We’ve only just begun: 30 years of ED after Karen Carpenter

Thirty years ago this week, singer Karen Carpenter died as a result of anorexia nervosa. In the history of EDs, there aren’t a lot of historic moments. The first medical description of anorexia nervosa in the 1870s, perhaps, and the first formal description of bulimia in 1979, are likely candidates. But Carpenter’s death was a historic moment of a different kind: it marked the rise in public awareness of eating disorders.

Before Carpenter died in 1983, EDs were seen as bizarre, freaky occurrences. Most people–physicians included–didn’t really even know what EDs were. I remember reading a story of a young physician called in to consult on a teenage girl with anorexia. “Pay attention,” he was told, “because this might be the only case of this weird disease you will ever see.”

Now, perhaps, we have the opposite problem: everyone¬†thinks they know what an eating disorder is, even if they have no real idea. Lots of myths abound, things like “It’s not about the food,” and “the patient just needs control in her life.” People overwhelmingly picture ED sufferers as young white girls, when research tells us that ED victims come from every race, ethnicity, gender, age, and economic status. Still, I think the general public is more aware of the signs and symptoms of EDs and that’s a good thing, even it if means sorting through a fair amount of drivel in the process.

I got curious to see how ED thinking as changed over the past 30 years, so I decided to start by sorting through the archives at Google News.

A few examples: Shallow families promote anorexia

Anorexia sufferers often deny they have an illness

Body chemistry may activate anorexia

Bulimia may harm physically and psychologically

Current news stories are more diverse, ranging from poignant personal stories (Georgia’s brave battle with anorexia– replete with voyeuristic photos of her at her lowest weight) to summaries of recent research to the utterly mind-numbing (Girls driven to anorexia to get thigh gap).

What does look to be more promising is the increase in ED research. Using data from the NIH, I created two graphs to show how the number of studies on anorexia and bulimia have increased over the years.

AN studies

BN studies


There have been dramatic improvements to our understanding of eating disorders, but there is still a long way to go. We still don’t have very good treatments for many ED sufferers. We still don’t know much about what causes or triggers EDs. We don’t know what happens to ED sufferers after initial recovery- or what can be done to help those patients that don’t respond well to front-line treatments. There are still so many myths about EDs- that they are caused by the media or bad parenting, that weight gain alone cures anorexia, that people who binge eat just lack self-control. With better research and a better public understanding of EDs, I think we can do a whole lot better.

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2 Responses to “We’ve only just begun: 30 years of ED after Karen Carpenter”

  1. It makes me sad when I think of Karen Carpenter, mostly because I think of all the girls who fell to the wayside before eating disorders became more than a “stage” in life. And then I think of the girls we hear about, and the ones we don’t hear about, presently – but that’s why we keep fighting.
    One of my ‘favorite’ older studies so far that I have read on eating disorders is: “Cinderella’s stepsisters – anorexia & bulimia” (1976). Thank goodness we’ve moved a bit further than that. But I often wonder if we will look back in 30 years on the science of today and laugh that we ever believed the things we do.

  2. Its great to see that Eating Disorder research is on the rise, it’s so sad to think of all the people who experience an ED in some way, but as you say we still have a long way to go!