A new shocking social problem has arisen in Western society. Here's what you need to know about eating disorders that plague thousands.
JOANIE has always been an above-average high school student. Her grades are at the top of her class. She is a star athlete and the homecoming queen. Everybody's goal is to be like Joanie. But Joanie has a secret. She is starving herself to death.
They Call It Anorexia Nervosa
Like a growing number of young women — and young men in 5 to 10 percent of reported cases — Joanie suffers from an illness called anorexia nervosa. She is one of a growing number worldwide, between the ages of 12 to 25 years, who voluntarily starve themselves. Typically, the anotectic comes from a middle — to upper — class family and is a high achiever. Anorexia literally means "without a longing." This term is misleading. Anorectics do have a longing — they are acutely aware of their hunger. Even though the victim almost totally refuses to eat, he or she suffers a great deal from hunger pangs. But victims rarely, if ever, complain of hunger, or of the difficulty of keeping to a diet. They pride in their effectiveness to do what others find difficult. It is a new and tragic form of vanity. Food becomes a reverse obsession to the anorectic. It is an all-consuming thought and everything in life focuses around it, even though the barest minimum of calories is consumed. An anorectic may become a gourmet cook, insisting that others eat what she has prepared, but dutifully abstaining from a morsel herself.
What causes promising young women who seem to have everything going for them to subject themselves to such torture — this new kind of famine? Sigmund Freud once suggested that anorexia stemmed from a symbolic rejection of sex. The illness, he claimed, caused the loss of curves and menstruation, both feminine characteristics. This theory is generally rejected today. While certain causes of anorexia are still being debated, most recent studies indicate that the core problem stems from the family relationship. Usually a high achiever, the anorectic will go to any length to please people, especially her parents. This extreme diligence, cooperation and compliance often leads the person to feel that she has no real control over her own life — that she is living her life for everyone around her. But in one area she has total and complete control: the area of her own body. Often the family of anorectics places great value in physical appearance, achievement and reputation in the community. One or both parents tend to be overprotective of and overconcerned about their children. Disorders are especially likely to develop when parents set excessively high standards of achievement for their children or try to exert too much control over their lives. It is this environment that many anorectics rebel against. They feel that they can no longer comply with and accommodate others' demands upon their lives. Society is another key factor in determining the cause of anorexia. The "in thing" in today's Western world is to be thin. A brief glance through any fashion magazine will tell that story. Protruding cheek and hip bones are presented as essential to what goes toward having the ideal female shape. One study of anorexia showed that magazine centerfolds as well as beauty pageant contestants have decreased in size over the past 20 years. Miss America winners, for example, have been an average 10 percent thinner than other contestants in the last several years. Peer pressure also takes its toll. Females, especially those in the younger age bracket, feel compelled to look like the fashion models without regard to the state of their health or difference in structure.
But anorexia is not the only eating disorder that is becoming more common. Colleges are now plagued with its counterpart, bulimia (binge-purge syndrome). It is estimated that nearly half of the victims of anorexia also develop bulimia. Some studies estimate that one out of five college women engages in bulimic activity — a practice of consuming huge quantities of food and then getting rid of it by vomiting or excessive use of laxatives or diuretics. The origin of bulimia certainly extends back to ancient Rome. Accepted as common practice, the participants would gorge themselves, force themselves to vomit and then return to the tables to continue overeating. Causes of bulimia are also closely linked with societal influences. General Mills' Contemporary Nutrition bulletin put the problem in these words: "As society has placed greater emphasis on the desirability of thinness in women, it is likely that this emphasis has caused more and more individuals to vomit in order to control their weight:" This practice obviously wreaks havoc on a healthy body. Some of the complications include: heart abnormalities; irritation of the esophagus; tooth decay; kidney problems; dangerously low levels of potassium; extreme weakness; stomach rupture; and hormonal imbalance.
Not only does the anorectic starve herself, she also exercises with obsession. She feels that any calories she consumes must be used immediately. Running is often the form of exercise the anorectic uses. Whole magazines are published that focus entirely on the body. Our society has become transfixed with the idea of the perfect body. Athletes often experience trouble with eating disorders through trying to keep themselves in shape for their events. Ballet dancers and gymnasts are especially susceptible. Anorectic or bulimic activity is the one way they feel they can maintain their weight at an acceptable level. Men who suffer from anorexia or bulimia are often obsessed with exercise. Studies compared the characteristics of these compulsive male joggers with those of female anorectics. According to the New England Journal of Medicine. "The typical anorexic woman... [has] many comparable characteristics, although her goal is physical attractiveness rather than physical effectiveness." Male anorectics differ from women in other ways. Men "are more often underachievers, working hard but often in a chaotic and haphazard way, unlike the obsessively ordered work rituals that female anorexics typically develop," reports Psychology Today.
Excessive, compulsive exercise is not the only symptom, however. Of course, drastic weight loss is the primary sign. Lack of menstrual periods, excessive constipation, depression, unnecessary loss of head hair, growth of down — like hair over the body, intolerance of cold temperatures and a dangerously low pulse rate are all symptoms. The most puzzling symptom to psychologists is the distorted body image. No matter how emaciated an anorectic may get, she feels like she is "still a little hippy." She feels that she still "needs to lose just one more pound." Those suffering with bulimia differ from the anorectic on this point. Bulimics have a clear perception of what their bodies look like and feel that they must continue their binge-purge cycle to maintain their weight. Anorectics, by contrast, deeply believe that they are still fat.
Help is available for those who suffer from eating disorders. Treatment of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia vary, often depending on the stage of illness. If the case is serious, obviously malnutrition must be dealt with initially. If malnutrition is mild, other treatment may be employed first. Involvement of the family in treatment is important. Since a major cause of the illness stems from family relationships, getting to this root of the problem is absolutely essential. Self-help techniques are also important, including relaxation, seeing nutrition counselors or joining a group especially for people with similar problems. Part of this treatment is the patient's acceptance of her natural size, which means no more self-deception or lying to oneself! A former anorectic told one magazine: "Everyone is not meant to be thin. Some women have heavy calves.... As long as they feel healthy, women should forget about trying to look like the models in the magazine ads." The dietary principles involved in treatment of anorexia or bulimia are always impressed upon the patient by therapists. The first step is to determine the basal caloric requirement and add a small increment for activity calculated to maintain weight initially. An important factor in treatment is early detection. The longer these patterns continue, the more difficult they are to break. Even though anorexia and other eating disorders are still being studied, many young people have already overcome them with help from others. If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, seek help. It's a serious problem — much more serious than many realize. It can be a matter of life and death.