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Eating Disorders and Body Image in Women

There are two ways of meeting difficulties: you alter the difficulties, or you alter yourself to meet them.
– Phyllis Battome

Eating disorders are a big health care problem in the United States. Becoming a woman is filled with many challenges, especially in this day and age. We are often faced juggling school, family, friends, work, financial challenges, and, to top it all off, our own personal struggles within. All of the daily stressors are compounded by internal feelings of inadequacy, control, self-esteem while the world seems to dictate to us how we should look, act and respond to stress.

We live in a society (peers, school, religious group, work, doctors and the media) that tells the world that the ideal woman’s body should be skinny, even though very few women fit this “representation”. How can women escape these images and messages without having them shape our own perceptions of how we should look? The world seems to think that we can completely control our own body size and it is in our power to achieve this ideal body image. It is normal for some of us to have feelings of inadequacy and not feel completely confident with our bodies. To some, though, these thoughts can become invasive and obsessive leading to low self-esteem and eating disorders.

Eating Disorders take many forms, anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, compulsive- overeating. Women who suffer from anorexia restrict their food intake and may regularly engage in binge-eating or purging behavior (i.e. self-induced vomiting or the misuse of laxatives, diuretics, or enemas); women who suffer from bulimia have recurrent episodes of eating a larger quantity of food than most people in a given amount of time and feeling a sense of lack of control during these episode; women who suffer from compulsive-over eating have recurrent episodes of eating a larger quantity of food than most people in a given amount of time and feeling a sense of lack of control during these episodes. When a woman has an eating disorder the obsession with food and gaining weight can take over their life. Their thoughts and life controlled by feelings of a need to control their body image and control their intake of food.

What would seem to be normal everyday experiences for women become challenges: How can I eat out with friends and family? How can I restrain what I eat today? Where can I hide my food? How do I hide purging from everyone? This is all compounded by feelings of guilt, being less than, and isolation. These diseases can be overwhelming for the individual and seem impossible to understand by the outside world. The severity of this disease can lead to long-term health problems, mental deficiencies and even death. The difficult part of this disease is that despite knowing these consequences of the behavior, it seems impossible to change the relationship with food and body image.

Eating disorders have become an epidemic among teenage girls. Fueled in large part by the media’s promotion of thinness as a physical ideal for young women, experts say that the eating disorder problem has escalated over the past few decades. Girls are beginning to diet in elementary school and may be binging, purging, or starving before they are ten years old. This is one reason why some schools assign teachers breakfast and lunch duty; to make sure those students- not just little girls- are eating what they should be. Because eating disorders reflect complex psychological issues, there is no clear cause or solution to the problem. However, the experts do agree that there are clear connections between eating disorders and media influence.

The media is often quoted as a scapegoat for the increase in eating disorders. In Catherine Oxenberg’s opinion: “Women don’t set out to become anorexic, they begin by thinking they’re too fat because everywhere they go, the media is telling them that they are right” (www.CatherineOxenberg.net). This assumes that the causes of eating disorders are simply triggered by an individual feeling overweight, which is not the case. Eating disorders have many causes; some evidence suggests that eating disorders can exist without this pathological fear of being overweight. If these effects of the media are obvious, then why is it that only 1-3% of women suffer from an eating disorder? Or, are eating disorders a part of something deeper, a bigger problem?

Some experts do agree that eating disorders tend to be the symptom of larger psychological distress, and they are often accompanied by severe depression, self-mutilation (as in “cutting” practices), and other addictions. While many teenage girls eventually recover from their eating disorders to live a healthy lifestyle, many others continue their disordered eating habits. Some, up to 15%, will die. While eating disorders affect a large portion of the population, especially in the United States, most sufferers are, indeed, adolescent women. Again, due to a variety of factors, including peer pressure and exposure to mainstream fashion magazines, teenage girls seem uniquely susceptible to developing one of the manifestations of disordered eating. But remember the research; only 1-3%. Just as there is no agreed upon single cause for eating disorders, there is no exclusive cure for anorexia, bulimia, or compulsive overeating, but treatment usually includes some form of psychotherapy. Psychological treatment helps to align the mind back to what we refer to as “normal”. But what of the developmentally challenged?

Some eating disorders are also seen in the developmentally disabled child. Pediatric dysphasia is simply difficulty with swallowing, while rumination consists of bringing swallowed food up into the mouth, then chewing and swallowing the food a second time. Oral-motor problems with chewing and swallowing are seen, including an inability to chew, and sensory problems with smelling or seeing food, or sensing the texture of food also occur. Children often have an inability to chew food, and will pocket food in the cheeks. These problems can be coupled with tongue thrust problem, and sensory deprivation can cause trouble with eating. In cases like these which afflict developmentally disabled children, a specialized form of psychotherapy needs to be sought. Some experts argue that rumination, for instance, should not be labeled as an eating disorder because the “normal” person is able to chew his or her food. They stress that it should be confined to the identified developmentally challenged persons (www.anred.com)

Binge eating used to be thought of as gluttony; eating just because there was food to eat. Unlike binge drinking, binge eating is also classified as a psychological disorder. A binge eater eats for comfort, according to some sources. Other experts explain that binge eating begins when a person eats until they’re full. After a while, a person feels that they require more food to become full. This feeling is not entirely psychological, as the physiology of the stomach expanding assists the person to fall deeper into binge eating, which sometimes leads to obesity. Binge eating can also lead to bulimia, as the afflicted person will recognize that they are eating too much but do not wish to gain weight. It is not uncommon to diagnose a person with more than one eating disorder (www.health.gov).

Adolescents in particular, are a most vulnerable group and an increasing number suffer from anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders. Primarily a psychiatric condition, eating disorders can lead to serious consequences if they are not properly identified and treated. Statistics indicate that around .5% of adolescents are Anorexics while the prevalence of Bulimia nervosa is even higher ranging between .5% and 5.8%. Statistics also indicate that around 25% of colleges going women have a very high risk of developing eating disorders (www.anred.com, retrieved 11/15/05). However the exact figures of the number of people affected by these psychiatric conditions is still elusive, as most often, the disorder goes unidentified. Adolescents become easy victims to these disorders particularly in our western world where beauty is associated with slim and slender figures. In view of its wide prevalence and deranging effect on the physical and mental wellbeing of the affected individuals as well as the hidden nature of the disorder, it is imperative to increase the awareness about these psychiatric problems among the adolescent community.

To recover from an eating disorder, a woman needs to make a decision to do whatever it takes to change her relationship with her eating disorder including eating healthfully, attending meetings and finding a support group. At Safe Harbor, we realize that this is a difficult task, and we do not ask that you do this alone. We understand the pain and frustration that can come with recovery and know that recovery itself can seem impossible. The women at Safe Harbor are here to help you and guide you through the recovery process and help you sustain a health lifestyle and body image. We are here to help you make a true commitment to your health and move you along some of those difficult recovery roads.

We at Safe Harbor will help guide you from morning until night starting with a health breakfast and creating a food plan. We understand that eating properly can be the most difficult part of your recovery, so we offer other aspects to help such as individual sessions and group therapy with women who are walking through the same difficulties and trained staff. Our clinical staff is trained to work with young women who suffer with eating disorders and work with their clients on the underlying issues so that clients are able to break free from their disordered eating. We are here to help you get on a good cycle with food and yourself.