Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Eating Disorders - Are They Really about Control?

by Tara Deliberto

The concept that eating disorders are all about control never sat well with me.  Specifically, the explanation that people with eating disorders "can't control anything in their lives, so they control food," seems a bit too... poetic.  I understand the general idea, but it seems only to hit the target. I prefer the bull's eye.

Rather than simply increasing control, they way I perceive it, eating disorders seems to be more about the asceticism component. For those unfamiliar with this term, asceticism is the practice of depriving oneself of worldly pleasures. As it applies here, asceticism would involve depriving oneself of things that taste good. While it may not sound like fun, there is definitely a rush that comes along with achieving a goal in line with your values.

If your value is looking good by societal standards (i.e being thin), then you'll feel good about taking that self-depriving step towards trying to lose a bit more weight - e.g. passing on dessert. There is definitely some psychological reward from having this Spartan mentality. On top of this, if you value achievement and hard work, it seems you'll certainly at an increased risk of deriving a lot of pleasure from controlling food intake.

Ok, so we have identified two fundamental components so far:
1. valuing looking good by societal standards (i.e. thinness)
2. putting in lots of effort to achieve a goal

So, moving on!  If you have these values coupled with an environment that is chaotic and/or not rewarding, I'd imagine you'd be really looking for a way to feel good somehow. Because it might be difficult to feel good with a dearth of positive things in your life, you might start to adapt. Maybe you'll start getting your kicks from deprivation rather than your run-of-the-mill pleasures.

Perhaps you decide you want to start looking good because then you'd be happy. Why not try to lose some weight. Ok, so you limit your food. It sure feels good to be in control and achieve a goal.

Fast forward a few weeks. You lose some weight. People start to notice. "Wow, you look great!" Man, those compliments feel good. [And not only that, maybe all those self-esteem killing negative comments about your appearance disappeared too.]

Wham! Eating disorder.

I'd imagine there is a cycle where psychological reinforcement from depriving oneself and looking good feed off each other. The more you deprive yourself, the more compliments you get etc. Over time, depriving oneself is just linked with feeling good. Especially if that is the primary way you can feel positive, I'd imagine this whole deprivation/compliment reinforcement cycle mess is quite addicting. People look to score small amounts of pleasure by depriving themselves, while chasing the big goal of all those compliments and social approval.

While I'd love to speculate more, I have a research proposal to write tonight!

So, to wrap up: it doesn't seem to suffice to say that eating disorders are about "control."  There are certainly other areas to be addressed in treatment, but areas to be targeted rather than simply "control," might be:
1. Valuing what society deems as attractive
2. Valuing extremely perfectionistic work towards achieving goals in line w/ the above value
3. Getting high off of asceticism
4. Getting high off of compliments
5. Potentially not receiving reinforcement and/or deriving pleasure from other areas

In short, this notion that people can't control anything in their environment so they control food, is too poetic for my taste!

Ok, back to writing my research proposal on disordered eating! That's all for today.

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P.S. Note to self: Return at a later date to examine which of the components listed above are:
1. necessary-but-not-sufficient
2. necessary-but-can-be-sufficient
3. not-necessary-nor-sufficient-but-can-pop-up.

Quickly, it appears that valuing what society/someone in particular deems attractive is necessary-but-not-sufficient due to the sharp increase in eating disorders as societal ideals changed. Unless, of course, the disorder developed primarily to look unattractive & functions to protect the person from maturity/ sexual abuse. The second component is probably necessary-but-not-sufficient only in anorexia nervosa - where people end up drastically committing to deprivation. With bulimia nervosa / EDNOS, it could exist, but vacillate, or be complicated by a compulsive nature etc.


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