Everything You Need To Know About Anorexia

Think you know everything about anorexia? Think again.

Think you know everything about anorexia? Think again.

The culture surrounding anorexia is toxic, from thinspo to fast fasting to starvation tips. This might seem ridiculous to someone without anorexia or an ED to wrap their head around, but that’s because at the end of the day anorexia is a mental illness which needs to be approached the same way any other mental illness should be approached: With understanding, love and a fighting spirit.

If you thought you knew the ends and outs of anorexia, you might find yourself surprised after you read this.

What exactly is anorexia?

Anorexia is an eating disorder that causes someone to obsess over their weight and eating habits. It’s a mental disorder that can lead to extreme dieting, starvation, excessive exercise. The goal for someone anorexic is to be thin, but even if they achieve that feat–or if they’re already naturally thin–being thin becomes an obsession that takes over an anorexic person’s life. Self-worth no longer resides in their talent or personality but rather in their weight and appearance. While everyone can feel self-conscious about their body from time to time or even constantly, someone who is anorexic takes their emotional turmoil to the extreme and, in return, punishes themselves and their body for it. Therefore, on the surface anorexia may seem like it’s just about girls wanting to be skinny, but deep down it’s about girls feeling emotionally distraught.

What are some symptoms? How can I tell if someone I know is anorexic?

You probably already know that extreme thinness or excessive weight loss are symptoms of anorexia, but if that’s all you’re looking for, then you might miss something that’s happening right in front of you.

skins cassie eat


Some other symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Bluish appearance to the skin, especially fingers
  • Low tolerance of cold
  • Dehydration
  • No longer menstruating

There are some other symptoms that would be tough or impossible to notice if you yourself aren’t anorexic; like thinning hair, abnormal blood count, insomnia, low blood pressure, dry skin and constipation.

There are a lot of emotional and behavioral symptoms to look out for, too. The biggest red flags should be denying hunger (especially around common eating times), skipping meals, refusing to eat when offered, having an extremely restrictive diet, lying about eating, not wanting to eat in public, having an obsession with food, exercising way too much, and complaining about being fat. Others include:

  • Withdrawing from your circle of friends
  • Visiting pro-anorexia sites and blogs
  • Depressed mood
  • Lack of interest in sex
  • Generally being a big ol’ sourpuss

What causes anorexia anyway?

There isn’t a single known cause for anorexia, but much of it is psychological and environmental. It’s psychological because anorexia can pair with psychological issues like compulsive personality traits, depression and anxiety. Environmental factors refer to our environment. Anorexia’s prevalence in some cultures is attributed to beauty standards that idolize thin figures. If that sounds familiar, then rest assured that anorexia is a problem in your society. There’s a reason why girls as young as 10-years-old start dieting.

my mad fat diary rae fat suit

There is evidence of biological factors to anorexia as well. People who have an immediate family member with the disorder–a mother or sister, perhaps–are more likely to develop anorexia as well.

Gender plays into this disorder as well: Girls and women are more likely to be anorexic, but boys and men can be anorexic, too; let’s not call this a girl thing, okay?

Can you be anorexic and bulimic?

Absolutely. While some people erroneously believe that anorexia and bulimia are sort of opposites–the former involves a lack of food intake, the latter classically including large amounts of food intake before purging– some people do have both. For example, someone who is anorexic might go on a strict diet for weeks at a time before eating an excessive amount of food to throw it up later. If someone has a pattern of doing this, they definitely have both anorexia and bulimia. But remember, with bulimia, purging isn’t just throwing up or taking laxatives. Excessive exercise? Also a way of purging. So imagine someone who is on a strict diet, but is still hopping on the treadmill a couple of times a day to burn off the few calories they had that day. That would be anorexia and bulimia side by side.

Aren’t people with anorexia all skin and bones?

If their anorexia is prolonged enough, someone with anorexia can certainly look incredibly emaciated. But don’t assume that someone isn’t anorexic until you can easily see their entire rib cage. Nah, starvation and excessive exercise looks different on everyone and operates at different paces.

There’s something a little beautifully tragic about having anorexia though, know what I mean?

