When your relationship with food is no longer healthy, get help

I don’t often read the advice column, but recently a headline of the Ask Amy column caught my eye: Anorexic worries parents by refusing treatment. The column was about a young adult “not ready to make a recovery from this disorder,” choosing anorexia as “the lifestyle I want right now” and tired of her parents’ “nagging.”

The denial of the severity of her situation was frightening. Anorexia is a disease that has deadly consequences when left unchecked (with a 20% mortality rate without treatment), resulting in starvation, heart complications, or depression leading to suicide. It is not a lifestyle. If you were diagnosed with cancer, it is unlikely that you would avoid treatment and choose the lifestyle of cancer.

Anorexia is a dangerous obsessive-compulsive disorder that requires immediate attention. When patients are too deep in denial the onus shifts to their family and friends to help them seek treatment.

Teenage girls and young women are primarily affected, but 5% of eating disorder cases are males. Perhaps not surprisingly, Type A perfectionists are more at risk. People facing a lot of stress at home, or who are being bullied at school, are also more susceptible. Not to mention the 2% of the population that is genetically predisposed to eating disorders.

By the numbers, one recent study in Ontario showed that more than one in four teenage girls exhibits highly problematic food and weight behaviours. Sadly, those statistics are probably greatly underestimated, given the shroud of secrecy around eating disorders.

They are our dirty little secrets. They can start anytime, triggered by any small or big stress, and continue secretly. We don’t talk about “the game” of stepping on the scale and determining our self-worth from the number we see. Our habit of not eating anything for days or late-night binge eating aren’t usually watercooler conversation at work. We don’t return to the dinner party table and let people know we just threw up their meal to maintain our weight.

Even when we do talk, people hear, “I feel fat” and sometimes think we are crazy or vain, but what we mean is “I’m not worth loving” and there is nothing arrogant about this disease except in thinking we can control it.

Self-esteem is so important, and seemingly in short supply. We need to teach ourselves and our children self-love and respect and to shave a healthy, guilt-free relationship with food. We have to spend more time understanding and eliminating the horrific pressure people feel to look a certain way.

Hollywood starlets and fashion models in magazines have body mass indices that are not attainable, let alone healthy for the majority of the population. So many photographs we look to as the ideal are airbrushed and enhanced such that we have no concept of reality in those glossy pages. Of course, Barbie didn’t do us any favours either. We were set up to fail from the start.

Stacey Handler, the granddaughter of the founder of Mattel and Barbie, wrote the book The Body Burden –Living In The Shadow Of Barbie, having grown up hating her body.

Galia Slayen, a recovering anorexic, made a life-size papier-mâché Barbie from the doll’s measurements. She estimates Barbie would weigh 110 pounds, with an anorexic BMI of 16.24. She’d be 5’9″ with a 39″ bust, an 18″ waist, 33″ hips, and a Size 3 shoe. By comparison, I am the same height, weigh 25 more pounds, have size 8.5 shoes, and have a waist almost double Barbie’s (yet people say I should gain a couple pounds). The image of life-size Barbie’s monstrously out-of-proportion body still bothers me anytime I see my daughter playing with her Barbie dolls.

Monstrous is an appropriate term — as many people facing eating disorders are counselled to name their monster, and separate themselves from the internal bully. For younger patients, families focus on fighting the eating disorder monster together.

Aside from blaming Hollywood, modelling agencies, and Barbie, we also cannot accept our coaches criticizing our children’s weight. Many dance schools, figure skating groups and gymnastics clubs tell their athletes to lose weight, even when they are at a healthy weight. This must stop.

The Dove brand skincare products “real beauty campaign” celebrated realistic and healthy body images as beautiful, but despite the campaign’s overwhelming success, we haven’t seen other companies join the “healthy” bandwagon. Until magazines “get real,” I have stopped buying them. I’ve also started paying more attention to the warning signs around me. Sufferers need to know that they don’t have to face these monsters alone.

More information on eating disorders is available at www.nedic.ca,

the National Eating Disorder Information Centre’s website. If you or someone you know is fighting with an ED, call 1-866-633-4220, or contact the Sault Area Hospital’s Eating Disorders Program at 705-759-3434, ext. 4634.

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