As I mentioned yesterday, my childhood experience with anorexia nervosa was based on an ABC after-school special. Come to think about it, ABC introduced me to a lot of age-inappropriate topics. I would run home from Kindergarten (uphill of course) every Wednesday and plop down to watch what I considered to be the most risque hour on television. I wasn’t allowed to watch Dynasty, so teenage pregnancy and marijuana addictions were as sexy as it got. Looking back, it was ahead of its time. No one was talking about eating disorders. Few were aware of anorexia beyond it being a negative adjective ascribed to a too-skinny person. I can’t remember many of the other episodes but I do, distinctly, remember the girl in the hospital with spoons attached to her underwear to increase the number on the scale. Even then, as I munched on Hostess cupcakes and Doritos, my feet barely touching the floor, I knew this girl must be in a lot of pain. Anorexia nervosa is a disease, not a diet.
1. In America, 1 in 200 women have anorexia nervosa. 5 – 15% of people with anorexia are male.
2. While most people develop anorexia as adolescents, it can be diagnosed at any age. It becomes very rare after the age of 40 — clearly a time when food is one of the few pleasures left in life.
3. The characteristics of anorexia are emaciation, obsession with thinness, a refusal to maintain a healthy weight, and extreme anxiety about gaining weight. People with anorexia will most likely exhibit odd eating habits, weigh themselves frequently and have a warped body image – seeing themselves as fat despite contrary evidence in the mirror’s reflection. Most who have anorexia will starve themselves but some will also self-induce vomiting and/or abuse laxatives.
4. In addition to above, symptoms or warning signs of anorexia are: compulsive exercise, excessive facial and body hair because of lack of protein, fainting, loss of the hair on their head, cold sensitivity, and cessation of menstrual periods in women.
5. How serious is it? Some people will have one episode and completely recover. Others, if they survive, will struggle for their whole lives. Some sources report adolescent girls with anorexia have a twelve-time greater risk of dying. It has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disease with somewhere between 5-20% of patients eventually dying from this illness. It affects every major body system. Most notable are the bones and the blood cells they produce, the heart, and the kidneys.
Right after Thanksgiving, I start playing my Christmas music. Without fail, when I hear Karen Carpenter sing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, I tear up. I could simply skip the song but the masochist in me won’t allow it. What a waste. A reporter calls a beautiful, talented young woman chubby and it ultimately leads to her death. Of course, the reporter is not to blame. The super models are not to blame, as much as I hate to let them off the hook for anything. Our society is somewhat to blame, at least for the increasing rates of eating disorders and the newish prevalence of eating disorders in young men. Still, it is a complex disease caused by the combination of several different factors. Genetic associations have been found. Personality traits that put one at higher risk are low self esteem, obsessive compulsive behaviors and a need for perfection. Finally, the cultural ideal of thinness and the way it is equated with beautiful and desirable, leads people to strive for this image, however unhealthy it may be. If you suspect that someone is suffering with anorexia, get him or her help. Again, it is a treatable disease, not a phase.