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The Cult and Culture Of Anorexia

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Updated November 03, 2005

The Cult and Culture Of Anorexia

A June 2001 study into anorexia found people with this condition often form secretive "cults" with other anorexics in order to feel as if they are part of a group. Megan Warin, as part of her Ph.D. in Anthropology spent three years researching 46 women and men with anorexia in Australia, Canada and Scotland.

Warin's research was unique in studying anorexia in its natural setting. She is quoted in a press release as stating "The main theme of my research was how these people dealt with anorexia in the context of their everyday lives. I wanted to go beyond the shallow, media-generated stereotypes of anorexia and see just how it affects people and the way they interact with the world around them."

Warin found that participants did not always experience anorexia as a mental disorder. Some actually saw it as "an empowering process that opened up a whole new way of relating to the world". She described how patients joined together in treatment settings to form highly secretive "cults" or "clubs" with others who shared their diagnosis. These groups appeared to convey a feeling of connection and belonging to these patients. Warin reported that they related to each other "through a bevy of secret knowledge and practices, though allegiance, hierarchy, language and bodily markers."

She stated "What I found was that people with anorexia transform many of the things that we might consider to be fundamental to social relationships... things like relating to family, friendships, the sharing of food, and sharing space with others - all of these are a very large part of how we normally live our lives, but for people with anorexia these things are often negated. Many talked about feeling alienated from their families. Nearly all refused to eat with others, and they often refused to engage in social activities, especially with families. They often lived alone, and spent a lot of time in private spaces, like bathrooms and bedrooms."

Warin's research found that many people with severe eating disorders had unusual attitudes toward death. "The best anorexic, people told me, was when they were dead. These people consider themselves to be the winners." according to Ms Warin.

As disturbing as this is, there is help for people with eating disorders. The Eating Disorders Forum is one place where peers support more healthy eating behaviors. By building relationships with family and friends, people with eating disorders can avoid some of the extremes found in this research.

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