsibility for that.