A culture of -orexics?

I've seen a number of news articles on a phenomenon charmingly named "drunkorexia." (See here and here). It's the latest in a series of -orexias, such as bigorexia, manorexia, and orthorexia. And while they certainly are related to eating disorders (and in the case of "manorexia," it IS anorexia nervosa, period), I tend to think they overlap with other brain diseases.

It makes me wonder: how well do we, as a culture, really understand eating disorders?

I've read reports of bigorexia. Sounds a lot like Body Dysmorphic Disorder to me. It's also true that eating disorders and BDD overlap, quite frequently. And considering the range of overlap between Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and both eating disorders and BDD, well you have quite a nice constellation of symptoms.

Orthorexia sounds to me like OCD as well. It's OCD about food. You have obsessions about not eating "good enough" food. Or "healthy enough." Or "pure enough." The compulsions? Don't eat it. It's anxiety. I don't know whether people with orthorexia have the same body distortions as those with anorexia and bulimia. They are almost certainly malnourished. So the lack of the body distortions and drive for thinness (or fear of fatness) might be a way to distinguish the two. But we don't know enough about eating disorders, let alone a new syndrome like orthorexia, to even begin to compare.

Yet so many people have a fear of fat and don't see their bodies accurately. So where do we draw the line? There are clinical criteria, and that's important if for no other reason than we can't measure what's out there if we don't know what we're counting.

This brings us back to "drunkorexia." The situation appears to be approximately as follows (forgive the broad generalizations): Girl goes off to college. Girl hears about Freshman 15 to the nth degree. Girl feels anxious about fitting in and being away from home. Girl feels pressure to fit in and relieve some of the anxiety about being alone and friendless. Girl knows the way to fit in is to party and drink. Girl drinks. Girl gains weight. Girl freaks out. Girl makes up for it by eating less. Girl keeps drinking. Girl keeps starving.

Frankly, this is alcoholism and anorexia wrapped into one. Alcohol quells anxiety (temporarily). Starving, bingeing, and purging quell anxiety (temporarily). A woman suffering from both disorders who was interviewed in a New York Times article titled "Starving Themselves, Cocktail in Hand," said this:

“Drinking helped me be less anxious,” she said. “It helped me be more of Trish. The two go together: If I drink more, I’m more into my eating disorder and vice versa.”

So why this epidemic of -orexias? Has anorexia become kind of chic? Or are people ashamed of admitting they have an eating disorder--an actual, true-to-life eating disorder--that they disguise it with cute names to make it (haha) easier to swallow?

What do you think?

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Anonymous said...

I think it's a result of language that becomes more available to the public through the media or education programs -- to the point that enough of the population can relate to certain features or characteristics of the disease.

I think this has happened with ADD/ADHD (Ex: "Oh, there's my ADD kicking in again" when someone finds themselves forgetful); with PMS (even men and women who don't necessarily experince PMS generalize the language to ascribe symptoms to certain behavior or moods); and, especially lately, OCD (Ex: "Mom, *most* people leave their clothes and old food all over the floor in their rooms ... you're *so* OCD." ... or when anyone uses anti-bacterial hand-gel, they must have "a touch of OCD," right?

In a lot of ways, I think it means society has become more comfortable with the illness/diagnosis in question. Maybe when there was even greater stigmatization, people wouldn't have dared toss the term out there in a casual kind of way ... one wouldn't want to speak of "it" but politely turn their heads and pretend it doesn't exist.

I think these generalizations acknowledge that humans often share some experience that these illnesses entail, if not to the extent that a person actually diagnosed with the disorder.

It also gives people a language that others understand to describe something that doesn't maybe have a name/label of its own ... and so they assign a "catchphrase" from the available lexicon. I think it both legitimizes and destigmatizes these illnesses while also trivializing them. It's a tough balance, because I'm all for more understanding of all human suffering.

(again, from the fishy who found you via SF website ... I enjoy your blog)

Anne-Marie said...

Caroline Knapp's book 'Appetites: Why Women Want' has a lot of insights into how eating disorders and other addictive behaviors can stem from the same issues and interplay with each other. I think that, like many things in biology, the boundaires of these behaviors are not nearly as black-and-white as the terms we try to apply to them. Knapp is a sad case, she overcame both anorexia and alcoholism (she wrote a book about that too), but could never kick the cig addiction and died of lung cancer at an early age after beating the other diseases.

Lisa said...

I'm troubled by the -orexia issue as well. By creating a zeitgeist-y, less-threatening name, it trivializes a very serious illness.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me to be another instance of the must report something new drive, AN BN are so last year, we need something *new* to report on...


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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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