Understanding Eating Disorders
Imagine a world where an ordinary daily activity, performed three
times daily, is to blow up purple balloons. Blowing up these balloons
is very pleasurable, but it's also a necessity to live. Everybody
does it, looks forward to it, and has been doing it all their lives.
Everybody but you. You used to be like everyone else. But in the
past couple of years, you feel strange about purple balloons. You
don't know how many is enough. Furthermore, you are terrified of
them. You think if you blow up even one balloon you may become horribly
ugly or fat. Or the balloons might even poison you. Everyone will
notice, and your life will be ruined.
You look at others and think, They need balloons, but I’m different.
Since balloons are potentially dangerous, I’ll blow up as few
as possible. Then I’ll be OK.
The problem is, you can never get your balloon blowing regulated
normally. Some days you hardly blow at all; other days you blow
so many you are sick and disgusted with yourself. Soon this mess
the balloons is all you can think about. It is consuming your waking
hours. Should I or shouldn’t I? Is it good, or bad? Am I
ugly, or pretty? You long to be free. You hardly know yourself
You have no feeling, no life inside. You have nothing to look forward
to when you wake up. Just the torment and the mocking of purple
This preposterous fantasy is an attempt to help you
enter the hellish world of eating disorders. People suffering from
binge eating followed by self-induced vomiting or purging) and
anorexia (self starvation) struggle with severe problems of body
eating, discipline and self loathing. People suffering from anorexia
have deliberately restricted their food intake to the point that
they are at least 15 percent below ideal body weight.
and bulimia primarily inflict teenage girls and young women, although
the incidence of occurrence among young
on the rise. The problem has reached epidemic proportions in
There are more than five million diagnosable anorexics and
bulimics in the United States. One percent of teenage girls in the
develop anorexia and at least one thousand die each year. Up
to 5 percent
of college women in the U.S. are bulimic. In addition to people
actually suffering from anorexia and bulimia, another 20 million
demonstrate eating-disordered thinking that could quickly switch
to an active disorder.
|"In addition to people actually
suffering from anorexia and bulimia,
another 20 million Americans demonstrate
eating-disordered thinking that could
quickly switch to an active disorder."
The most frightening aspect of this problem is
how distorted the person’s
thinking is about his or her body and the impact of even the smallest
amount of food upon it. Girls are convinced if they eat
more than lettuce, for example,
they will gain more weight than they can exercise off. Many teenage
girls with eating disorders complain that they are fat, even when
others see them as little
more than skin and bones.
Jennifer, 1 for example, is a 17-year-old bulimic.
Until a year ago, she was a straight A student, active in the school
club, track, and
student council. She was president of her church youth group and
on Saturday mornings. Jennifer is the only child of a physician father
mother who is CEO of the local chamber of commerce.
About eighteen months ago Jennifer and a good friend, Rachel, began
hanging out at each others' homes looking at fashion magazines
with the models they saw there. About the same time, Jennifer tried
out for the cheerleading squad and was not chosen. She was not
used to losing
Always slender and attractive, Jennifer began to imagine she had
not been selected because she was too fat. She began dieting, but
she was not
getting the results she wanted.
Once she tried throwing up after dinner. It felt weird but also
instantly cleansing. Her stomach felt flat, and she liked the accompanying
empty feeling. She began
doing this regularly and soon her entire day was filled with thoughts
of how to get enough food for a binge, and then how she could get
rid of it
anyone being the wiser. It was not unusual for her to throw up
times a day.
Jennifer's grades began to plunge. She dropped out of most of her
activities because they interfered with her schedule for bingeing
and purging. Finally,
a school counselor contacted Jennifer's mom who confronted Jennifer.
At first she denied anything was wrong. But when her mom persisted,
she was feeling out of control with her obsession. She agreed
to go for counseling and began to see a physician for the problem.
After a few months she began to find the emotional roots of her
problems. Being the darling only child of two driven, successful
parents put her under a lot of pressure. She felt she could never
live up to their expectations. Deep down she wondered if they truly
loved her. And she sensed her parents' underlying unhappiness which
they were trying to mask with their own extreme work ethic.
Jennifer felt responsible somehow, for their pain, and unconsciously
tried to solve their problems and earn their love by pleasing them
every way she could. This was at the expense of her own childish
innocence and vitality. She grew up too quickly and now felt angry
as well as empty and lost inside. The immediate feeling she received
by stuffing herself with food followed by the "magic solution" of
purging was a powerful, but sadly temporary antidote to these feelings.
It took many months of learning how to accept herself as she was,
and to admit her neediness and discover alternative means of fulfillment
and good feelings in life, before Jennifer could move beyond her
addiction to food to embrace a more healthy identity. She will
always have to be alert to her tendency to seek solace in food
but now she has tools with which to recognize and combat the problem.
Her grades are at a B level, and she is learning that she doesn't
have to be perfect in order to love herself.
If you know someone whom you suspect has an eating disorder, don’t
minimize or ignore the problem. Talk directly and honestly about
your concerns, but avoid being critical or judgmental. At first,
they will probably deny anything is wrong. People with bulimia
and anorexia are very secretive about this part of their lives. People
who are scrupulously honest in every other area become unbelievably
devious about this!
If they don’t open up, make it clear that you are concerned
and also emotionally available. Ask how you can be supportive.
Don't push, but make it obvious you care and want to listen
they want to share. Women with eating disorders often have
the erroneous perception that they don't matter to anyone. Make sure
a trusted friend in you, whether you are their parent, relative,
or church youth leader.
If they talk about their fears of being fat, don't argue with them.
And don't get into discussions about what they are doing to their
bodies. All the facts in the world do not matter because their
perception of themselves distorts reality. Remember that an eating
is a symptom that a person feels terribly about him or herself
and has little control over her life. They think nothing they
do is good
enough, so they resort to the idea that if they could at least
get really thin, then they’d be a success at something.
Gently persist with the idea that they must talk to a professional.
do not grow out of eating disorders on their own. They are
complex and deep rooted and involve deeply painful feelings.
disorder is a symptom that a
person feels terribly about
him or herself and has
little control over her life. "
While it is best if the person seeks
help without coercion, there are times when you have to take more
drastic action. If a child
is under eighteen, and
you, a parent, are concerned about weight loss, dehydration, or symptoms
of physical jeopardy, contact your physician and a therapist
eating disorders for help.
Above all, become a living example to this troubled person through
your own life. Avoid diets and preoccupation with thinness and
food. Be physically
active and enthusiastic about life. Try to evaluate your tendency to
worth based on performance. Begin demonstrating that it is the person,
their accomplishments, that is important to you. Admit that you get
angry, frustrated, afraid, and needy. Talk about your own feelings
and spiritual needs and model how to take responsibility for them.
Seek professional help yourself when necessary.
The proliferation of eating disorders is just one more sign of
our unbalanced society. As individuals and families, we can reject
many of the values
portrayed by the media and the culture. Within our own circles return
to lives anchored
in the meaning of the person as God sees us—complex and unique souls
deeply loved and cherished for the spirit within—not for a skinny
1. Jennifer is a fictional composite of traits, family, and environmental
factors typical of the eating disordered client.
NOTE: For more information on eating disorders, see the home page
of the American Anorexia Bulimia Association, Inc. at www.aabainc.org.
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