Hold up, hold up. I know that this is pretty common fodder for a lot of thinspo sites, blogs, Instagram accounts, etc, but no, there is nothing beautiful about having a mental disorder that wrecks havoc on your body and spirit. This can be tough to fight when you scroll through your Tumblr dashboard and see photos of girls with knobby knees in mini skirts or a girl wearing a pair of skinny jeans with ample thigh gap. Oh, and when these photos have some text about wanting to be perfect or how “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” on top of it, it’s especially hard to resist the beautiful sadness of it all. But there’s nothing beautiful about a disease that can kill you. No matter how many cute, whimsical gifs you see of Cassie Ainsworth–an iconic character from Skins who suffered from anorexia and famously said, “I didn’t eat for three days so I could be lovely”–but that’s not reality.

Anorexia is a serious disorder with serious consequences. Period. Anorexia can lead to anemia, heart problems, brittle bones, kidney issues and, ultimately, death. Yes, go to far and you can end up dead. Just keepin’ it real.

My friend is anorexic. What can I do to help her?

Support them, first and foremost. Don’t participate in any conversations that might be triggering, like calorie content or your own weight woes. Don’t lash out at your friend if they fall off the recovery wagon, even if your heart is in the right place. Suggest that they get some professional help, too; they might be afraid to take that extra leap. Most importantly, though, remember that at the end of the day they’re still that friend you can nerd out over Harry Potter and your favorite bands with. They are not their disorder, don’t forget that.


Okay, I have anorexia. What should I do?

If this post is hitting a little too close to home, then it’s time to ease your way into recovery! First, try to get as much help and support as you can. Talk to a school counselor about your ED and pluck up the courage to tell a friend who you trust and even your family if you can. If they’re supportive, your recovery process might be a little less rough. But trust, it’ll still be rough. Eating disorders are notoriously hard to conquer, but with the right professional help and healthy influences, you could be on the right track.

Of course, recovery can work in an on-again/off-again way. If you find yourself slipping into starvation mode and scouring pro-ana blogs after a month of progress, try not to beat yourself up! That won’t help! Just try to get back into the groove of health. Replace those pro-ana blogs with recovery blogs. There are tons of them on tumblr to check out, some even specifying certain demographics like LGBTQ folks that struggle, or Asian or black folks who are struggling with anorexia. Find your niche, become a part of a community, be open and honest with those who are helping you and be open and honest with yourself, too!

There’s a long road ahead of you but it isn’t an impossible one to trek!

Do you suffer from anorexia? Does your friend suffer from it? What recovery suggestions do you have? Tell us in the comments!

You can follow the author, Ashley Reese, on Twitter or Instagram. Don’t worry, she doesn’t bite!


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  • Fatima

    Ive had anorexia for almost two years, its an everyday fight, and I can honestly say this article is extremely accurate!! Thank you!!

  • vanessa

    people should also remember, anorexia is a disease, people who have this are dying from it. You may be showing some characteristics of it (i mean cmon who hasnt tried fasting before) but this doesnt mean you have anorexia. same with bulimia.

  • Lucia

    I found this awesome article written by someone with an eating disorder it’s long but makes some great points.

    Many of us get that “Eating disorders aren’t about food or weight” because it’s the number one phrase that gets shouted from the rooftops by Eating disorder sufferers & Eating disorder support organisations (for good reason) it was/is such a damaging misconception. But what many people still don’t understand, is what they ARE actually about.

    I feel like people avoid talking about what Eating disorders are about because they are SO complex, there are often many, many layers, an accumulation of different factors. It gets complicated. The most common phrase I hear…“I know that Eating disorders aren’t about food or weight…it’s about control.” Yeah. Often this is the case, the desire for control is hugely common but it’s a terribly over simplified explanation. The reasons behind the disorder are as individual as the sufferer him/herself, so it’s risky territory listing possible causes…But I’m writing this in the hope that it helps to broaden understanding of this illness and to shed some light into some of the darker, less spoken about underlying issues.

    It’s not about food or weight…It’s about feeling unsafe in the world. It’s about feeling like we can’t trust anyone, not even ourselves. The Eating Disorder becomes “the reliable one”.

