Health: Do Models Really Cause Anorexia? ; Popular Science Links Eating Disorders to the Fashion for Thin Models. but New Research Suggests Otherwise: Genes, Trauma and Even Religion May Play a Part

By Dobson, Roger | The Independent (London, England), November 23, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Health: Do Models Really Cause Anorexia? ; Popular Science Links Eating Disorders to the Fashion for Thin Models. but New Research Suggests Otherwise: Genes, Trauma and Even Religion May Play a Part


Dobson, Roger, The Independent (London, England)


Could anorexia in girls be triggered by fear of becoming a woman? Or could it be down to a domineering granny, an abusive father, lack of zinc in the diet, pictures of skinny supermodels, fear of an upcoming family holiday, TV soaps, depression, shopping, modern living, something in the water supply...?

Over the last 150 years, anorexia nervosa has attracted almost as many theories as there are members of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and many of them have been disproved or discarded. The latest to look like biting the dust is the idea that western images of supermodels are too blame. Doctors who examined children in a rural school in Africa who may never have seen a TV let alone a supermodel, found a number of girls who had anorexia. Cases have also now been found in Iran, Saudi Arabia and rural Japan.

Although the condition was not described medically until the mid 19th century, some specialists now believe that a number of the early women saints were probably victims of the disease.

"There was one 10th century saint, for example, who it's suggested was anorexic," says Dr John Morgan, eating disorder specialist at St George's Hospital. "She did not want to get married as her father wished, and stopped eating. She was eventually crucified by her father and became a saint. I would be surprised if anorexia was not as old as the hills. The difference is that in the 10th century if you had anorexia you were beatified, now you are admitted to hospital."

With around 160,000 people in the UK now having eating disorders, and as many as 10 per cent dying as a result according to some estimates, the urgency for finding cures for the problem has never been greater. It is an urgency that has been given added impetus by new research this week which confirms fears that even girls who get over their anorexia may have life-long bone problems: scientists found that nine out of 10 women who have had anorexia had bone loss on a par with osteoporosis found in elderly women.

The problem for sufferers, their families and clinicians, is that there is unlikely to be a single cure for the condition because the causes are so complex and individual.

"There is no easy answer and that's what disappoints people. For most people eating is a pleasure and there is an enormous mental block to thinking that people can get so distressed in their attitude to eating that they could die of starvation," says Dr Jill Welbourne, a leading Bristol-based expert on anorexia.

"The idea that being good at exams and working hard and being a perfectionist, and not forgiving your own mistakes could lead to you starving yourself to death, is considered too incredible."

Anorexia usually occurs in teenage girls and young women, although some one in 10 sufferers are boys. It is not so much a problem with food or weight, as an attempt to use food to deal with emotional problems. Warning signs include fear of weight-gain, refusal to eat and denial of hunger. The effects of the illness range from cessation of menstruation, a loss of libido, growth of body hair and loss of bone density, to starvation and death.

Although it has been medically described for a century and a half, it's still not known why some people get anorexia, while others do not. The latest thinking is there may be some kind of genetic predisposition that has to be triggered by a life event.

"It is not simply explained, but one of the things we inherit is personality, which can be perfectionist, anxious, worrying. Granny may have been a compulsive obsessive, dad a perfectionist checker, and mum worried about accidents every time you went out the door," explains Dr Welbourne.

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Health: Do Models Really Cause Anorexia? ; Popular Science Links Eating Disorders to the Fashion for Thin Models. but New Research Suggests Otherwise: Genes, Trauma and Even Religion May Play a Part
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