When Food Is Your Enemy
Reflecting on her teen years, Jean vividly recalls being a target of teasing and ridicule. The reason? She was the tallest and largest girl in her class at school. But that was not all. “Even worse than being big, I was shy and socially awkward,” says Jean. “I was often lonely, wanting to fit in somewhere, but most of the time I felt like an outsider.”
Jean was convinced that her size was the cause of all her problems and that a lean, trim figure would fix everything. Not that Jean was obese. On the contrary, at six feet [183 cm] tall and 145 pounds [66 kg], she wasn’t overweight. Nevertheless, Jean felt fat, and at age 23 she decided to lose weight. ‘When I’m thin,’ she reasoned, ‘other people will want me around. At last, I will feel accepted and special.’
“That kind of foolish logic led to a twelve-year trap named anorexia nervosa and bulimia,” Jean explains. “I got thin all right, so thin I almost died, but instead of building a happy life, I ruined my health and created more than a decade of depression and misery.”
JEAN is not alone. According to one estimate, up to 1 out of 100 American females develops anorexia nervosa as a teenager or young adult, and perhaps three times that number are bulimic. “I’ve been working on schools and college campuses for years,” says Dr. Mary Pipher, “and I see firsthand that eating disorders are just as rampant as ever.”
They are also diverse. Once thought to be a problem of the wealthy, eating disorders are now considered to be common in all racial, social, and economic levels. Even the number of men being diagnosed is increasing, causing Newsweek magazine to call eating disorders “equal-opportunity plunderers.”
What is especially alarming, though, is that the average age of those being treated for eating disorders appears to be getting lower. “There are girls younger than 10, even as young as 6, being admitted to hospital programs,” says Margaret Beck, acting director of an eating disorder center in Toronto. “It is still a small number,” she adds, “but it is growing.”
All told, eating disorders affect millions—primarily girls and young women.a “They don’t think about food or use food the way the majority of people do,” notes social worker Nancy Kolodny. “Instead of eating when they’re hungry, eating for nutrition and good health, eating for pleasure, or eating to share good times with others, they get into bizarre relationships with food and do things that aren’t considered ‘normal’—such as developing odd rituals before they allow themselves to eat, or needing to immediately rid their bodies of the food they’ve eaten.”
Let us take a close look at two common eating disorders: anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.
a Since eating disorders affect more women than men, in this series we will usually refer to the sufferer in the female gender.