Discusses the prevalence, symptoms, and possible causes of anorexia nervosa in adolescent girls.
Anorexia nervosa receives a lot of press, but it is diagnosed in less than one percent of adolescents. It is a disorder in which the individual uses self-starvation in an attempt to lose weight. The condition may be rare, but the proportion of youth who are unhappy about their weight or body shape is not. For example, studies show that 70% of girls report a desire to be thinner. It should not be surprising, then, that anorexia nervosa is diagnosed ten times more often in females, than males.
The primary symptoms of anorexia nervosa are major weight loss from excessive dieting and exercising, as well as a distorted sense of body image. Girls with anorexia perceive their bodies as fat, no matter how much weight they lose. Other diagnostic criteria include an intense fear of gaining weight, and the loss of menses in women. One signal that a person's weight has gotten too low is the appearance of lanugo. Lanugo is soft, downy hair that appers on the torso and body. It is the body's attempt to keep warm; people with anorexia often complain of being cold.
There are many theories in the causes of anorexia nervosa, perhaps because there are many causes and influences. Most obviously, the dissatisfaction with the body may be a function of how weight is portrayed in the media and our cultural values about women's appearance. Others argue that there is a genetic or biological cause for anorexia. We do know that it is about eight times more likely in persons who have a blood relative with the disorder, but it's uncertain what the inherited factor might be (it very well could be environmental).
Many theorists point to the family system as a potential cause of anorexia nervosa. The self-starvation may be a girls' attempt at asserting her autonomy in an overly controlling family system. Parents may have exceedingly high expectations that girls find difficult to live up to; teens may starve as a way of exerting control over their lives and bodies.
Finally, anorexia may be a teen's way of avoiding adulthood and responsibility. Starvation stops menses, and pubertal development comes to a halt. It's uncertain whether girls realize this, though.