Wannarexia: What Parents Can DoAnorexia 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.

Wannarexia Warning Signs

Eating disorders are secretive, so it’s not common for someone to come right out and say that she or he has an eating disorder — or wants to have one. So it’s critical to pay attention to the warning signs.

Brotsky provided this list of wannarexia’s potential red flags:

  • Recent weight loss in a short period of time
  • Total elimination of a food group (or groups)
  • Becoming a vegetarian
  • Complaints of food allergies
  • Constant consumption of appetite suppressants: hard candies, chewing gum, coffee or diet soda
  • Fear or unrealistic beliefs about food
  • Foods may be labeled as “good” or “bad”
  • Preoccupation with the appearance of the body
  • Overly concerned with a particular part of the body
  • Inability to break rigid routines (especially food and exercise patterns)
  • Distorted body image (feeling fat when actually thin)
  • Perfectionism
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty asking for help
  • Anxiety – difficulty dealing with stress
  • Easily frustrated
  • All or nothing” thinking
  • Denial of disorder

What Parents (and Loved Ones) Can Do About Wannarexia

Having a child who’s exhibiting any of these warning signs can be scary. But there are many ways you can help. Here’s how:

  • Be a good role model. The most important thing that parents need to realize is that they’re critical in their children’s lives, Dr. Kreipe said. He cited a recent study that showed that the biggest predictor of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders’ desire to lose weight was their mother wanting to lose weight.
  • Avoid letting appearance and weight determine your value or making personal judgments, like “I’m weak, lazy or bad if I don’t lose weight,” Dr. Kreipe said. Similarly, avoid statements like “I’m weak for eating this dessert” or “I’m so lazy for not exercising.” Kids pick up on this. Also, engage the entire family in living a healthy lifestyle.
  • Listen — a lot. “Listening is twice as important as talking,” said Dr. Kreipe, who recalled a quote from a dad: “G-d gave me two ears and one mouth so I could listen twice as much as I talk.” So listen to your kids when they discuss body image and other concerns.
  • Avoid being overly controlling. Monitoring online activities like a hawk isn’t the solution, even though this might be your first instinct. “There’s a fine line between wanting to protect your child from external influences you might think are bad versus letting your child explore their identity,” Chen said. She believes that the key is to maintain a strong relationship with your kids. Limiting Internet access and being overly controlling tells children that you don’t trust them and “might hinder some of the positive relationship between parent and child,” she said.
  • Educate yourself. Learn more about eating disorders, their health consequences and how you can raise healthy children. Dr. Kreipe recommended reading Dianne Neumark-Sztainer’s book, “I’m, Like, SO Fat!”: Helping Your Teen Make Healthy Choices about Eating and Exercise in a Weight-Obsessed World, to learn how to “raise kids in a weight-conscious world in a balanced way.”
  • Educate your kids. Most children, teens and young adults don’t realize the devastating and potentially fatal consequences of eating disorders. Brotsky suggested explaining this to your child.
  • See a specialist. Brotsky also suggested that parents have their child see a mental health professional who specializes in eating disorders. For more on talking to your child and finding help, check out Psych Central’s interview with eating disorder specialist Sari Shepphird, Ph.D.