Eating Disorders in Young Women:
Changing Perceptions, Changing Lives
Like thousands of teen girls around the world, Lucy Howard-Taylor worked hard at school, worried about her appearance, and came very close to killing herself.
Now a healthy 19-year-old university student in her native Australia, she spent the majority of her teenage years battling the twin demons of anorexia nervosa and major depression – a struggle she documents in her new book, Biting Anorexia.
One of her reasons for writing the book, she told Sydney Morning Herald medical reporter Kate Benson, is to help spread the word that eating disorders are much more than mere vanity run amok.
“Anorexia is not about food, and it is disturbing that so many people still know so little about such an extraordinarily dangerous illness,” Howard-Taylor said in a July 26 Herald article. “The fact that what we are dealing with is not so simple, but instead horribly complicated, is mostly bypassed.”
This continued misunderstanding of the causes and effects of eating disorders can have a particularly devastating impact upon girls and young women, who account for 90 percent of all diagnosed eating disorders.
Though her condition took her to the brink of death, and filled her mind with self-loathing and thoughts of suicide, Howard-Taylor has said she considers herself “one of the lucky ones” simply because she is alive and once again at a healthy weight.
Eating disorders are the deadliest of all mental illnesses, with mortality rates as high as 20 percent in some circumstances, and an impact so severe that some “survivors” can expect to die decades earlier than similarly aged individuals who were never afflicted.
In a July 17 article in Canada’s National Post newspaper, Tom Blackwell reported on University of British Columbia researchers who discovered that the life expectancy of women who develop anorexia nervosa in their teens can be as much as a quarter-century shorter than the national average.
“Their number-crunching revealed, for instance, that a woman who develops the disorder at age 15 will live on average to age 56 – 25 years less than the average Canadian female,” Blackwell wrote. The UBC researchers based their findings on an analysis of 20 years’ worth of health data that had been collected on 954 anorexia patients in British Columbia.
The leader of the study, UBC psychiatry professor Dr. Laird Birmingham, told the National Post that he hoped his team’s research would prompt doctors, patients, and society as a whole to take the dangers of eating disorders much more seriously.
“Anorexia nervosa is basically not recognized as a serious disease by society and government, in my opinion, certainly not compared to heart disease and cancer,” Birmingham said. “What this says is ‘I have to get better or my life is going to be a lot shorter.’”
‘IT’S NOT ABOUT WEIGHT’
One of the first steps toward getting better is acknowledging the presence, and the power, of the condition with which one is afflicted. And as Lucy Howard-Taylor makes clear in her book, eating disorders are much more than misguided attempts to stay thin.
“This isn’t about weight, or a diet, or a figure,” she wrote. “Somewhere along the line I’ve come to equate fat with failure and weakness. Weight loss is merely symptomatic of the greater psychological problem.”
Dr. James Lock, who co-authored the book Treatment Manual for Anorexia Nervosa: A Family-Based Approach, expressed sentiments similar to Howard-Taylor’s view of eating disorders in an article that originally appeared in Eating Disorders Today:
Although the cause of anorexia nervosa is unclear, severe dieting and weight loss are often associated with struggles to cope with the escalating psychological and social demands of adolescence.
A preoccupation with food and weight may be a way to avoid or be distracted from these seemingly impossible demands. On the other hand, it appears that prolonged severe dieting and weight loss themselves are behaviors that, once firmly entrenched, perpetuate the distorted beliefs around eating, food, and body image that are common to anorexia nervosa.
STRESSES AFFECT GIRLS AT VERY YOUNG AGES
For many who suffer from anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorders, their unhealthy obsessions and resultant behaviors begin with low self-esteem, particularly with negative views of their own bodies. According to statistics cited by Dr. Margo Maine in her book Body Wars: Making Peace with Women’s Bodies, weight concerns and other aspects of poor body image are becoming endemic among girls as early as elementary school:
- Nine percent of 9-year-olds admit to having vomited in an attempt to lose weight.
- Forty-two percent of first-, second-, and third-grade girls say they want to be thinner.
- Fifty-three percent of 13-year-old girls say they are unhappy with their bodies.
- Seventy-eight percent of 18-year-old girls say they are unhappy with their bodies.
Elizabeth Heubeck, a freelance writer who specializes in children’s health, believes that much of the blame for the epidemic of poor body image among young girls should be directed at over-aggressive media images and less-than-supportive parents and siblings:
The average teen girl gets about 180 minutes of media exposure daily and only about 10 minutes of parental interaction a day, says Renee Hobbs, Ed.D., associate professor of communications at Temple University. …
Bombarded with countless media images of thin female models and actresses who look beautiful by modern American standards and appear happy, many girls – including the youngest and most impressionable – view them as role models.
It doesn’t help that real-life role models, mothers in particular, too often openly obsess about their own weight; that male role models, like dads and older brothers, make clear their preference for thinner women; and that an overwhelming percentage of girls’ clothing features body-hugging, midriff-baring styles most comfortably worn by the ultra-thin.
In many cases, overcoming an eating disorder requires hospitalization or a stay in a specialized residential care facility. Because eating disorders are complex conditions that affect the sufferer’s physical health, mental stability, and social development, comprehensive care is often necessary in order to ensure that all aspects of the disorders are diagnosed and treated.
As devastating as eating disorders can be, effective treatment can produce similar dramatic results. According to the nonprofit education organization ANRED (Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders), treatment can reduce the mortality rate for the most serious eating disorders from as high as 25 percent to as low as 2 percent.
Recovered individuals, ANRED notes, regain the ability to experience the many joys and accomplishments that comprise healthy, fulfilling lives:
They maintain healthy weight. They eat a varied diet of normal foods and do not choose exclusively low-cal and non-fat items. They participate in friendships and romantic relationships. They create families and careers. Many say they feel they are stronger and more competent in life than they would have been if they had not developed confidence in themselves by conquering the disorder.
That final sentence would likely resonate quite powerfully with Lucy Howard-Taylor. Reflecting upon the path she followed from the depths of despair to her current healthy state, the author told her Herald interviewer that her recovery revealed the presence of a potent intrinsic power.
“What I have learnt,” she said, “is that if you think having anorexia is hard, try getting better and then tell me which one takes the greater show of strength."