Eating disorders are now epidemic in the United States. Approximately 11 million women and girls struggle with anorexia and bulimia. Although the average age of onset is 14, girls are being diagnosed as young as 8.
In years past, an eating disorder stereotype existed. This person was female, white, usually first-born or an only child, a high achiever and from an affluent family. That stereotype is long gone. Today, anorexia and bulimia are equal-opportunity disorders. They flourish in every culture, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic group, and religion throughout our country. And, whereas eating disorders were once exclusively a female issue, this is no longer the case. Anorexia and bulimia are also on the rise in the male population.
In other words, no individual is exempt and no family is immune. The following is designed to provide parents with the information required to understand eating disorders and help prevent one from occurring in their home.
What is an Eating Disorder?
Eating disorders are serious psychiatric illnesses, not unlike depression or anxiety. Those with an eating disorder use food in an unhealthy manner to cope with unpleasant emotions or difficult life situations. Anorexia and bulimia are two of the most common and dangerous of these disorders.
Anorexia is defined by self-starvation. Those with this illness intentionally starve themselves to dangerously thin levels, at least 15 percent below what would be considered a normal weight. Anorexia is an addictive behavior. It is often accompanied by body distortion. This means the one practicing the behavior literally does not see what everyone else does. Regardless of how emaciated she becomes, she still sees an overweight girl in the mirror.
Bulimia is an extremely complex disorder that is difficult for most people to understand. It rarely occurs in very young children. It is far more likely to manifest in adolescents. When a girl has bulimia, she uncontrollably binges on large amounts of food and then purges through vomiting, starving, excessive exercise, laxatives, or other methods. This behavior also has addictive qualities. An individual with bulimia may purge more than 20 times a day.
Eating Disorders Contributing Factors and Warning Signs
What causes an eating disorder is highly individualized; it is rarely the result of one isolated event or life situation. Certain factors can contribute to the onset of an eating disorder in a child or adolescent girl. These include genetics; peer pressure; dieting; trauma; media influence; life transitions; athletics and perfectionism.
The most obvious sign of anorexia is extreme and rapid weight loss. These girls often diet obsessively, focus inordinate interest on calories, carbohydrates and fat grams, complain about being fat and display an extreme preoccupation with food. A girl with anorexia will never admit to being hungry, even though she is starving.
The key warning sign for bulimia is leaving quickly after meals and spending a long time in the bathroom. Visible indications of bulimia are scrapes on the fingers or hands, swollen glands in the neck or possibly broken blood vessels in the eyes. It is not unusual for a young person with bulimia to steal food from the family or a grocery store.
Body Image and Eating Disorders
Body image is how a person sees herself. It is rarely based on reality, but is far more defined by the culture in which she lives.
Unfortunately, we live in a society that places an absurdly high value on physical perfection and beauty. This obsession with perfection is most evident in the American media. Beautiful females are showcased everywhere, especially in magazines to promote any number of products. Often these photos have been altered or undergone a tremendous amount of computer manipulation to achieve perfection. The problem is, the girls scrutinizing these models believe they are real – that what they see is how that model actually looks.
By definition, adolescent girls are very self-conscious and body focused. When they compare themselves to these “perfect” females, they inevitably fall short. Their self-esteem takes a profound hit. They experience extreme body dissatisfaction. These girls can’t immediately grow taller or change their cheekbones, but they can lose weight. They start dieting. This is an eating disorder waiting to happen.
Parents and Eating Disorder Prevention
Although children are influenced everyday by many external factors, parents can play an important role in the prevention of eating disorders. Throughout a child’s life, food should never be used as a reward or punishment. Healthy, balanced eating should be modeled in the home. Exercise should be done for fun and health, not weight loss.
Mothers need to recognize the profound impact their own behavior has on their daughters. A mother who is always on a diet, obsessed with calories and fat grams, constantly weighing herself and focusing on clothing sizes, will encourage similar behaviors in her daughter.
Similarly, a father plays a vital role in the development of a daughter’s values and self-esteem. Although all parents are encouraged to avoid excessively complimenting or praising a child on her appearance, this is particularly critical where the father is concerned. While a girl is young, her primary male role model is her father. It is important for her to see that her value to him is not predicated exclusively on how she looks, or she is at risk for taking this same belief system and applying it to all men in adulthood.
Parental focus should be placed on a daughter’s unique talents or achievement in areas such as academics or athletics. Most important, every child should be highly reinforced for excellent qualities such as kindness, compassion or generosity.
Every day, girls experience peer pressure and are exposed to a host of negative media messages. That’s why it is so important to combat these issues through positive communication in the home. Parents need to talk about what truly has value in the real world and what does not. Value is found in the content of an individual’s heart and character, never the numbers on a scale. Further, when an eating disorder is indicated, early intervention by a specialized eating disorder treatment team is essential.
Due to the genetic component of eating disorders, anorexia and bulimia will probably always exist. However, through a great deal of love, support and open communication, parents can help their children develop a healthy relationship with food, combat the societal pressure to be thin, as well as maintain a strong self esteem and body image.