teen girl - upset

Mirror, mirror….am I thin enough?

By the age of 6, girls start to express concerns about their weight or shape, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Approximately half of elementary school girls (ages 6 through 12) are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat.

The statistics on individuals struggling with eating disorders are startling. In the United States alone, 20 million woman and 10 million men struggle or have struggled with an eating disorder.

What is an eating disorder? I can tell you what it isn’t—a trend, a lifestyle or just a phase someone is going through. It is a serious problem that more often than not requires professional intervention. And the sooner the intervention takes place, the better the treatment outcome tends to be.

What does an eating disorder look like? An eating disorder can be the restriction of food or calorie intake, known as anorexia nervosa. It can be the purging of food or calories through vomiting or even exercise, known as bulimia nervosa. This purging may occur after a binge or after eating a “normal” amount of food. Binging on food does not always result in purging. Individuals may only “binge eat,” meaning they may eat an exaggerated portion or total amount of food.

Anorexia and bulimia are strongly associated with body dissatisfaction. With “perfect” images of men and women in advertisements and magazines, on television, and on the Internet, it is difficult to escape this “ideal” apparently expected by society. But how many people actually fit this ideal? That is a lot of unrealistic pressure.

How we feel about our appearance is directly related to how we feel about ourselves; a person’s entire self-image can be altered by our perception of our physical appearance. Eating disorders can be indicators of more issues than just body image. It can be an assertion of control over an aspect of a person’s life when he or she perceives little or no control in other areas. It can be an indicator of abuse, present or past.  No matter the cause, the eating disorder itself is reason for intervention.

My whole world seemed to revolve around eating and then throwing it up.

The consequences to a person’s health can be devastating and deadly. Because anorexia is essentially a process of starving oneself, it causes the person’s body to slow down all its processes from the loss of essential nutrients and caloric intake. The repeated cycles of binging and purging associated with bulimia can affect the entire digestive system. These cycles also lead to electrolyte and chemical imbalances in the body that affect the heart and other major organ functions.  Binge eating disorder can affect the body in the same ways obesity does—potentially resulting in high blood pressure, high cholesterol level, heart disease and diabetes.

A Diakon Family Life Services client named Jennifer shares her experience with bulimia…

“I was 13 and my parents were divorcing. I didn’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing. I loved my dad and didn’t want him to leave to go somewhere else, but they fought ALL THE TIME about EVERYTHING. I couldn’t stand that. It didn’t really matter what I thought. The decisions were made. My parents split. My dad moved out. My brother and I stayed with my mom, and we saw our dad on weekends and Wednesdays. Isn’t that how it goes? But I missed my dad so much and going back and forth all the time, I never felt at home anywhere.

“I remember feeling so out of control; my emotions, my family, my friends, school. Everything seemed to be a blur. But food, food felt good. Not just ‘I’m hungry’ and ‘mmm… that was good.’ I mean, IT FELT GOOD. When I ate food, especially things such as chips, soda, cake, chocolate, and so on, it was almost as if I forgot about all the stuff that was so upsetting in my life. I could just enjoy every bit of what I was eating.

“It didn’t take long for me to start noticing a change in my body with all the extra eating. There went my happy place! Well, I didn’t want to give that up, but I felt horrible a few minutes after I would binge. My solution was to get rid of it. I’d throw up as soon as the good feelings would start to go away. That should fix things, right?

“No, it wasn’t right. My whole world seemed to revolve around eating and then throwing it up. And I knew the amount I was eating was not a normal amount, so I didn’t want anyone to see me eating or throwing up. So, I sneaked food into my room. I’d binge at night or early in the morning when I could quickly get to the bathroom to throw up without anyone realizing it.

“I probably did this unchecked for a year. My emotions were on a roller coaster with my eating. I had lost a lot of friends because I isolated myself to keep people from discovering my secret. My weight was not under control. Nothing was under control. My grades were slipping. My relationship with my brother was almost non-existent. I was irritable and fought all the time with my mom, and I didn’t really do much at all with my dad. I just stayed in my room.

“Then I got caught—my brother heard me throwing up and he confronted me. He said he’d seen me sneak into the bathroom many times, and he’d heard me throwing up. He said to tell my mom or he would. So I did. I told her about the eating and the throwing up. I told her everything. She took me to Diakon Family Life Services, where I began to see my therapist. I had to talk about it all and that was scary. I felt a lot of shame and guilt. I also felt a lot of anger and disappointment toward my parents. I felt really lost and alone, and I cried a lot in the beginning. I learned that I had a disorder called bulimia.

“I decided I wanted to take control of my life and my body. I worked hard with my therapist. She helped me to understand bulimia and to see that I could get better. It took time, tears, struggles, relapses, forgiveness, love and every bit of strength I had to get to where I wanted to.  I never could have done it on my own, however it was up to me to get through the hardest parts on my road to recovery from my eating disorder. Nobody could do it for me.

“I still have struggles with food from time to time, but it will never control me again. If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, please reach out for help.”

National Eating Disorders Association
Toll-free Information and Referral Helpline: 1-800-931-2237
Email: info@NationalEatingDisorders.org

Brooke Brown
Clinical Director, Mental Health Outpatient Services
Diakon Family Life Services

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