Anorexia nervosa is a serious illness with dangerous health consequences and has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Yet some people yearn to have anorexia. This phenomenon is known as “wannarexia” or anorexic yearning (AY), a term coined by researcher Pamela Hardin in a 2003 paper in Nursing Inquiry. Neither is an official diagnosis, and definitions vary.
“There’s no operational definition of anorexic yearning,” according to Kathy Chen, a third-year clinical psychology doctoral student at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, who’s studying the motivations behind wanting to be anorexic. She defines AY as someone “who desires to acquire the mental illness of anorexia nervosa but doesn’t meet criteria for anorexia based on the current diagnostic standards.”
“Wannarexia” is a loosely-used layman’s term, according to Richard Kreipe, M.D., a board-certified pediatrician and director of the Western New York Comprehensive Care Center for Eating Disorders at the University of Rochester Medical Center. The behaviors associated with anorexia, such as “controlling your intake, controlling your weight, losing weight and being thin are all seen as positive things,” he said.
Only a handful of mainstream articles have addressed wannarexia, including a 2008 piece in Teen Vogue, in which writer Amelia McDonell-Parry defined wannarexia as a term “used to describe the mind frame of teenage girls who use eating-disorder behaviors as a way of dieting…”
There’s also little research specifically exploring anorexic yearning. Instead, the literature primarily focuses on pro-anorexia communities, where you’ll often find wannarexia, according to Sarah Brotsky, PsyD, a clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders at Dennis & Moye & Associates in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. While conducting research on pro-ana websites, she observed that “many individuals who were living the pro-ana lifestyle fell under the anorexic yearning category.” They wanted to be anorexic “to be thin, happy, in control, accepted in the community and distracted from offline stressors and negative relationships.”
Anorexia’s Superior Status
“You don’t commonly see people saying I want to be depressed or I want to be psychotic,” Chen said. In fact, there’s great stigma surrounding mental illness. Yet, anorexia is viewed positively — and even with envy.
How many times have you heard a person say that they wish they had the willpower to fast or restrict themselves? Similarly, it’s not uncommon for people to say that they wished they were allergic to certain food groups or had an illness that prevented them from eating.
Anorexia is “seen as a show of willpower, strength and determination, especially in a world where we hear about the bad things associated with obesity,” Dr. Kreipe said.
Anorexia also is glamorized in our society. As Chen said, our culture equates thinness with happiness. Not surprisingly, impressionable teens think that being thin will make them popular. And oftentimes, the popular students aren’t just thin but also attractive, smart and well-off. So some teens mistakenly view anorexia as the key to fitting in and having it all.
When Dr. Kreipe was treating a popular high school girl — who seemed to have it all — for an eating disorder, her classmate asked him how much weight she needed to lose so she could also be hospitalized.
But it isn’t all about being thin and well-liked: Some individuals also believe that they deserve the diagnosis of anorexia because their psychological and emotional struggles are the same as someone with anorexia, according to Chen. They want their suffering to be validated, Dr. Kreipe said.
The Issue of Choice
Even though some believe that they can actively acquire anorexia, eating disorders are not lifestyle choices. “They are mental health disorders that can have dire consequences,” Brotsky said. This is sometimes viewed as offensive to people who suffer from anorexia and other eating disorders, Chen said.