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Tracing bulimia's roots....

Some clinicians have noted that women suffering from the eating disorder bulimia often report being sexually abused as children. That abuse, in their view, helps produce adult bulimics' urges to eat in binges and then purge their caloric excess through self-induced vomiting or other methods. However, researchers have uncovered little direct evidence for a link between childhood sexual abuse and bulimia.

A new study now finds that prolonged physical and psychological abuse, rather than sexual abuse, are more characteristic of the early family experiences of bulimic women.

"We see the pervasive effect of a type of childhood psychological water torture once practiced on bulimic women that shapes their sense of themselves and their self-esteem," asserts study director Joel Yager of the University of California, Los Angeles. "It's not just one traumatic abuse incident."

Yager's group examined 40 women currently diagnosed as bulimic, 40 formerly bulimic women who were symptom-free for at least one year, and 40 women who had never developed an eating disorder of any kind. The investigators used a series of interviews and questionnaires to probe the women's histories of childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse (such as regular spanking, punching, and beatings by parents), and psychological abuse (including persistent yelling, insults, guilt-inspiring statements, and ridicule from parents).

More frequent and extensive physical and psychological abuse occurred in the two bulimic groups, compared with the controls. But sexual abuse alone did not show up more often among bulimics, Yager says.

However, sexual abuse in combination with one or both other types of abuse appeared to boost the severity of bulimia in some women, he adds.

Long-standing psychological and physical abuse typically emerged in hostile, emotionally disturbed families, Yager says.

A few bulimic women reported no prior abuse of any kind and relatively stable early family lives. The roots of binging and purging in these cases remain unclear, he contends.

Yager's data and previous studies offer no support to those who claim that childhood sexual abuse boosts the risk of developing bulimia as an adult, argues James I. Hudson of McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass.
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Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Jun 5, 1993
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