It’s Not All About the Food: Eating Disorders (Part 1)

Everything had to be perfect. She had to be perfect. Her parents praised her sister—the smart one, the pretty one, the one dating the quarterback of the football team. Natalie noticed the way her sister spent time running and counting calories. And Brit looked great! Everything Brit did was great. Natalie felt totally insignificant standing next to her. Well, Natalie would just have to be even better—she’d start working out even more than she already did, maybe target specific areas each day. She’d spend a few more hours studying. Join another club? She had to be perfect.

           A few months later, Natalie was skinnier than Brit and making better grades, but she still wasn’t quite satisfied with the results of her hard work. She’d just have to do more. This, she could control. So, she would. She had to be perfect.

 

Though the account above only focuses on one aspect of an eating disorder, this is an increasing problem in young people across the world—especially women. About 33 percent of women in America will struggle with an eating disorder.[1]

 

Common Disorders

Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are the most common eating disorders.[2] For many girls, like Natalie in the preceding story, anorexia nervosa often means forgoing meals and increased exercise in order to bring about the desired physical result of looking and feeling thin. Despite the reality of their height, weight, or eating habits, many women who struggle with anorexia nervosa have a distorted view of their bodies. They endlessly obsess over their eating and exercise habits. Sadly, our girls are right in the most susceptible group to this disorder: most people who struggle with anorexia are young women ages 14 to 18.[3] Especially during a time of massive change, such as transitioning into college, young women may develop an eating disorder as an unhealthy coping mechanism. Like Natalie, many young women diagnosed with anorexia nervosa come from homes with parents who holding them to higher standards, often expecting perfection. The tension between the need to be perfect and the reality that we all make mistakes quickly gives way to fears in the lives of our girls. Though this list is certainly not exhaustive and can attribute to other mental illnesses, some common fears women with anorexia struggle with are:

 

  • Being overweight
  • Imperfection
  • Making mistakes
  • Being rejected
  • Not having control[4]

 

Bulimia nervosa is a binge-purge disorder. In other words, girls who struggle with this disorder will eat far more calories than they need and then counteract this measure by purging the food from their bodies. Sometimes these young women will purge through making themselves vomit, using excessive amounts of laxatives, or by extreme amounts of exercise. This particular disorder affects mostly women in the upper grades of high school and early college years. Young women who struggle with this disorder do not typically struggle with body image as those who struggle with anorexia nervosa. They tend to have a normal body weight, although many still suffer from being severely under- or overweight. Still, they remain highly concerned with food and weight. More often than not, these young women are aware that their habits of binging and purging are abnormal.[5]

 

These disorders have an obvious effect on mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Up to 20 percent of those who battle anorexia nervosa eventually die of starvation, and those who battle bulimia nervosa often end up with serious dental problems at the least and can experience heart failure at the worst. Both groups often suffer from extreme malnutrition.

 

Common Causes

Though it varies by situation, eating disorders can be caused by several factors including: popular culture, social media, societal pressure, genetics, participation in activities such as athletics or modeling, and tendencies toward perfectionism and anxiety.[6] Trauma can also be a significant factor in and contributor to the disease. An extreme need for perfection and success underlies many of these issues. Sadly, girls in the United States are particularly susceptible to disorders like anorexia nervosa because of the unique standards our country has for females to be increasingly slender.[7]

 

Identifiers

Again, this list is not exhaustive, but should provide some general guidelines for us. Keep in mind that answering “yes” to any or all of these questions does not necessarily mean a young woman has an eating disorder. Many of these “yes” answers are also attributed to mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and adjustment disorder—or just being a young woman in today’s society.

