Bulimia Online by Shannon Murphy May 2, 2000


The importance of receiving quick and effective treatment for eating disorder , such as bulimia, cannot be underestimated. With the introduction of the internet into our homes, the capability to receive the support and to educate ourselves is now only a click away. Are women who suffer from this illness taking advantage of the information and support available to them on-line so that they may successfully treat their illness or is this new tool being largely undervalued and underused. This paper focuses on the role cyberspace plays in the search for treatment.


There are over 80 million fat Americans. Recent studies have shown that as many as 30% of all college women binge and purge. These same studies suggest that as many as one in ten High School girls are anorexic. With numbers like these, its no wonder that authors like Judi Hollis say in her book, Fat is a Family Affair

"It seems that Americas drug of choice is food." (1985)

The importance of receiving quick and effective treatment for eating disorder , such as bulimia, cannot be underestimated. With the introduction of the internet into our homes, the capability to receive the support and to educate ourselves is now only a click away. Are women who suffer from this illness taking advantage of the information and support available to them on-line so that they may successfully treat their illness or is this new tool being largely undervalued and underused. This paper focuses on the role cyberspace plays in the search for treatment.

A person who uses food to help cope with life rather than to feed the engine is suffering from some type of an eating disorder. Suffering with an eating disorder is woven into every aspect of that person’s life and it cannot be fixed with some quickie diet or a brief stint in psychotherapy. The process of recovering from an eating disorder is the hardest struggle many people will ever face. It is one of the only addictions that require the recovering addict to face (and use) his or her drug on a daily basis. Imagine how much harder recovery would be for a heroin addict if they had to still use miniscule amounts of the drug on a daily basis to survive.

The first and most important truth that sufferers must come to terms with is the realization that food is not their problem; it is merely a symptom or manifestation of an underlying problem. At some point in their development, a bulimic has been hindered or arrested by some event or events. To be successful in beating their disease, a bulimic must have the ability to dig through all the superficial symptoms and get to the underlying cause of their problem. Once the cause or causes have been identified treatment can begin in earnest. I feel it is important to first identify several of the possible causes in the hopes that it can bring about a clearer understanding as to why an effective treatment can be difficult to find.

The family histories of many bulimics suggest that some sort of addiction has existed in the family unit, usually first generation (parent, or sibling). The dysfunctional environment that promotes addiction tends to be set up or in place, which means that a predisposition to unhealthy development is almost guaranteed. Studies suggest that a high percentage of relatives suffer or have suffered from depression, which again means that the dysfunctional emotional cycle constricts the psychological development of the child. These dysfunctional families can be characterized as enmeshing and disorganized. The dysfunctional cycle that is put into play can best be explained by the following quote,

"Children are taught to value high achievement, but not taught how to achieve; taught to value emotionality, openness and independence but not encouraged to be so." (Vandereycken, Pg.31)

Is it possible that bulimia is caused by an inherited gene? Most studies show that a "bulimia" gene does not exist. Although body type is an inherited factor and this may make someone a bigger build or have a slower metabolic rate. In this sense, genetic factors may be of some importance. Some women, no matter how hard they may diet or exercise, will never reach that "ideal" weight.

Melanie, a recovering bulimic that I met on-line, told me that for two years she was on a restricted diet. Her average caloric intake was well under 1,000 calories a day (on average 750). During her bingeing episodes, she would consume upwards of 1,000 in a sitting and then purge herself for hours to make sure that she didn’t risk gaining any more weight. Over the course of her "active" illness, Mel never lost a pound- her body shape remained the same which in her mind meant that she was gaining weight. She mentioned that the women in her family tended to be bigger than average so achieving that skinny narrow frame that was her ideal was not a realistic goal. She is 5’6 and at the time of entering treatment weighed 138 pounds.

The social factors that feed this disease have been well documented. Particularly true in the case of women is the view that thinness and success and well being go hand in hand. Western society values the female slenderness as an expression of sexual attractiveness. The average American female is 5’4 and weighs 140 pounds. The average American model is 5’11 and weighs 117 pounds. This is the body type that young girls are taught to believe is the accepted norm. This stereotyping, some argue, plays a central role in the development of sex-role identity (e.g. Scott, 1987). Does this help cause bulimia?

In one sense, I would argue that it does. Women are generally more weight conscious than men. Studies have shown that the attitudes held by women are more inclined to be influenced by the stereotypical ways of thinking- valuing thinness, beauty, dependence, etc. At the very least, statistics suggest that this is why more women tend to suffer from bulimia than men.

Many psychoanalysts (e.g. Scott; 1987) believe that psychosexual factors play a contributory role in the development of bulimia. It has been alleged that people suffering with this illness are psychosexually immature. That they cannot accept their own physical and sexual maturity, and are incapable of assuming an adult female role (e.g. Beumont, 1981). Freud likened eating disorders to " a melancholia occurring when sexuality has been underdeveloped…Loss of appetite is in sexual terms loss of libido". While there is anecdotal evidence, there is nothing concrete to support the idea of psychosexual factors play a role in the development of eating disorders.