    It’s about the feelings we can’t verbalize, that can’t be expressed through words so we try to “say” it with our bodies.

    It’s about an extreme, intense feeling of being inadequate. Like nothing we do or say or feel is “right”. “Not thin enough” often means something more painful to admit. That we are not enough. full stop.

    It’s about feeling overwhelmed by life. Like nothing makes sense. Nothing is simple. The Eating Disorder gives us a sense of calm…to an outsider our life may look like it is in absolute chaos but it gives us the false sense of security we so desperately need. Problems that seem too big and complicated to deal with, feelings that are uncomfortable to sit with; the Eating Disorder provides us with simple, concrete answers to our distress. Our bodies are the problem and we need to fix the problem by losing weight.

    It’s about needing to feel loved and comforted but feeling unworthy of real love and comfort. It’s about hating having needs and desires. For some of us, needs make us feel greedy and selfish. For some of us, having needs means we can easily get hurt if those needs are not met. For some of us, we don’t believe we deserve to have our needs met. We try to convince ourselves that we don’t need anything by avoiding food, one of our greatest primal needs.

    It’s about having low self esteem. It’s about more than that, it’s about self hatred. A self hatred that could be there for another huge list of reasons. Our trust may have been broken by a loved one, we may have been abused: emotionally, physically, sexually. We may have done things we deeply regret. We may blame ourselves for painful experiences that have happened in our lives. We may not even know why that self hatred is there but we feel it in our core. It’s something so deep down, something in us that we believe to be dark, dangerous and disgustingly horrible. We believe we are “bad” people and deserve to be punished. We starve, purge, binge and excessively exercise because we feel like we deserve to die a slow and painful death. We deserve this miserable life.

    It’s about debilitating anxiety and/or depression that we struggle to deal with so we use the Eating Disorder to cope. Some of us spend years swinging between depression and the Eating Disorder, when one gets better, the other gets worse.

    It’s about being paralysed by perfectionism. In every sense of the word. Many of us have obsessive compulsive personalities and expectations that are so high we constantly feel like we are failing. We put ridiculous amounts of pressure on ourselves to be “the best”. We compare ourselves to everyone around us and constantly feel like we are falling behind.

    It’s about the disgust we have for our bodies. Some of us have been teased and shamed for our weight by kids in the school yard, brothers or sisters, mothers or fathers. Some of us feel embarrassed by our changing bodies as we go through puberty. Some of us blame our bodies for acts of violation committed against us. Somehow, our bodies have betrayed us.

    It’s about the environment we grew up in. Some of us grew up witnessing the messy divorce of our parents, some of us experienced the death of an important loved one, some of us were foster children, moved from household to household. Some of us were bullied for being poor or bullied for being rich. Some of us grew up in chaotic households. For some of us, our parents were distant, for others our parents were overbearing and overprotective.

    It’s about secrecy and silence. We are all silently screaming for something. Love, help, escape, forgiveness, support, comfort. We use our bodies and behaviours to communicate instead of our voices.

    It’s about fear. We are afraid of growing up, afraid of staying young. Afraid of our future, afraid of our past. Some of us are afraid of failure, some of us are afraid of success. Afraid of being too much or not enough. Some of us are scared we will not be brilliant or amazing or unique or rich or famous or inspiring or important or seen…or LOVED. We are afraid we will never find someone who will love us, unconditionally and some of us are afraid we will. Some of us are afraid of both. It’s these contradictions that can make life so confusing and scary and difficult to deal with.

    It’s about holding onto something that gives us an identity. We are afraid that without the Eating Disorder, we are nothing. In some weird way, we think it makes us strong. We believe our Eating Disorder masks our fear, our shame, our vulnerability. The things, we believe, make us weak.

    It’s about painful feelings and our belief that we are unable to deal with them so we use the Eating Disorder to numb the sadness, anger, hurt, shame, guilt, hopelessness, fear etc.

