An obsession with food, water, exercise, weight loss, and weight gain is the outward symptom of an eating disorder, but it’s not the real problem. People often assume that if an anorexic or bulimic could only dispense with the food obsession, the disorder would be cured. Nothing could be further from the truth. In actuality, the typical eating disorder has its roots in a crisis of self-identity and self-acceptance.

Generally speaking, the person with an eating disorder is unhappy with himself physically, mentally, or spiritually. The hyperfocus on food is part of a quest for personal definition. This definition may have something to do with physical appearance: usually it’s a desire to be as thin as possible. But in most cases the person with an eating disorder is suffering from a distorted body image.

The need for control is another important factor behind many eating disorders. In some cases a child can develop this need in response to a domineering, perfectionistic parent with high expectations. This child tries to restrict food intake or manage her body weight so she can control at least one thing in her life. In other instances the situation is exactly the opposite: a negligent or overly permissive parent may leave a child with a deep sense of insecurity. So the child tries to compensate by keeping her eating habits under tight control.

Characteristics of People with Eating Disorders

  • A diminished sense of self; poor body image
  • People-pleasing; no personal boundaries
  • A tendency to hide (bulimia, bingeing, purging)
  • All-or-nothing thinking
  • Self-isolating
  • Perfectionism
  • Controlling behavior

Differences between Girls and Boys

It’s commonly assumed that eating disorders are primarily a female issue. This isn’t the case. Though the underlying causes may be different, the condition now affects males in growing numbers. In girls the motivation is often connected with a perception of self-worth based on cultural definitions of beauty. Boys may be driven by a desire to increase muscle mass,  enhance athletic performance or stay in shape.

In both cases the subject is likely to be a high achiever or a perfectionist who desperately wants to fit in and be accepted by the larger social group. They may appear to be outgoing, extroverted, and friendly on the outside but struggle with emotional disconnectedness on the inside.