Anorexia Is Contagious, and I Wanted to Catch It

The explosion of awareness about eating disorders has become a double-edged sword whereby anorexia has become shorthand for "fragile and interesting"

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When I was 13, I decided I would become anorexic. By devoting myself to the illness, I believed I could morph from an emotionally confused adolescent into the anorexic girls I had seen on Oprah who were, by contrast, models of self-regulation. I read everything I could find about eating disorders — from Steven Levenkron’s fictional The Best Little Girl in the World, in which the anorexic character is unflappably disciplined, to the best-selling memoir Wasted by Marya Hornbacher, whose 202-calorie-a-day diet plan is routinely emulated. Armed with my acquired knowledge, I eventually succeeded, and over the next eight years of my life, I was hospitalized four times.

(MORE: New Genes Connected to Eating Disorders)

My journey into anorexia is becoming less atypical as the disease itself has changed enormously over the past decade. Today, no teenage girl needs to be told what anorexia is — it’s the constant subject of memoirs, young-adult novels, Lifetime movies and episodes of Dr. Phil. Stories about Mary-Kate Olsen, Demi Moore or the latest celebrity to be admitted to rehab for anorexia are a regular tabloid feature. But the explosion of awareness has become a double-edged sword. The number of people hospitalized for eating disorders has risen 24%, from 2000 to 2009, about the same length of time that Eating Disorders Awareness Week has been a mainstay on high school and college campuses since 2001. The pro-anorexia, or “pro-ana,” movement also emerged in 2001, leading to a profusion of websites to help ambitious anorexics.

When I doggedly pursued anorexia, I considered myself an anomaly, an ersatz case. But after being admitted to the hospital, I quickly realized that I wasn’t the only one who had sought out anorexia. A number of my fellow patients in treatment attested to having read memoirs prior to their illness and becoming enamored with the idea. One of my roommates had also read Hornbacher’s Wasted and was inspired. “I was on vacation with my parents, so I couldn’t do anything, but I took notes,” she told me. Other inpatients talked about entering starvation pacts with like-minded friends, or actively competing to see who could eat the least. Like me, they had fallen in love with the symbolism of anorexia and then found themselves unable to easily reverse their destructive habits. I began to think there might not be a big distinction between a “real” anorexic and a person like me who had willed herself to get it.

(MORE: Can Pro-Anorexia Websites Help Heal Some Eating Disorders?)

In today’s vocabulary, before I got really sick, I would have been called what is now known as a “wannarexic.” The Internet provides an outlet for wannarexics to post “thin-spirational” pictures of emaciated models, trade dieting tips or vent their frustration about their bodies. “Real” anorexics and the medical establishment alike decry these girls as attention seekers making a farce of a serious illness, which is an underestimation of the real pain they’re in as well as the dangers inherent in flirting with disordered eating habits. Though we don’t know yet the full biological mechanisms behind starvation, we do know that underfeeding in any human can lead to anorexic thought patterns and behaviors, which in turn can become their own addiction. The emotional attachment to eating disorders is then often strengthened at treatment centers, where patients pick up tips from one another about how to lose more weight and trick clinicians into thinking they’re eating properly.

I believe that so many young women want to be anorexic because our society has communicated not the horrible consequences of eating disorders, but what might seem to be the benefits of them, namely, that they make you skinny and special. We need to change the vocabulary we use and the tone we invoke when we discuss anorexia, refusing to employ it as shorthand for “fragile and interesting.” We also need to staunchly refuse to include what could be interpreted as prescriptive materials in narrative accounts, namely daily calorie intake, exercise routines and lowest weights of active anorexics. Finally, we need to give more attention to studying the efficacy of home-based treatment programs like the Maudsley method, which trains parents and family members to oversee the care of anorexics, so that sufferers don’t wind up in an endless cycle of hospitalizations. It’s important that we begin to examine all these factors of suggestion and reinforcement and intervene with girls who are experimenting with disordered eating. If we don’t, they can easily end up like I once was: sick, miserable and desperate to recover from an illness that I once wanted so badly.

MORE: Defining Recovery in Anorexia — and Addiction

11 comments
profoliclogic
profoliclogic

Oh, stop it. She isn't talking to specifically anyone. She is talking about HERSELF and other people who think like her. Not everyone is the same case so before you get offended think about what she is actually saying. I have a friend who is losing too much weight. She started off by not eating as much as she usually does and then she barely eats now all of a sudden. I have another friend right now who is jealouse of all the attention my other friend is getting by not eating. This friend of mind decides she is going to be anorexic, such as not bringing her lunch. She is doing it on purpose not because she is insecure but she think everything is a competition. Do you think she deserves to be sympathized with? What she is doing is a very selfish, rude, and offending thing.

teeheejadey
teeheejadey

I made an account just to comment on this.
I am extremely offended by the title "wannarexic" and the 


QUOTE: " “Real” anorexics and the medical establishment alike decry these girls as attention seekers making a farce of a serious illness, which is an underestimation of the real pain they’re in as well as the dangers inherent in flirting with disordered eating habits.

