Helping People With Eating Disorders – A Little History

Eating disorders and helping people deal with them, and the reasons for them, has become a major topic for therapists. But this wasn’t always the case. My own interest in eating issues began shortly after I finished my master’s degree.

I was working as a therapist at a community multi-service center. A young adult female arrived for a scheduled appointment, having been discharged from a psychiatric hospital with a diagnosis of the eating disorder Anorexia Nervosa. At that time, Anorexia Nervosa was not a term that most people, including myself, were familiar with. My curiosity and compassion for this individual motivated me to learn as much as I could about this puzzling phenomena. I will share with you what I learned. Let me begin by telling you about the history of food restriction.

Food refusal is not new! As far back as 1200AD – the beginning of the medieval culture, women were known to restrict their food intake. Many of these women were thought of as saints or holy women. They sought perfection in the eyes of God by denying themselves food, a symbol of their humanness. They did not want to acknowledge their bodily needs. The reasons behind this restriction or refusal to eat were spiritually motivated.

By the seventeenth century, prolonged fasting was declining. This was partially due to the skepticism concerning these girls who fasted. People were wondering if they were fraudulent or if they were suffering from some physical disease. So, what was earlier thought of as something saintly was now thought of as something medical. The esteem once held toward these women grew smaller and was replaced by a search for the medical reasons for this supposed lack of appetite. “Saints” became “patients” and medical doctors replaced religious people when care was needed.

During that era, medical doctors hypothesized various reasons why a woman became anorexic. I’ll list some of these reasons. The last one noted might seem ludicrous to you. If that hypothesis were true, the majority of young women in Massachusetts would be diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa!

• nervousness, caused by sadness and anxiety
• problems in the gastric system
• having a hysterical personality
• conflicts in the family between the parents and daughter
• too much schooling

Hopefully, the above historical account has been of interest to you. In my next post I’ll add to this account by explaining how thinness was thought of during the nineteenth century.