In the beginning
There were two differences between a graduate-level psych student and I: age and motivation. I was seven, not a university student, and I wasn’t aiming to help others or fulfill education requirements. I was in training to get thin and sick.
If I believed everything I read in the first-person accounts, anorexia and bulimia are polar opposites, akin to siblings who are nothing alike. ‘Ana,’ as she is referred to on pro-eating disorder websites, is the good kid, bringing home perfect grades and always speaking with manners; ‘Mia,’ or bulimia, is rude, messy and libel to come home drunk three hours after curfew. Anorexia is to good girls as bulimia is to brooding bad girls, or so I surmised from such books as The Best Little Girl in the World and Girl, Interrupted.
It seemed that there was often a specific method and path that each person would follow to ultimately become sick. And sick meant different things for the two different camps.
Anorexics were typically sensitive, virtuous perfectionists who started their massive weight loss with the single step of a diet or increase in exercise that quickly grew its own reins. It’s always a girl (or a boy) trying to be their best—the best athlete, student, daughter/son—and then, oops! they’re anorexic.
Bulimics had deep closets filled to the brim with bony secrets. I don’t think I’ve read a single account of bulimia that didn’t imply sexual abuse or rape. It’s also been widely published that bulimia co-exists with other addictive tendencies like cutting, drug and alcohol abuse, smoking and wait for this… promiscuity.
But even at a young age, this didn’t make sense to me. Why would someone who has been sexually abused engage in more risky, frequent or anonymous sex? And why isn’t anorexia tied in so closely with these other addictions and doing the nasty? It almost seemed like maybe there was something to the unofficial dichotomy of these two eating disorders.
That’s how rumors get started, kids.
And then, light was shed
Now, over twenty years later, I know that it’s bull, really. Both eating disorders ultimately leave their sufferers with one common thing: shitty self-esteem of epic proportions, if they had any to start with.
Now, stereotypically, an anorexic might not engage in promiscuous sex because s/he feels that the site of her body is so disgusting, a sexual partner will turn her/him away. Since a lot of the condition has roots in self-control and people-pleasing, driving someone away while confirming their own unattractiveness is the last thing an anorexic might want; stereotypically, a bulimic might act promiscuously because it’s a natural part of her/his binge cycle, and as such, a way to find comfort and acceptance by another person—at least until after s/he is overfull and left desperately guilty.
Different methods and labels, same results and motivation. One eats and purges, the other starves and exercises, but both seek unconditional love and control over even their base needs, like nutrition and sexual fulfillment. But why does sex come into this, really? You have to look at it on a cellular level, too.
Under the microscope
Both anorexics’ and bulimics’ lifestyles can lead to disaster in relation to sexuality.
In addition to a myriad of other complications including permanent kidney and heart damage, female anorexics and bulimics can cause themselves irreversible hormonal damage, often hinted at by missed periods (amenorrhea). Continuous amenorrhea leads to infertility. But one of the first signs of anorexia’s role on lady-parts is often drying up of vaginal secretions, leading directly to painful, uncomfortable sex. Personally, I’d avoid something that was painful and uncomfortable, too. And FYI, in men, anorexia can lead to impotence.
So, that’s why anorexics always seem so virginal: they’ve chemically programmed their bodies to avoid sex. Okay, so what about bulimics, then—the rumored promiscuity can’t be all smokescreen, can it? Maybe not.
Some female bulimics have been found to have a naturally occurring hormone imbalance, resulting in elevated levels of testosterone, and lower levels of estrogen than their peers [source]. Not only is testosterone responsible for regulating hunger, but also sex drive. So to carefully tiptoe on a limb here, it’s reasonable to assume elevated male hormones are at least a little responsible for the need to speed-eat and heightened libido. Combined with environmental factors - such as the often reported sexual abuse bulimics have been victim of—it’s pretty much the perfect recipe for bulimia’s binging and sexual activity.
But if you add a little sumpin’-sumpin’ into the mix, anorexics aren’t so clean-cut. Cocaine is a drug sometimes used for appetite suppression, in addition to the high and sense of control that anorexics (and bulimics) can achieve while under its influence [source]. Cocaine can also mask anorexia’s typical frigidness as it can produce sexual arousal and even compulsive sexuality as a side effect. So yes, a coked-out anorexic can be hot-to-trot. Alcohol is also often abused by bulimics, and most of us know that drinking can lead to a person in your bed that might not have otherwise been. Cue the bow-chicka-bow-bow soundtrack.
Blame it on the media, why don’t you?
This wouldn’t be an article about eating disorders unless I brought up the media’s role on burgeoning psyches, and how the photographers, fashion designers, actors and models are all to blame, right?
It’s simple: Models are sexy and thin, therefore all women should be; actors are unwrinkled, cellulite-free and rippling with toned muscles, so everyone should be in optimal, ageless shape. Anyone who promotes or creates this imagery is the real creator of eating disorders. The fashion business is single-handedly responsible for most society’s assumption that twig-thin women are hot, causing women the width of two twigs or more to throw up their every meal.
Wrong. The wonderful thing about human society is freedom of choice. And we sure do exercise it in other mediums. Blaming an entire industry for any problem is a cop-out, especially in this case, when we can just put down the damned magazines. Or choose to acknowledge women (and men) of every shape and size to be equally attractive.
Curvy is romantically sexy to some; reed-thin and tall is delectable to others. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to, you know?
The people who choose to base their self-worth on imagery of who they should look like are, in my very damned opinionated opinion, covering up their fear that there’s nothing internal worth appreciation. I can say that with clear conscience, given that I was one of those thin, sexy, perfect, walking skeletons that felt utterly empty inside for more reasons than my lack of nutrients.
Now, I put down the magazine and think to myself, squishy tummy and all, I’d take a funny-as-hell man with a spare tire far sooner I’d consider a perfectly-chiseled Grecian god with a door stop for a brain. And I wouldn’t drop a pound from this body that I spent over 20 years abusing, because I saw what perfect gave me: damaged organs and fertility, emotional issues that have severely hampered my success in life at some points, and (back then) a complete misunderstanding as to what healthy sexuality was.