One day, while attending a soccer game in high school, I had a conversation with a good friend about her boyfriend who was on the team. She had been dating him for about three months at the time and she was strongly considering having sex with him. My friend, whom I will call Maria, felt that the time was right and she was almost ready to take that big step. “Almost” was the key word.
I asked what was holding her back. Was she feeling pressured? Did he threaten to leave her? Was he questioning her feelings for him? The answer was a simple “no” for all of the above. She just was not comfortable with her body. I sat there stunned, thinking she was crazy. After all, Maria is a pretty, petite blonde who weighs no more than 105 pounds. She always looks great and guys constantly show interest. I think she saw the puzzled look on my face so she explained further.
As it turns out, Maria was a little on the heavier side in her younger years. Her family moved when she was in sixth grade causing her to attend a new elementary school, which meant making new friends. It was not very easy for her so she became stressed. Eventually Maria began to worry about her looks, thinking that might have been the reason for her lack of friends. She started to control her eating which was not an easy thing to do when living in an Italian household. While eating less and less, Maria was losing weight and gaining plenty of compliments. That only fueled her urge to look even better. No matter how much weight she lost she would still be unsatisfied when staring into the full-length mirror. The person staring back was pudgy and ugly and had no friends. The person staring back had to go. The real Maria had a problem – she was anorexic.
The National Eating Disorder Association defines anorexia nervosa as “a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss” (par. 1). Maria showed many symptoms of this disorder such as a great concern with her body weight and shape, finding excuses as to why she was not hungry or why she could not eat, and feeling “fat” despite her continuous and dramatic weight loss. Maria’s mother was concerned about her daughter’s weight but she worked long hours so she really did not know the details about Maria’s eating habits. That all changed the day when Maria’s mother walked in on her in the bathroom. Her mother was speechless when she saw her daughter’s figure. She immediately took Maria to the hospital for the long and emotional journey to recovery.
Dr. Michael Johnson, for Discovery Health.com, writes that “the exact cause of anorexia nervosa is unknown. It is believed to be a result of psychological, biological, and social stress” (par.7). Andrea Pennington, M.D. says that issues with food are just symptoms of the deep psychological problems. “There could be a brain or neurochemical connection,” she says. “Something happens in the mind that distorts the body image. While the person may look bone-skinny, they don’t perceive themselves as bone-skinny”
Dana Kiesel, Ph.D., also for Discovery Health.com, says that people with eating disorders are using them to avoid facing their anxiety, fear, depression and other emotions. These diseases eventually take on lives of their own and become addictions that are very hard to break” (par. 7). Many experts have views similar to those of Dr. Kiesel. It is thought by most that victims fall into disorders like anorexia because they want to control an aspect of their own life. To victims, controlling one’s weight is much easier than controlling the stress around them.
Anorexia nervosa and similar disorders primarily affect females but, as reported in Discovery Health, “the medical conditions are becoming more and more common in men and boys” (par. 9). In the United States, eating disorders have reached very high levels. Statistics from the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) show that about seven million women and one million men are affected. Eighty-six percent of these people report the onset of their illness took place by the age of 20. Seventy-seven percent report that the illness lasted from one to fifteen years. It is estimated that six percent of cases die and only fifty percent report being cured. But can one really be cured of both a physical and psychological disorder such as anorexia nervosa?
Now at the age of 19, my friend Maria is at a healthy weight and she seems to be happy with herself. But is she? Lately I’ve been wondering how much better she really is. When we were downtown not very long ago, Maria felt uncomfortable in the form-fitting denim mini skirt and black tube-top she wore. She said she felt her clothes were too tight on her body and that she looked terrible. Although she still complains about her body, Maria does eat, I have seen it with my own two eyes, however she really doesn’t eat much.
I saw her at lunch not very long ago and she was eating a yogurt cup. Another friend asked if that was all she had. When Maria replied with a yes, her friend offered to buy her something else. Maria refused, explaining that she had a big breakfast. Was she telling the truth? I really don’t know. That makes me ask: Is it really possible to recover from an eating disorder? Are treatments good enough to give someone a better body image? Is recovery permanent?
In an interview with Cosmopolitan magazine, Juliette Potter (not her real name) shared her story of battling anorexia. After her first hospitalization in 1997 when she weighed 91 pounds, she began to have much healthier eating habits. “At the time, I still weighed only 100 pounds…I was doing okay, but then eating became stressful again…and I started backsliding,” (Colino, 194) she says. It took a short while for her weight to drop again to 88 pounds.
A new doctor who warned her of further hospitalization unless things turned around made Juliette realize that she needed to gain weight. But she found eating during the day to be stressful so she would binge at night taking in between 2000 to 7000 calories. “So after two years of bingeing, I became anorexic again,” she says. “Bouncing between the two extremes became my pattern” (Colino, 194). Juliette finally reached a turning point in 2001. Therapy has allowed her to change her way of thinking about food. Although she still eats most of her calories at night, she feels confident that she will overcome her eating disorders with time.