"

First off, I've been suffering from bulimia since the age of 12. I am currently 20 years old. Bulimia became so normative for me.. that it took me 8 years to realize how SEVERE my bulimia was. I binged and purged 5~6x a day. The problem is, I thought I was the only one who had this disorder. I never saw it as a problem until recently. I don't remember when or how or what caused me to stick my fingers down my throat 8 years ago, but it happened and I lived with it. It was a HORRIBLE journey and it still is. However, I am now anorexic. Does that make me a "wannarexic"? Does that my eating disorder any less pailful than someone who initially just have anorexia? I'm not going to lie, the reason why I unconsciously started to starve myself because bingeing and purging no longer allows me to lose weight and I was getting depressed. I was depressed and something just triggers and I just stopped eating. I hate food when it's inside me but i fantasize about it all the time. I think about food and I feel hungry but I absolutely do not want to consume it. Does this make me a "wannarexic"? Also, no one even knows I have an eating disorder besides my therapist.. does this make me an attention seeker? I know I may one out of a thousand but this should show that the "Attention-seeking" is only a stereotype that is stubbornly glued to the idea of "anorexia" or even "wannarexia" 

kkkaylin
kkkaylin

I'm 15 years old and have been struggling with both bulimia and anorexia since i was 12 years old because of my modeling career. i have been in and out of 4 different clinical treatments centers since i was 13. at my smallest i was 5 foot 1 inches and  69 pounds at age 14 i had to repeat the 9th grade because i didn't go to school because my parents were afraid i'd relapse. then i read this article and realize how ignorant people actually are. i am now have no career in modeling and have lost everything important to me. and hear you are saying you wanted to be anorexic that is obscene and thats all i have to say about your stupidity because i struggle everyday 

almadeque
almadeque

I'm in my 9th year of recovery and there are so many things I find wrong with this article. I agree with Lydia below that it "further spreads the misconception that you can choose to be anorexic."  I'm just going to say this, it's easy to get hyper-focused on everything external that "messed" with us and dangled the tempting eating disorder lure in front of our faces, but we never chose to suffer. "Wannarexic" is a horrible term. Regardless of the beginnings, once it's there we gotta own it. Recovery is taking unwavering ownership of your health, avoiding your triggers (or conquering them), stopping the blame game on everyone/thing else, and recognizing that our eating disorder is going to try and trick us every step of the way. We're going to face the folks at treatment who want to compete, we're going to want to read the memoirs of starving women... don't do it. We didn't choose this... the eating disorder wants us to think we did so that we think we're still in control... and then we won't fight back. Fight back.

Contagious... seriously?

JeaneneHarlick
JeaneneHarlick

Kelsey - thank you so much for a refreshingly new perspective on media coverage of anorexia. It has long bothered me. I have struggled with very servere anorexia for more than 25 years. I just got out of another 11-month treatment - I didn't go there intending to stay so long, merely to restore weight to the degree that I could think coherently.  When I got to the center, my mother closed my bank account and effectively trapped me there. 

There are so many things wrong with current treatment models and current awareness campaigns. I think treatment centers are helpful up to a point - but they foster dependence and, as you pointed out, teach clients how to be better anorectics. I believe entering my first residential treatment in 2004 was the biggest mistake of my life. Prior to that, I had a sub-clinical ED - I wasn't doing great, but I was nonetheless highly functional and not at the point where anyone would look at me and say, "she's anorexic." After 2004, I got progressively worse, in part because I felt that I was inadequately disciplined, after hearing all the horror stories of other clients. Since 2004, I have been in and out of treatment centers, and my ED became life-threatening. I am currently trying to finally stop the cycle, to fend for myself, to get back into life and work - I know the meaning I can find there will naturally result in less desire to engage in ED behaviors. I  believe treatment professionals vastly neglect the role which meaningful work and meaningful friends can play in recovery. 

I cringe every time I see another segment on eating disorders on the morning or evening talk shows, and I thank you for voicing the harm they can do. 

Lydia
Lydia

You cannot choose to be anorexic. This author most likely had an eating disorder, but as much as she thinks she chose it, she didn't. You can't choose to suffer from a mental illness upon waking up one day. Yes, she chose to emulate what anorectics did, which eventually progressed into an actual eating disorder, but all this article does is further spread the misconception that you CAN choose to be anorexic and that you CAN become thin as long as you want it bad enough. 

KathrynKoehler
KathrynKoehler

I totally agree that the image of anorexia needs to stop being glamorized and that the media needs to be as careful about anorexia as they are about something like suicide.  I have an ED (developed when I was 23) and while I didn't set out to be anorexic I certainly "learned" things from other patients when in treatment.  I think it is even worse when adolescents are together in an inpatient setting.  Often their eating disorder and its behaviors is what bonds these girls and keeping secrets and outsmarting the staff often is a way of becoming close.  It can be very dangerous and problematic.


ramachandranr6
ramachandranr6

Information regarding the eating disorders "Anorexia" is to be taken by one and all as warning

postingonline42
postingonline42

I also wanted to morph from an "emotionally confused adolescent"  to a "model of self-regulation". Luckily i was raised by intelligent (scientist) parents my "models of self-regulation" were Mr. Spok from Star Trek and Sherlock Holmes (back when he was all mind and no social skills -- before they turned him into an action hero). Girls back then were told "you can do anything a boy can do"... and that girls who try to do what boys do are feminists.  I studied logic and math on my own, tried not to make any decisions based on emotion, and today I am a programmer.

Today emulating boys means you have a gender disorder, so a girl would not be encouraged to do so. She would need role models of her own gender only, and somehow a female Sherlock Holmes would works even less in today's culture than a male one. And we don't raise up intelligence to heroic status (although we still have Doctor Who we would not have invented him today).


Bring back intelligence and mental strength into culture. Bring back heroic stoicism.

StarSakura
StarSakura

@Lydia But can you not become thin as long as you want it bad enough, no matter the way you go about it?