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Exploring the Link Between Perfectionism and Bulimia

The noun perfectionism is defined as a personal standard, attitude or philosophy that demands perfection, and importantly, rejects anything less. Many females of all ages struggle with perfectionism in modern-day America. An adolescent desires a flawless body; a college student wants perfect grades; a woman strives to be the ideal mother. Each one has set themselves up to fail. The truth is being perfect in anything is an unattainable goal.

We have long known that perfectionism is often a component of anorexia; and indeed, many of those who subscribe to pro-ana websites compete with one another to be the perfect anorexic. “I only eat one apple a day.” . . . “I only eat half of an apple.”

Lesser known, is the fact that perfectionism is also commonly associated with bulimia. This lack of knowledge is no doubt due to the fact that bulimia is so strongly linked to impulsivity. Although impulsivity is not exactly contrary to perfectionism, the two are not obviously linked.

Yet when an adolescent or adult is highly perfectionistic, it is no surprise that bulimia can develop. In fact, a study recently published in the journal, Personality and Individual Differences, revealed that not only are perfectionists much more likely to develop bulimia, but that perfectionism can exacerbate the disorder over time.

This “a” leads to “b” connection is understandable. To achieve the highly desired and impossible-to-achieve state of being perfect, a person must control food intake. This necessitates eliminating many food groups and establishing a very black-and-white perception of what is acceptable and what is not.

Interestingly, thinness is not always the exclusive motivator.  Frequently, this restriction and unhealthy relationship with food is born from an extreme need to control an environment or a life that is chaotic. Regardless, the end result is often predictable — intensive restriction is not sustainable, rigid control is lost, a binge involving forbidden foods ensues and bulimic behaviors take hold.

Perfectionism leading to control leading to bulimia is a relentless cycle in which a person can never win, despite extreme effort or tenacity. Fortunately, with intervention and the correct level of care, those who struggle can be helped. Just coming to a genuine understanding that “close enough” is good enough goes a long way. An adolescent can learn that her body, though imperfect, is just fine; the student can live with the occasional grade of “C,” and the mother can adjust to the reality that no one is a perfect parent.