An all too common trope around anorexia and bulimia is that they are "about control." This is meant to convey that people choose to control their bodies as a metaphor for control over other things. I don't agree. My interpretation is that a feeling of lack of control is very distressing and ED behaviors have distinct biological effects -they give the person, falsely or not, a feeling of control - because restricting, binging, and purging all serve to temporarily reduce anxiety.

In other words, I would change the phrase to: "eating disordered behaviors are a biological self-medication for distress about losing control, a fear that may or may not be related to actual loss of control." But that isn't as catchy.

How a Lack of Control Leads to Superstition is fascinating because it reminds me of the way certain ideas become dogma in the eating disorders world. I see society's worship of thinness and the (repeatedly disproved) faith in weight loss as the path to happiness, virtue, and success as superstition. Since the behaviors that are sold as weight loss methods have the collateral benefit of a dose of false control and superiority this is a particularly dangerous superstition. A person feeling out of control - biogenic or psychogenic - is going to be particularly gullible to superstitions of all kinds, including the idea that less food is better, or that eating disorders are "all about control."


  1. Hi Laura, just wanted to say I completely agree with your observations about "control" I have noticed my eating disorded behaviours appear particularly when life feels crazy and out of control.

    I think you are very perceptive and intune with eating disorders, it amazes me.


  2. When I was so, so far lost in my ED, there was this bizarre association in my mind that my being thin equaled purity, goodness, hope, intelligence, and just about every "good" attribute a teenage girl is told she should be. My ED, to me, was like a beacon of light in a world of dark.

    Oh, how mixed and confused I was then!

    Laura, you totally nailed this on the head.

  3. Oh this is random, I just wrote about this myself earlier. I take issue with anyone who says that eating disorders are 'about' anything, but particularly control. I've always been weird about losing control, but I think I was born that way, and it might be a trait that is correlated with the development of eating disorders, but I don't think it can be called a cause in the literal sense.
    That was a long way of saying I agree!

  4. I have heard several experts refer to the particular sense of virtue and superiority that seems to be a symptom of malnourishment for some people. The best explanation for this that I've seen is from Shan Guisinger's work - that a sense of purpose and feeling chosen would be a very good trait if your community is suffering malnourishment. That, and a blindness to one's personal needs and physical state. These are the individuals in a community that would take off to find food instead of sitting under a tree to wait for a savior.

  5. Laura, thank you for the great clarification on this control issue with eating disorders. This is the best explanation I've heard so far on how control factors into eating disorders. You have obviously thought about this quite a bit and have clearly spelled it out here.

    I have not felt comfortable with saying that eating disorders are about control when asked about this but have not had a good explanation thus far.

    Thanks Laura!
    Becky Henry
    Hope Network, Inc.


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