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The History Of Anorexia Nervosa and other Eating Disorders

Abstract: Anorexia Nervosa has since the 1870s been a well-known disease for psychologists and other medical professionals. It took a long time for the general public to get aware of the disease and its processes. Today, the disease is relatively widespread around the Western world, caused by unnatural body ideals.

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The History Of Anorexia Nervosa and other Eating Disorders

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Written by: Linda Gehlin, student of psychology, Umeå universitet, Sweden, after guidance by Gunborg Palme, Certificated psychologist, Certificated psychotherapist
First version: 22 Jul 2008.
Latest revision: 05 Aug 2008.

What does Anorexia Nervosa mean? How long has this disease existed? Did Anorexia exist in the old days? What is the background and history of Anorexia Nervosa?


Anorexia Nervosa means "nervous loss of appetite". This definition is not particularly good, since it is based on misunderstandings. The people who suffer from Anorexia Nervosa do not at all have lack of appetite, they are only scared of putting on weight. Therefore, the term "selfstarving" would be more suitable, or even better expressed "weightfobia".

Anorexia Nervosa is more common today, than a century ago. There are different reasons for this:

  • The thin ideal has become "fashionable", an ideal which almost all type's of media advocate. This leads people to believe that this is the ideal way to look like, and the right way to live their life. Many people try different slimming methods, one after the other, and unsuitable slimming methods is the most common factor which starts an eating disorder. More information.
  • Modern technology hels us so much that we do not need to exert our bodies physically as much as before. Most work is performed in a sitting position. People handle the reduced need for with less and/or healthy food.
  • The media also focus a lot on sport and exercise, which can lead to an extreme focus on one´s body, and on an almost unreachable body ideal. More information.

Eating disorders like Anorexia Nervosa have shown to occur more commonly in countries where these reasons are more apparent in the daily life.

In 1684 Anorexia Nervosa was described for the first time, but it was not until 1870 that it became identified and described with it´s own diagnosis. The birth of the "new" disease was not only related to the new way to look at medicine, but also an effect of the changes in the society, and on the new ideal for young women. The history of Anorexia Nervosa is partly an effect of the culture we live in, and partly an effect of the social structure in our society.

Although Anorexia Nervosa has long been well-known by psychologists and other behavioral scientists, the general public first got to know about the disease and its nature at the end of the twentieth century. It was not until the beginning of the 1970s, that the American media began to write about Anorexia Nervosa. In 1974 there were stories in American media about how young women refused to eat, but without really explaining how serious this illness could be. In 1984, during the American TV-show "Saturday night live", the host began to joke about the disease and showed a proposal of how an anorectic cookbook could look like. Today, one has realized how serious the disease and its processes really are. More information.

In 1978, after almost three decades of clinical experiences of Anorexia Nervosa, the psychologist Hilde Bruch published a book about the disease. "The Golden Cage", as the book was called, is based on 70 real cases, where mostly young women's testimonials are included. During the same time as the book was published, Bruch claimed that the disease was so frequent that it had become a big problem in most American colleges and universities.

A study based on clinical research in the 1970s showed that Anorexia Nervosa is a disease related to the culture we live in. This means that the disease is most common in the Western world, and a lot is depending on the different factors which has been bescribed above.

During the 1980s and until today there has been published a great amount of literature about Anorexia Nervosa (and about Bulimia Nervosa, a disease closely related to Anorexia Nervosa), and many scientists have published research on this disorder. Today, there are many clinics around the world, with specialized psychologists and psychiatrists, in order to try to help women and men that suffer from Anorexia Nervosa.

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