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Anorexia May Provide Sense of Belonging

Anorexia nervosa often ensnares women into a pattern of recovery and relapse, making it difficult for individuals suffering from the eating disorder to maintain healthy eating habits after completing treatment. Anorexia is the most deadly of the various types of eating disorders and has the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder, including depression and schizophrenia.

Research currently being conducted by social anthropologist Megan Warin, a professor at Adelaide University in Australia, may provide clues as to why individuals with anorexia begin practicing the behaviors that lead to the disorder. Dr. Warin says that her work with anorexics has helped her identify some patterns among those who have the disorder.

A Misplaced Sense of Community

Recovery may be difficult for many who have anorexia because the disorder satisfies an intense need for belonging. Dr. Warin says that many who have anorexia have a history of feeling a lack of belonging and disconnected from society. Because of this feeling of being on the outside, anorexia can be a seductive call to a different reality. By controlling eating behaviors, individuals who become anorexic end up belonging to a group of people who also control their eating behaviors.

Dr. Warin says that for many individuals, anorexia can have an empowering effect. Those practicing the behaviors that lead to the disorder may see the patterns as a lifestyle, not the beginning of an illness. A desire to belong to this particular group of people may be overpowering. The women who have this experience feel a bond over their success with what most women fail at: dieting.

Why Sufferers Avoid Anorexia Treatment

The research Dr. Warin is currently conducting centers on the reasons many delay or refuse to seek treatment for anorexia. Dr. Warin suspects that many women don’t want to part with the feeling of power and belonging that they feel anorexia provides. She says that some patients even describe this feeling as "heroic" or "superhuman."

Pro-anorexia sites on the Internet also provide a way for those struggling with anorexia to feel a sense of community with other women who have the disease. Women often visit the sites to share their "success stories" of weight loss and to give one another encouragement to be more effective at losing weight.

Some of the women tell Dr. Warin that they felt disconnected from society before they began recognizing the patterns of anorexia in their eating behaviors. Some of the women had been bullied at school or sexually abused.

Dr. Warin recently presented her research at the National Eating Disorders Collaboration workshop in Sydney, where over 200 eating disorder experts convened to work together on solutions for treating those suffering from eating disorders.

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