    It’s about being an extremely sensitive soul. We feel things deeply and intensely. We are effected by others emotions easily and often take on their pain. Others feelings and problems become ours. We are emotionally reactive, we cry at the drop of a hat, the daily news makes our heart hurt and our mood plummet. We take things personally and over think E V E R Y T H I N G. We feel the weight of the world on our shoulders, like it is our responsibility to save it (the world).

    It’s about subconsciously internalising the “Western Beauty Ideal” we are faced with day in day out. It’s about being bombarded with advertising that is constantly telling us we are not good enough.

    It’s about loneliness. Like we don’t fit in or belong anywhere. Like no one understands us. Like we are somehow completely different to the rest of the human population. It doesn’t matter how many friends or family we have around us, this is a loneliness, an emptiness that we believe cannot be filled.

    It’s about survival. It helped us to survive and cope with some horrific and painful life experiences.

    It’s about being passive. Many of us, put others first at a huge cost to our own health and happiness. We say yes when we mean no and no when we mean yes. We struggle with being assertive and as a result often get taken advantage of. This only feeds into our unworthiness.

    It’s about privacy, having something that is ours and only ours. Something no one else can touch.

    It’s not about weight, but for some of us, it is. However, not in the way you’d think. Some of us want to shrink so that we become invisible. We want to become as small as we feel. We want to hide away. Our shrinking body becomes a metaphor for our shrinking soul. Some of us, want to become bigger so we can hide behind our weight. So that our body fat becomes our protection. So we become “undesirable” to men or women. So we don’t have to face relationships or intimacy or our sexuality. Things that terrify us. Our bodies reflect how we feel about ourselves on the INSIDE. What drains our spirit, drains our body.

    It’s about being in so much emotional pain that you can’t even begin to allow yourself to feel it or acknowledge it, the pain the eating disorder brings seems like a blessing in comparison. We use the Eating Disorder to avoid and distract ourselves from all the things that are really going on, inside. More often than not, it’s an accumulation of any number of these thoughts, feelings, beliefs and experiences and there is bound to be plenty of other influencing factors that I haven’t listed. Everyone is different.This is just a list of some of the more common causes that I know of from experience living with my own Eating Disorder and being close to many others who have Eating disorders, it is by NO means the ‘absolute’ list.

  • Micaela

    I am recovering not from anorexia, but from an EDNOS. It is as hard as recovering from anything else, and it was really hard for me to get help. Because I don’t look as if I have an eating disorder. I am not thin (meaning I am not underweighted), I don’t have health issues, I look normal. The thing is, when you suffer from this stuff you don’t want to recover, because you don’t see anything bad, the first step is to realize that your life could be so much better without restricting and purging. And I am not saying this from the point of view of someone that is already fine, I am still fighting hard against my disorder.
    A thing that helped me a lot is doing a day a week in wich I have to eat something I am afraid of (f.e. icecream, chocolate, cookies, sugar, etc). At the beggining it is hard, but then it becames a little bit easyer and I hope one day I will see it as something good.
    Stay Strong everyone, if you suffer from this or if you are just reading to help someone you love.

  • Jan

    I’m not sure if it would be classified as anorexia in technical diagnostic terms but eating disorders are not always related to body image or a desire to be thin. They are very often linked to self harm behaviors and sometimes people starve themselves as means to punish themselves. Often eating disorders can go undiagnosed or unnoticed because the person isn’t obsessed with thinness. I went through a period in college right after breaking up with a boyfriend where I ate maybe an apple and a Luna bar every day, at the most. I wasn’t thinking about getting thinner, I was thinking about control and attempting to have willpower. I felt so powerless when dealing with my boyfriend that it felt good to be able to say no sometimes and I said no with food. I didn’t realize that I had a problem because I wasn’t starving myself to be skinny so I didn’t recognize it as an eating disorder. It is only 10 years later that I am beginning to make the connection between my disordered eating at that time and my mental health. So I think it is important to recognize that not all disordered eating is about wanting to be skinny or wanting to lose weight.

    • Oh, absolutely. Oftentimes there is something deeper going on. Torturing the body with extreme weight loss and eating rituals is often used as a way to deal with a lot of emotional turmoil above all else. It can be like a control thing. Sorry if I didn’t make that more explicit!