Clinicians worldwide have noted the dissociative abilities that bulimics have. Many bulimics describe their bingeing episodes as almost trance like- like they have been taken over by some other force. When a bulimic is bingeing, there is no thought involved, no reflection as to why they may be doing this to themselves. The need to gorge has completely taken over. For people who suffer from eating disorders, food has been their one true source of comfort and medication over the years. Asking a bulimic to give up what she most likely feels is the only thing that she has control over causes panic and fear and is often met with anger and protectiveness over her disease.

This is not necessarily the case in on-line support groups. People are on-line because they truly want to be there. Their presence is an admission to themselves and other that they are sick and that they need the support of others to help them beat their illness. Knowing that they can come into an environment where they will not be judged by other tends to allow them to open and communicate their feelings honestly.

Bulimics report having grown up in a family where they frequently experienced themselves as the mothering adult. In most cases either one or both of the parents grew up in a highly dysfunctional home and as a result, were unable to give the unconditional love and support that a child needs when growing up. This is a common stage that many sufferers find themselves stuck on at some level. They were unable to get love from a parent so they turned to food and that is where they got the affection they so craved.

Unable to express their emotions, they turn to food to find solace. The comfort in food is only short lived. Before they realize it, they are caught in a horrible cycle of bingeing to comfort or medicate themselves. No longer do they feel like they can be disappointed by life because their one true source of contentment will always be there.

The internet has become a worldwide phenomenon, a tool for many who wish to educate themselves. The question that must be asked is, how has the advent of the internet effected the search for education and support for people who are affected (both sufferers and their family members). The internet has become an extremely valuable tool for people who are searching for different types of help. The curious thing about this illness is that people who suffer from it tend to become masters in the art of deception. They guard their illness and tend not to open up and admit that they need help until they hit rock bottom.

The safety of anonymity is able to draw many who do not feel comfortable with the idea of opening up to others. This is where the internet plays a key role. In my research for this paper, I joined many web communities that specialized in the support of people that were suffering from bulimia. With each community, the knowledge that a person could participate in a discussion and be completely honest and open helped to promote a genuinely honest atmosphere. Through many of our discussions, we, as a group were, able to help an individual try to understand what they were feeling and how they could possibly overcome that particular conflict. Quickly I learned how the ability to help someone could be a very empowering feeling.

The amount of online support groups available is fairly impressive. Each support group I entered, I posed the same question to, " How has the internet affected your treatment or recovery?". The answers that I received were suprisingly similar. Treatment prewww as many referred to it, was painful and slow. A recovering bulimic I met online by the name of Tammy said,

"Having to come to terms with the fact that you have crossed over that invisible line and now have a problem is tough enough without having to go before dozens of strangers, like an OA meeting, and ask for help or sitting in front of a doctor that you know is making $100 an hour off of your illness and waiting for him to "cure" you. It’s just not going to happen, at least for me, that way. When I found my web friends, I found an inner peace. That is what I needed." (March, 2000)

Tammy inclusion of OA (Overeaters Anonymous) brings about a very valid point. Many bulimics do well in the OA setting. But, for a fairly high percentage, OA represents fear. Bulimics have a morbid fear of becoming obese. Sitting in an OA meeting with people who are obese terrifies many bulimics. Several recovering bulimics I met in the course of doing research for this paper have brought this point to my attention. How can people first trying to come to grips with their illness look at others who are what they most fear and feel comfortable? In the warped mind of a bulimic, at the height of her illness, she may very well think that she might become obese herself. This is not conducive to providing a supportive and helpful atmosphere for recovery.

This is again where on line support communities play an advantageous role. People are free to discuss their feeling openly, knowing that nobody will judge them. It doesn’t matter what time of the day or night it is. On-line communities are not hindered by borders. People all over the world can connect through one sight which means that someone is always available to talk with. The support, when they need it is there. Having that ability to let their words speak , without their physical presence, for them is a blessing for many of these recovering addicts. They are only judged by what they say, not for how they look.

Yes, the internet has the potential to become a powerful tool for both the education of and treatment of eating disorders. As the new millenium dawns, we as society must continue the process of becoming electronically savvy and use this tool to it’s potential. Changing peoples views of themselves and helping them to realize that they are not alone will go a long way in making recovery from an eating disorder an easier process.

Writing this paper has been a deeply personal experience for me. As I have stated before, Almost twelve years ago I was desperately trying to find an organization to help me conquer my own battle with bulimia. At that time the internet was in its infancy and not many people had access to the web. Not having this tool to help me made my search for help a long painful process. It must be a great relief for sufferers as well as family to know that today finding help is as simple as typing bulimia.com.






Freud’s aphorism :A man with a toothache cannot fall in love









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7) http:/www.wetfish.com