Are Eating Disorders Illnesses of Choice?

Deborah Orr is columnist for The Guardian. Through the years of her professional career writing social commentaries, she’s come to learn many things about eating disorders. She noticed, especially among certain socio economic classes, that the difficulty in making choices was a common characteristic of the patients she was treating for eating disorders.

Are Eating Disorders Illnesses of Choice?

We are faced with choices every day. 35,000 choices are estimated to be made by humans every single day. Choices can range from mundane to complex. We choose to get out of bed in the morning, we choose what to eat and what to wear. Psychologists argue that we choose our feelings and how we want to react to situations like confrontation. Some of our choices are more existential in nature and put a lot of pressure on how our choices will define who we are. When we are young, we are encouraged to choose who we want to be when we are older and choose the profession we would like to fulfill.

Eating disorders are, in part, illnesses of perception. They are also illnesses of fear. Anorexics, for example, are afraid of being perceived as overweight. Their obsession lies in feeling secure that they perceive themselves, and are perceived by others, to match the ideal of being thin. Of course, eating disorders go far beyond the surface level manifestations of weight, body image, and perfection. Control, loneliness, and emotional pain often accompany the mental illness of an eating disorder.

Such pressure is due not only to perfectionism but it’s counterpart, imperfectionism, commonly masked as failure. When an anorexic ends a restriction period by ‘cheating’ on their extreme diet or eating after starvation, they perceive it as a failure. If the number on their scale changes or their clothes fit differently, that’s a failure as well. Today’s society puts a lot of pressure not to fail on their children.

Making complex decisions, even when it comes to ice cream, as Orr noted, can bring out the worst of this pressure. Taking a risk on making the wrong choice can lead to a world of chaos and harmful perceptions. So much so that people suffer personal identity crises and mental breakdowns just trying to make a decision.

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