 

  • Does she seem to be hiding something, acting more secretive lately, or making more trips to the bathroom after eating?
  • Is she taking laxatives or using diuretics needlessly?
  • Is she experiencing heart palpitations?
  • Does she seem to be depressed or anxious?
  • Has she lost interest or completely withdrawn from social activities?
  • Does she meticulously count calories participate restrictive diets?
  • Is she fixated on body image, particularly her weight?
  • Have you noticed frequent fluctuations in weight?[8]
  • Does she have an obsession with scales and weighing herself daily?
  • Is she constantly scrutinizing her appearance in the mirror?
  • What feelings does she express about her eating habits? Does she ever mention being disgusted with herself or ashamed of what/how she eats?[9]

 

Helps

  • One of the first steps is allowing our girls the space to see what’s really going on within, and allowing ourselves to acknowledge what’s happening as well. If it’s difficult for you to admit your daughter or one of your girls is struggling, imagine how much more difficult it will be for her to admit.
  • Since it will be difficult for her to open up about her struggles, patience is key. This does not mean you need to refrain from speaking truth into the lives of your girls. Approach her with loving acceptance, but also with the knowledge that both she and you will have to accept the truth of her disorder before you can move forward.
  • Your first reaction might be denial. Sometimes, sadly, families and friends may never come to terms with the fact that their loved one has an eating disorder. Watch your focus. You can actually unintentionally encourage the progress of the eating disorder if you “help” her place her focus on the wrong thing. Make sure to place your emphasis on the individual struggling with the disorder. The most important thing is for her to find healing for herself. Focus on your loved one. As someone told me, “We must empower the individual, not encourage the behavior.”
  • Do your research. Find a good counselor, who is qualified, and maybe even has experience, in the realm of eating disorders. Since girls often find it difficult to open up, especially when struggling with an eating disorder, finding a counselor she can trust is paramount to helping her recover.
  • Make sure that when you ask questions about her struggle that your questions are not tinged with criticism, negativity, condemnation, or any kind of comparison. Her struggle is unique to her, though others may struggle with an eating disorder. She needs to feel supported and loved unconditionally.
  • Active listening (put down the phone, summarize what she said, and repeat it back to her for clarity and understanding) will go a long way in building and/or healing your relationship with your daughter (or whomever). One of the most important things right now is for her to feel valued and heard. You can provide a safe place for her to be real, honest, and still know she is loved.
  • Despite how you may feel/act, how she may feel/act, and how others in her life may feel/act—relationships are going to be a huge part of recovery for her. Continue to be there, offering your love and support. Praise successes and give grace in setbacks. The last thing she needs is pressure.
  • As a trained professional walks through this process with a young woman, the professional will help her to identify triggers for her eating disorder. Once she knows the triggers, the people in her life can help her watch out for and avoid those triggers whenever possible. This is just one more way we can support her.
  • Encourage her to pursue a healthy form of stress relief such as relaxation and breathing techniques, meditating on Scripture, prayer, reading, being outdoors, making a craft, or even taking the time to draw, paint, or color—these are all solid strategies for coping with her emotions.
  • If this happens in your home, if your daughter or sister is struggling with an eating disorder—goodness, even if your friend is struggling—know that you will probably need time to process any guilt and concerns you might have. Seek God daily in how to process in a way that doesn’t negatively affect the person who struggles with the disorder. Pray that God will help you work through your own feelings and enable you to show absolute and unconditional love to this person.
  • One other thing you can do is to be open. Be sensitive about her feelings, but be her champion. And be the champion of other young women who struggle with eating disorders. Help people see that these young women should receive the care they need without the negative stigma our society so often attaches to mental illness.

 

While social media brings many benefits, the immediate and constant access to others’ picture perfect lives (and bodies) can wreak havoc on a young woman’s self-image. When these images, edited to perfection, are what she sees each day, how can we help her override the identity culture has given her and embrace the identity Christ has given her? Check back for more on that next month!

[1] Tim Clinton and Ron Hawkins, The Quick Reference Guide to Biblical Counseling (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), 101.

[2] Mayo Clinic Staff, “Teen eating disorders: Tips to protect your teen,” Mayo Clinic, accessed January 21, 2017, http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/tween-and-teen-health/in-depth/teen-eating-disorders/art-20044635.

[3] Clinton and Hawkins, The Quick Reference Guide, 102.

[4] Clinton and Hawkins, The Quick Reference Guide, 102.

[5] Clinton and Hawkins, The Quick Reference Guide, 102.

[6] Mayo Clinic Staff, “Teen eating disorders.”

[7] Robert S. Feldman, Development Across the Life Span, 7th ed. (Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, 2014), 357.

[8] Clinton and Hawkins, The Quick Reference Guide, 103.

[9] Mayo Clinic Staff, “Teen eating disorders.”

 

By: Stephanie Livengood

 

 

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