There is no one single cause of Anorexia, for, like all mental illnesses, eating disorders develop due to a combination of several ‘risk factors’- social, psychological, biological, intrinsic, and extrinsic- all of which increase the likelihood of one developing the illness/exacerbating the symptoms of it.
Social risk factors:
The first category; ‘social’, incorporates several factors, one of which is historical trauma, with this often having been triggered in one’s dysfunctional childhood. Examples of how someone might experience trauma in their childhood is if they were exposed to violence from a young age, or if they were subject to abuse. In such scenarios, a ‘disorganised attachment’ is likely to have been formed between the child and their caregiver in their early years. This happens because, unlike in a ‘normal’ childhood where a child will feel ‘safe’ and ‘secure’ at the hands of their caregiver, a dysfunctional childhood is characterised by fear, instead. This can lead to children who have had a dysfunctional childhood experiencing mental health problems, as insecure children with low self-esteem are likely to become insecure adults with low self-esteem (this being a major risk factor for the development of eating disorders in particular, as eating disorders thrive off such insecurities.)
Another social risk factor is related to bullying. Someone who is bullied, particularly about their weight, is more likely to develop an eating disorder in response to the bullying they were subjected to. In fact, one study investigating the effects of bullying on eating disorders suggests that, of those asked, over half believe that their eating disorder arose as a direct result of them having been bullied in the past.
Psychological risk factors:
The next category, ‘psychological’, also incorporates several risk factors, such as trauma experienced in childhood, whether that be emotional, physical, and/or sexual trauma. This- childhood trauma– increases one’s risk of being diagnosed with an eating disorder, because eating disorders can be used as a type of ‘coping mechanism’, albeit an unhealthy one, by individuals who want to feel more ‘in control’ of what might have previously felt like a very uncontrollable and stressful life.
Losing a loved one is another example of a psychological risk factor, as grief is an incredibly difficult emotion that that many people find equally as difficult to navigate. People might therefore turn to food restriction as a way to numb such difficult emotions that they would rather not feel.
Biological risk factors:
A third category of risk factors is ‘biological.’ In the context of eating disorders, the biological factors mainly relate to one’s genetics. Some people are at greater risk of developing eating disorders such as Anorexia purely and simply due to their genetic profile. People are also at greater risk of developing an eating disorder if they have a close relative with an eating disorder.
Intrinsic risk factors:
‘Intrinsic’ risk factors come next, and they consist of several factors, one of which is age. Although they can occur at any age, eating disorders are most common in teenagers, and therefore adolescence poses as a risk factor for the development of eating disorders.
Another intrinsic risk factor can be seen in personality traits, as there are certain personality traits that pose a risk for the development of eating disorders such as Anorexia, with these traits being: perfectionism, neuroticism, impulsivity, and ‘behavioural inflexibility.’
A third intrinsic risk factor is in someone with a history of mental ill health, such as anxiety. In fact, research shows that two-thirds of people with Anorexia will show signs of having had an anxiety disorder before the onset of their eating disorder. Therefore, an individual with a pre-existing anxiety disorder is at a considerably greater risk of being diagnosed with an eating disorder compared to someone who has never experienced anxiety. This risk factor is, of course, increased if an individual’s anxiety lies in their relationship with food and their body, e.g., through a history of dieting, and/or body image dissatisfaction. This is because eating disorders such as Anorexia often start off the back of a ‘fad diet’, something which people who have anxiety surrounding their bodies are likely to partake in, thus also increasing their risk of progressing on to develop an eating disorder.
Extrinsic risk factors:
A final category of risk factors is of the ‘extrinsic’ variety. The biggest extrinsic risk factor for eating disorders is concerned with societal expectations. If the media portrays thinness as being the ‘superior’ body type that everyone should aspire to, then eating disorders such as Anorexia will undoubtedly increase, as more people will feel pressured to achieve the unrealistic expectations of what it means to be ‘beautiful’ in today’s ever demanding society.
The above reference to the damaging effects of societal expectations was proven in a study that took place in Fiji in the late 90s, when, after being introduced to Western television, 74% of Fiji women who had previously felt extremely comfortable in their bodies reported feeling ‘too fat’, and 29% became at risk of developing a clinical eating disorder as a result. This is evidence that our media consumption and perceptions of beauty can have a severe impact upon our own attitudes towards food and our bodies.