For some people who have never experienced an eating disorder, it might be tempting to think that it is somehow self-inflicted. Let me say this unequivocally—eating disorders are not a choice. Those of us who work in the field understand that no one would ever choose to develop this illness. The statistics are staggering with nearly 30 million people in the U.S. alone suffering from eating disorders. For those still in the darkness of the disease, I want to say that there is hope. You can recover from eating disorders.
With so much focus nowadays on thinness, it would be easy to think that eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder are relatively new. The fact is, eating disorders have been around nearly as long as humans have existed—although in slightly different ways. To give you a better understanding of this illness, it might help to know its history:
323 BC – 31 BC. The earliest historical descriptions of people experiencing symptoms of eating disorders date back from the Hellenistic Period through medieval times (5th -15th century AD). Back then, people thought that by denying their physical needs they would somehow be purified.
700 BC. In Ancient Rome, during the time of Caesar, people attended lavish banquets, gorging themselves on food and drink. It’s thought that a special room called a vomitorium was provided where people could go and throw up in order to continue feasting. That’s only a myth. Actually, the vomitoria did exist, but the term was used to describe passageways in public buildings that “disgorged” people in or out of a seating area. The Roman Colosseum had 76 vomitoria that worked so well that they were able to seat 50,000 people within 15 minutes.
12th – 14th centuries. Hundreds of years ago women practiced self-starvation as a form of religious practice believing their desire for food was sinful. These women would starve themselves for weeks and eat very little for months at a time as a way to show their devotion to God. One of the most famous women to do so was Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-1380). She confessed that she sometimes ate food to prove she was not possessed by the demons that told her not to eat.
1689. English physician Richard Morton described his 20-year-old patient as a skeleton clad with skin. Considered the earliest modern cases of anorexia nervosa, he described the loss of appetite and lack of physical explanation as “Consumption to be Nervous.”
1873. The term anorexia nervosa was established by Queen Victoria’s personal physician, Sir William Gull, who observed that the illness occurs in both males and females. The term comes from the Greek meaning “nervous absence of appetite.” He also wrote that “none of the cases are hopeless as long as life exists.”
The early 1900s. Treatment for eating disorders well into the 20th century involved “parentectomy” where the cure was to separate the person from their parents.
1903. Dr. Pierre Janet observed bulimic behavior in his patients which is characterized by binge eating and purging through vomiting or the use of laxatives.
1940s. More and more psychiatrists began seeing patients with eating disorders. Some psychoanalysts believed that anorexia nervosa as being linked to possible sexual origins.
1959. Dr. Albert Stunkard was the first to describe binge eating disorder (BED), linking it to “night eating.”
1973. Psychoanalyst Dr. Hilde Bruch wrote the well-received book, “Eating Disorders: Obesity, Anorexia Nervosa and the Person Within.” Through the 1970s and 1980s, cases of bulimia exploded in the U.S., England, France, and Germany. College campuses offered counseling services for eating disorders. Diana, Princess of Wales, openly spoke about her struggles with bulimia and how it would take her nearly a decade to overcome.
1979. British psychiatrist, Gerald Russell, first noted the differences in symptoms and health risks between anorexia and bulimia. The following year, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) added an eating disorders section including anorexia.
1983. On February 4th, 32-year-old singer, Karen Carpenter, suffered a fatal heart attack brought on by the physiological stresses placed on her system by anorexia nervosa. Her death brought the illness into the spotlight.
2013. Bulimia is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as its own disorder, allowing treatment to be covered by insurance.
There has been a recent movement toward body positivity with brands such as Dove, AerieREAL, Athleta, and JCPenney which are now focused on the importance of positive body image. Celebrities, such as Jennifer Lawrence, are refusing to diet for a film. After being cast as Katniss in The Hunger Games, she was pressured to lose weight. She was quick to clap back pointing out that Katniss Everdeen needed to be strong. Jennifer knew millions of young girls would look up to Katniss. She told the producers, “We have the ability to control this image that young girls are going to be seeing.”
Eating disorders have been with us throughout history, but we can now correctly diagnose and treat these illnesses. As with any challenge, the path to success is almost never linear. It’s common for people’s progress to slow down or stop at times. They may even relapse back into their old eating disorder thoughts or behaviors. There’s no question that conquering an eating disorder is one of the hardest things a person can do. But there is hope. People can and do recover.
Eating disorders have little to do with food. In fact, they arise because of underlying emotional and mental health triggers. We believe that successful treatment is grounded in an individualized approach that incorporates individual psychotherapy, Cognitive Behavioral Treatment, and Family Therapy. Seeking treatment for eating disorders can save your life.
At Wallace Family Therapy, we are trained to provide the most effective and comprehensive treatment plan that meets your specific needs, goals and challenges. We’re here to help you.