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Anorexia – when the Soul is starving



Anorexia (Anorexia nervosa) usually begins with the desire to be – or to become slim. Many of those afflicted eventually slide into this disease via a diet. At one point the starvation diet gets out of control and starts to dominate the entire life. The fear for gaining weight increases to the point of creating a strictly controlled food intake – all the way to a complete refusal to eat. The worst part of all is: The afflicted develop a progressively distorted body image and finally see themselves as fat and bloated while in reality by now they are only skin and bones. When during therapy an anorexic person is asked to paint a picture of him/herself, the body silhouette always differs far from reality. Most of them are totally stunned when they lay down on a large sheet of paper and the therapist traces the girth of their body with a pen. They would have never imagined that both are images of the same person.

It is taken for granted that the prevailing ideal of thinness is one of the reasons for the rapid rise of this disease during past decades. Young females during puberty are especially affected, but then there are increasingly reports about afflicted older women and more men. Naturally obsession with beauty is not the sole cause because in that case all girls and women would become anorexic. Additional contributory factors have to play a role, as for instance specific problematic family patterns, the afflicted’s pronounced need to control, frequently the refusal to consummate the transition from girl to woman. Traumatic experiences such as sexual abuse are also potential triggers. The estimated number of unreported or undetected cases is extremely high because the afflicted is embarrassed and thus rarely asks for help him/herself but very often - frequently very skillfully - tries to hide the affliction –from his/her environment. Careful estimates range between 2% and 20% of all women developing an eating disorder (either anorexia or bulimia) at some point in their lives. The proportion of afflicted men is considerably smaller but rising.

The ramifications of anorexia are serious. The extreme weight loss retards the metabolism resulting in signs of deficiency such as osteoporosis. Fingernails, hair and skin will be damaged. Particularly dangerous is the organs’ lack of nourishment with nutrients potentially leading to complete organ failure. The afflicted suffer from dizziness, circulatory insufficiency and concentration disorders. In case of young women it can cause growth stop or slowed puberty development. In the end their menstruation fails to set in. 10% of the afflicted die.

For the family and friends it is frequently difficult to recognize the disease even in the early stages (who among us has never secretly envied a girl friend all of a sudden wearing her clothes 3 sizes smaller?). Even when it becomes obvious that here something is not as it should be, it is difficult to get close to the afflicted because they frequently withdraw from their social environment and often don’t even realize that they are actually sick (understandably, they still think that they are much too fat and can’t understand why the others make such a fuss about eating). It gets truly dangerous with a BMI (Body Mass Index) of 13 or less - in that case forced feeding in the hospital cannot be avoided and is in order to at least keep the afflicted alive. However naturally that does not resolve the underlying problem. In that case psychotherapeutic treatment becomes absolutely necessary. The decision to decide on family therapy (systemic) approach, cognitive-behavior therapy or psychoanalytical therapy is a matter of opinion.

Whatever it may be – bottom line: It is time to also confront the perfection imperative and especially in advertising. There are other values than perfect beauty. Cindy Crawford is a perfect example. In the beginning of her career and in order to more evenly configure her face, she was urged to have the little liver spot on her lip removed. She refused – and it turned out to become her trademark, the certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ making her stand out from the faceless masses of models. Or, let us remember Isabella Rossellini. She surely would have had enough money to have the little missing corner on her incisor covered by a crown. Would her smile still been as charming and attractive? Or simply just a little more boring, less personal? By the way, the saying “perfection must be considered the norm and imperfection as the individual, unique, distinctive” also stems from her. Shouldn’t this be written on the front page in every girl’s friendship book?

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This article was written by psychologist and book author Felicitas Heyne. She is the developer of the iPersonic personality test. Take the free personality test now and get in-depth career advice and life coaching from our unique iPersonic personality profiles!

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