[CW: discussion of eating disorders and pressure to diet and count calories. Discussion of obsessions and scrupulosity.]
I think pretty much everyone has concluded that restrictive eating disorders like anorexia are on the rise. They’re not a modern disorder, but they do seem to be increasing. It’s possible some of this is from the increased availability of food–it can become more obvious when someone was intentionally skipping meals, and thus, more diagnosable. Media and advertising probably play a role, though I’m guessing we overestimate in what proportion of cases this is true.
Recently, I’ve been tossing around a third contributing factor as to why younger generations have both higher levels of eating disorders (the clinical stuff) and disordered eating (neurosis around food or weird food behaviors).
Besides what appears to be thinner body ideals in media and particularly zealous dieting and calorie counting,* what else has changed in cultural food-behaviors?
Food was something you could analyze on appearance: was it healthy, and how much of it. So everyone could pretty well guess that if they were eating stuff that was somewhat plant-based and not too much, they were doing it right. Achieve both of those things, and you had a healthy meal. Even with the emphasis on calories, you could map those numbers onto the food you saw: did it look like it was mostly veggies and fruits? Low calorie.
But, for the more recent generations, there’s been a focus on ‘organic’ and ‘all-natural’ and ‘non-genetically-modified’.
And now you can look at an apple, or a nice salad, and there’s this nebulous, value that is or isn’t there, and you cannot see it. You cannot know. You cannot even taste it. Organic is not an appearance-based characteristic, and yet it has assigned value–or it did, for many of us growing up. You could be eating healthily (by the previous definition) and still be ‘poisoning’ your body. In fact, as a facebook commenter mentioned, it’s framed in terms of ‘purity’. You’re making the ‘responsible’ decision. Organic mac’n’cheese is morally better than regular macaroni. It’s pure, free of ‘toxins’ and ‘chemicals’
Eating disorders seem to come as a flavor of obsessive disorders. One illustration of obsessions is hand-washing. The sufferer washes their hands once, but they might still be dirty so they wash again, over and over again. Deciding not to wash means flooding with distress and aversion. Given the choice between washing one more time and an indefinite time of overwhelming anxiety, the choice seems simple.
A subtype of obsessiveness is that of scrupulosity–pathological investment in doing the correct thing in a moral or religious sense. It can look like obsessive religiosity or anxiety over being good, or utter decision paralysis about what the correct/moral choice is.
And you can see each of these play out in eating disorders. Condiments are a not uncommon one–where food is only okay if nothing is added to it. A burger is fine, but a burger with ketchup and mayo is unacceptably aversive. I had something similar with whole milk, where even a sip of coffee whole milk was Bad, but a cup of coffee with skim was a daily routine.
And I have to wonder if hearing from a young age, or growing up with the idea that food can look fine but have secret poisons in it, and that most food fails at being this kind of Good isn’t contributing to disordered eating. It’s not that I wonder if people are developing eating disorders because they’re trying to only eat food that’s organic and not genetically modified,** though I suppose that could happen. More that I wonder if the secondary message that food can be unseeably bad, that you can’t just ‘win’ by eating smaller portions and low calorie food, that there’s a third axis of what makes Good food to obsess over. We’ve added a moral component to everything we eat, and that seems to easily play into and fuel the scrupulosity bit of obsessiveness.
*This is one of my pet peeves and it seems to be unhelpful.
**I’m using it in the colloquial sense here, as people do when they protest GMOs in petitions and such.