Wannarexia: What Parents Can Do
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.