Young People Ask . . .
Why Am I Obsessed With My Weight?
“There is an uncontrollable battle going on in my head. One part of me wants to eat, but the other part resists eating because I’m afraid that I’ll gain too much weight.”—Jaimee.
WHAT do you fear more than anything else? Without hesitation, many girls would answer: gaining weight. In fact, one poll revealed that today’s young women are more afraid of putting on pounds than they are of nuclear war, cancer, or even losing their parents!
Sometimes worries about one’s weight begin at a surprisingly early age. Even before their teens, notes Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, many girls get together to engage in “fat talk”—chats in which they reveal a mutual disdain for their bodies. Evidently, it’s more than just talk. In a survey of 2,379 girls, 40 percent were actually trying to lose weight. And those polled were only nine and ten years old!
In time, many of these youths may become ensnared by fad diets. Worse still, some might end up like 20-year-old Jenna. At five feet four inches [160 cm] tall, this young woman weighs a mere 90 pounds [40 kg]! “I just don’t want to eat,” Jenna declares. “My big concern is that I spent three years trying to lose weight, and by eating I’m going to put it all back on in a month.”
Perhaps you can understand Jenna’s feelings. It may be that you too have wanted to trim down in order to look your best. Certainly, it is not wrong for you to be concerned about your appearance. For Jenna, however, a desire to be thin almost cost her her life. How so?
Starving to Death
Jenna battles with a dangerous eating disorder called anorexia nervosa. So does Jaimee, quoted at the outset. For a time, these girls were literally starving themselves to death, and they are not alone. It is estimated that 1 in 100 girls suffers from anorexia. That means millions of young women are affected—perhaps even someone you know!a
Anorexia can develop quite innocently. A young girl might embark on a seemingly harmless diet, perhaps to lose just a few pounds. When she reaches her goal, however, she is not content. “I’m still too fat!” she declares as she stares disapprovingly in the mirror. So she decides to lose just a few more pounds. Then just a few more. And a few more. The pattern is set, and the seeds of anorexia are sown.
Of course, not all who go on a diet are anorexic. Some have legitimate weight concerns, and for them, losing a few pounds might be beneficial. But many girls have a distorted view of their body. FDA Consumer compares having a distorted body image to looking in a fun-house mirror. “You see yourself as fatter than you are,” the magazine says.
Hence, the anorexic has a morbid fear of gaining weight—even if she is already stick thin. She may exercise compulsively to keep the pounds off and check the scale several times a day to make sure she is not “regressing.” When she eats, she will take only minute portions. Or she may not eat at all. “Every day I would go to school with a lunch that my mom had made for me, and just about every day I would throw it away,” says Heather. “I soon got so accustomed to not eating that even if I wanted to eat, I couldn’t. I didn’t get hungry.”
At first, anorexics like Heather are elated to see the pounds come off. But a lack of proper nutrition eventually takes its toll. The anorexic becomes drowsy and lethargic. Her schoolwork begins to suffer. Her menstrual periods may cease.b In time, her heart rate and blood pressure may become perilously low. Yet, the anorexic is oblivious to any danger. In fact, the only danger she perceives is that of regaining the weight she has lost—even a single pound of it.
Anorexia is not the only eating disorder, however, nor is it the most prevalent. Bulimia nervosa is a scourge that affects up to three times as many girls as anorexia does. Then there is compulsive overeating, which is closely related to bulimia. Let us take a closer look at these ailments.
The Secret Scourge
“A friend of mine recently confessed that she sneaks food and eats it in secret. She then makes herself throw up. She claims she’s been doing it for two years.” With these words, a youth writing to a magazine advice column describes symptoms that are typical of the eating disorder known as bulimia.
The bulimic will binge, or consume a large amount of food in a short period of time. Then she will rid her body of the food that she has eaten, often by means of self-induced vomiting.c Granted, the idea of emptying the stomach in this manner might seem repugnant. Yet, social worker Nancy J. Kolodny writes: “The more you binge and purge, the easier it becomes for you. Your early feelings of revulsion or even fear are quickly replaced by the compulsion to repeat these bulimic patterns.”
Anorexia and bulimia have been called “flip sides of the same coin.” While they have contrasting symptoms, both disorders are fueled by an obsession with food.d Unlike anorexia, however, bulimia is much easier to keep secret. After all, bingeing keeps the sufferer from losing weight, and purging keeps her from gaining it. Hence, the bulimic is likely to be neither obese nor thin, and in public her eating habits may appear quite normal. “For nine years,” says a woman named Lindsey, “I binged and vomited up to four and five times daily. . . . No one knew about my bulimia, because I kept it safely hidden behind a facade of competence, happiness, and average body weight.”
It is somewhat different, however, with the person who suffers from compulsive overeating. Like the bulimic, this person will eat large quantities of food at a time. The New Teenage Body Book notes: “Since this binge behavior takes place without purging, the compulsive overeater’s weight may range from slightly to significantly overweight or obese.”
All three eating disorders can pose serious threats to one’s health. Anorexia can cause severe malnutrition, and in many cases—some estimate up to 15 percent—it can prove fatal. Binge eating, whether followed by purging or not, is hazardous to health. In time, obesity can lead to life-threatening cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even some forms of cancer. Self-induced vomiting can rupture the esophagus, and abuse of laxatives and diuretics can in extreme circumstances lead to cardiac arrest.
However, there is another aspect of eating disorders that needs to be considered. Those suffering from anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive overeating are generally unhappy. They tend to have little self-respect and are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. Clearly, they need help. But how can those who have an eating disorder be helped to break free from their obsession with weight? This question will be addressed in a future article in this series.
a Anorexia also affects males. However, since the vast majority of anorexics are girls, we will refer to sufferers in the female gender.
b Clinically, a female is diagnosed as anorexic when her weight has fallen to at least 15 percent below normal and she has not menstruated for three or more months.
c Other methods of purging include the use of laxatives or diuretics.
d A number of sufferers alternate between anorexic and bulimic eating behaviors.
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A Distorted Body Image
Most girls who are worried about their weight have no reason to be. In one study, 58 percent of girls between the ages of 5 and 17 believed that they were overweight, when, in fact, only 17 percent were. In another study, 45 percent of women who were actually underweight thought that they were too heavy! A Canadian survey found that 70 percent of women in that country are preoccupied with their weight, and 40 percent are involved in yo-yo dieting—a pattern of losing weight and then gaining it back.
Clearly, a distorted body image can cause some girls to become overly concerned about something that is not really a problem. “I have a friend who takes large doses of diet pills and I know a few girls who have anorexia,” says 16-year-old Kristin. She adds: “None of them are fat by any stretch of the imagination.”
With good reason, the magazine FDA Consumer recommends: “Instead of dieting because ‘everyone’ is doing it or because you are not as thin as you want to be, first find out from a doctor or nutritionist whether you are carrying too much weight or too much body fat for your age and height.”
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Many who are concerned about their weight have no reason to be