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Anorexia Nervosa, known more commonly as Anorexia, is a disorder characterized by an obsession with being thin, severe food restriction, and compensatory mechanisms to produce weight loss after eating such as excessive exercise and self-induced vomiting.
The general consensus is that the internalization of excessively thin cultural body ideals and subsequent body image dissatisfaction are the main reasons for the development of this disorder. This disorder is almost exclusively observed in females (90%).
Many claim that the media perpetuates an unrealistic body image and our increasing exposure to this content is the main cause for this disease. Although this is likely to play a role in the development of Anorexia Nervosa and may partially describe the increased incidence since 1970, it does not provide a complete explanation.
Anorexia Nervosa was first officially described in 1684, far earlier than the adoption of extremely thin women as the body ideal and much before the presence of pervasive graphic media. There are accounts of anorexic-like behaviors among women spanning back to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians.
This suggests there must be a deeper, overarching and more ultimate explanation for the evolutionary development of this behavior among women.
Anorexic women often experience amenorrhea, or the pathological absence of menstruation. The extreme stress experienced by anorexics due to starvation leads to the dysregulation of the hormones crucial for menstruation. Amenorrhea due to anorexia leads to temporary, reversible infertility – a physiological state that has been postulated to confer women an evolutionary advantage.
A pregnancy is a huge investment and burden for a female human. Without proper support structures and protection, and without adequate resources and stability, a pregnancy was a risk too great to undertake; it would most likely result in the loss of the embryo/fetus, and could pose mortal danger to the mother.
For most of human history the most powerful males could forcibly mate with females of their choice at any time – often leaving them pregnant in an unstable and life threatening situation. Scientists believe temporary infertility due to Anorexia induced amenorrhea may have developed as an evolutionary tool to effectively shut off the ability to become pregnant under times of instability, danger, uncertainty, travel, war, and so on.
Modern cases of Anorexia may develop in a similar manner. Women who feel as though they lack social support networks and stability may be at a greater risk for developing Anorexia Nervosa. However, more research is needed. Understanding the evolutionary development of disorders such as Anorexia may elucidate new methods of prevention and treatment.
For more information, please visit the NEDA website.