Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Pop quiz

What's the first thing that pops into your head when you think about eating disorders? Or see someone who's clearly struggling with anorexia or bulimia?

A. "What a selfish brat--why doesn't she get a life?"

B. "What a dreadful illness this is--I know how much she's suffering"?

The answer most likely depends on what you know--or think you know--about eating disorders.

If you think they're emotional responses to trauma or lifestyle choices, you probably answered A. If think they're physiological diseases that are no fault of the patient and can't be chosen (or unchosen), you probably chose B. And you'd be correct.

As Cynthia Bulik, professor of eating disorders and psychiatry at University of North Carolina, put it, "“There is a lot of false information about anorexia nervosa disseminated in pop culture. This study suggests that even a nugget of accurate biological information can influence how health care professionals perceive the illness."

And not just doctors and nurses but real people, too, according to the experiment Bulik is commenting on. Attitudinal change comes hard, but it does happen. Read and rejoice.


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for posting this important work by Crisafulli and Bulik. It really is heartening to hear about this kind of progress.

Anonymous said...

The choice question is an interesting one. Based on my own experience, I don't believe I had "no choice" in developing an ED. I believe I inherited a genetic tendency toward it (just like a genetic tendency toward any other medical ailment), and it just happened that a certain difficult time in my life activated that tendency to moderate emotions through not eating. I knew that I did not need to lose weight but wanted to anyway. I knew what I was doing was hurting me. I knew plenty about eating disorders. I think I was smart enough to understand that I had other choices -- I can forgive myself for being naive enough to think the eating disorder was a better choice, but I do not believe that my own decisions did not play a part in its development.

One reason I don't believe I had no choice is because I feel I did have a very real choice to recover. Fortunately I was "caught" early enough that treatment was made available to me quickly, which allowed me to discover that there were better options. But I like to take some credit for making the daily, often difficult, choice to recover.

Of course, I don't feel cancer victims have a choice in the matter of falling ill yet I admire their own choice to endure treatment, so perhaps no choice in getting an ED doesn't imply no choice in recovery. Perhaps I just think of my past as a "choice" because the guilt of self-sabotage is less troublesome than the helplessness of having my own mind and body taken from me by a genetic fluke.

Harriet said...

"Perhaps I just think of my past as a 'choice' because the guilt of self-sabotage is less troublesome than the helplessness of having my own mind and body taken from me by a genetic fluke."

I suspect this is true, HG. For more on this, please see this earlier post:

RaisinCookies said...

I think there is a combination of choice and genetic propensities with me, at least. My mother has battled with eating disorders for most of her life, and I myself stood on the edge of developing anorexia a few years ago. I was able to back away from that, but the mild obsession with food still exists.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for linking that (I'm a new reader, and hadn't gone back that far in recent archives).

It reminds me of something my dad told me once. He himself, a scientist and skeptic, had a religious reawakening after his cancer went into remission, and when I asked him about it, he said it was because religious belief provides meaning to human suffering. I had never made the connection between that and my own ascribing meaning to mental illness, but that's certainly intriguing.

Harriet said...

Exactly! And we are wired to want that meaning. It's one of the qualities that makes us essentially human.