Is jealousy or rivalry a factor in anorexia?

To me, this is an area that isn’t explored enough. I never heard mention of this in any treatment setting. The topic is usually avoided, except for certain types of rivalry. Allow me to explain.

1) “My mother is jealous of me.” How often have I heard this? A zillion times. Mother/daughter competition is probably more frequently present than not. I’m not saying all mothers are jealous, but many are. This might go either way:

I have seen where mothers are infatuated with their daughters’ thinness, even sometimes proud to have an uncommonly thin daughter. They will be the last to admit to this, due to their own weight-related hangups.  This mother/daughter trap is insidious. Separation is probably a good idea, but it’s difficult because such mothers work very hard to keep their daughters  under their thumb. They dote on their daughters and coddle them. This is most apparent when I saw mothers as patient visitors. Watching them interact gave me the jitters. These mothers invaded their daughters’ physical space, sitting too close to their daughters compared to the cultural norm. I shuddered when I saw these mothers stroking their daughter’s hair ad nauseum. While it is of course a way to show affection, when done so much, I felt all kinds of red flags.  Their postures were imposing. Often, I saw young girls sitting in chairs, with the mother seated ridiculously close, in such a manner that the smothered girl couldn’t even get up from her chair.

I have also seen mothers who compete with their daughters. They won’t admit it, of course. I have observed the language these mothers use, and when I hear this, I know what’s happening. Often, the competition is lifelong.

You are not your mother. Your body is different. While you were in her womb, you were part of her body. However, since the day you left the womb, you have been a sovereign person. Anything to do with your weight should be entirely separate from anything to do with her weight. However, jealousy will bind you into a slavery.

Jealousy alone isn’t the cause of eating disorders, but it might keep a daughter trapped within the disorder for decades. I don’t for one minute feel that eating disorders are caused by “bad mothers,” but that if this cannot be resolved, the daughter is best off separating, even if it’s painful for one or both.

2) “My PCP/doctor is too controlling.” I have heard  this, too, many times. I believe jealousy or infatuation are usually at play when a PCP bullies her patients.

We must be aware that doctors often work under complex hierarchies.  Unless you are privy to what’s happening behind the scenes (most of us aren’t) then you don’t know if you are being bullied by proxy or if the doctor is acting on her own accord.

Within upper echelons of power, many institutions are corrupt. Let’s face it, the Western medical model is full of false assumptions, so of course, this makes it conducive to corruption. When it happens at the upper levels, it invariably is passed down the ranks. I’m not excusing abuse, but I have seen with my own eyes when a healthcare worker is terrified to speak out for fear of losing her job–or worse. She may be aware of abuse but is afraid to do anything about it. I know healthcare workers who have been threatened. It’s not easy for them. Still, I think it’s unethical to participate in abuse “because I was just following orders.” I also feel that if a healthcare worker is witness to abuse and does nothing, then they are a participant in it.

If your doctor, therapist, or any carer has you enslaved, the best favor you can do for yourself is to separate. This is hard for many because these situations can become complex. A controlling doctor sees to it that you have roadblocks preventing separation. The pressure while in such a situation ends up mostly on the patient, the one on the bottom of the heap.

Separation doesn’t guarantee that you won’t end up in a worse situation. Please be careful. I know some who have fled the frying pan only to end up in the fire.

3) Jealous friends. This problem is rarely discussed. I can imagine that it happens in schools all the time. Nowadays, kids are pressured to lose weight by the school nurse, the media, their pediatricians, teachers and coaches, social media, and their own peers. I often hear that a girl might initially see a positive effect on her social life. Later, the tables turn if a girl continues to lose weight.

Anorexia seems like one of those health problems that doesn’t strengthen friendships. Some problems do, though. I recall when I was a grade school kid, having a plaster cast on your leg was a status symbol. If you were one of the special few, you enjoyed the privilege of cast decoration.

I believe that the reasons anorexia causes friendships to end is extremely complicated. Jealousy is most likely a strong factor, but those that feel this envy are not likely to admit it. The sufferer is frustrated because other kids don’t understand why on earth she cannot “just eat.” “We can eat fine (and we are frustrated over our weight) but why aren’t you eating?” Friends sometimes think the girl has more “willpower,” and want that for themselves.  They aren’t likely to come out and admit it.

A person with anorexia might then be thrown out of her peer group or fired from a job. Ganging up, that is, mob behavior and scapegoating can also occur.

4) Within the treatment “milieu.” This is known about among those that frequent these places. I believe most “staff” who work there see it, too. Some people see the “tube” as status symbol.  Even being placed on “bedrest” might be a source of envy.

The treatment places try to solve this by pressuring the patients, saying, “Don’t compare.” I don’t think this solves the problem, but instead, places blame on the patient, who is told to deny her very real emotions. I see so many patients who are totally convinced that they have additional diagnoses because they do what their own human nature tells them to do. We are a species that thrives on each of us being able to see ourselves as better off than our peers. Ultimately, comparison with others and seeing our own yards as greener might define our own happiness.

I feel that jealousy can be transferred and handled in an indirect manner. I know this because I have done this myself! Often, I feel envious of other writers who are enjoying fame, good fortune, and respect in their communities, selling out at the bookstores, when I still struggle and feel like I have to twist arms to make even one book sale. I end up being rather mean-spirited toward the writers I am jealous of, even lashing out at them. They didn’t do anything wrong, and I recognize this. The problem of unevenness is societal, not the fault of those that reap the benefits of what we know of as success. It bugs me when other writers deny that this intrinsic inequality exists. I am not proud of the times I have lashed out inappropriately.

This unevenness was made clear to me in one of my grad school workshops I attended. This was one taught by Ryan Boudinot. I recall that he was asked to do this workshop again, but I know he didn’t give it at every residency. Boudinot gave us an insider’s look at Amazon dot com. He knew just how insidious many book marketers are. The world of selling books isn’t fair or just. It’s a rough world out there.

We live in human society, run by money, greed, and of course, envy. These have been around since we evolved from the apes. I am not sure how much could or should change, but I don’t think it’s productive to deny the existence of these very real human emotions and behaviors.

Feedback and comments welcome!