Eating Disorders Awareness Month sheds light on important issue
February 4, 2015
The start of February typically conjures thoughts of chocolate, bouquets of flowers and all things romantic. It’s also the start of Black History Month, to remember the culture and heritage of the black community. Lesser known, though, this week marks the start of Eating Disorder Awareness Month, as well, specifically the week of Feb. 23 through March 1.
For 27 years, Eating Disorders Awareness Month has helped bring attention to the over 24 million Americans who suffer from some type of eating disorder. Anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive binge-eating are the most common. In our beauty obsessed culture, however, fad diets like ‘cleanses,’ ‘detoxes’ and ‘clean eating’ are causing disordered eating rates to rise.
Orthorexia, for example--an obsessive fixation on righteous eating--is new, and not officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, but can become as dangerous as a "real" eating disorder very quickly.
Many people hold a misconception that eating disorders are merely a result of vanity, when they are really a very complex psychological problem. There is not one consensus about what exactly causes eating disorders, but it is believed they often stem from the need for a sense control over one’s life, as a way to cope with past trauma, or social anxiety issues.
Eating disorders affect both the young and the old, men and women, and people of all races, but they are especially common in college-aged women. A 2006 survey found that around 20 percent of college students said they previously had eating disorders, yet over 82 percent refused to seek help. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Unfortunately, only around 10 percent of all people affected receive treatment.
I went through a struggle with food a couple years ago. Starting college is difficult for anyone, but under the extreme pressures of moving away, working in a new city, paying rent, missing friends, constant studying, and trying to figure out who I am, the only way I felt any control over my life was through my body and what I was doing to it.
I became a vegetarian, never ate breakfast, and avoided eating out whenever possible. I had really strange habits when I did eat, like a "rule" to never eat anything with over 10 grams of sugar. I drank coffee constantly and smoked cigarettes to suppress hunger. I often went running in the middle of the night so my roommates wouldn’t notice how much I worked out.
I looked forward to writing in a journal about what I hadn’t eaten that day, and felt a really sick sense of accomplishment as my collar bones became more pronounced. While a lot of people gain the freshman 15, I went from weighing around 130 to 105 pounds in the first half year of college.
I knew what I was doing was unhealthy, but thought of it as just a bad habit. Like many people who live this way, I tried to hide it, but people close to me caught on. My parents noticed how thin I was when I came home, and my boyfriend noticed my strange eating patterns. When they confronted me, I started eating more, if only to please them at first. Fortunately, over time I was able to develop more regular habits without the help of a professional.
Unfortunately, not all are able to overcome such a problem when it gets too serious. I realize that my case is not nearly as severe as what many people go through, but any degree of abnormal eating should not be taken lightly. If you think someone you care about has disordered eating patterns, there are a number of ways to approach the situation. The National Eating Disorders Collaboration website highlights exactly how you should go about addressing your concerns.
Firstly, be prepared for an unpleasant encounter. Aside from just being uncomfortable, the person could very likely feel angry, embarrassed, guilty or ashamed of the confrontation, or may deny that they have a problem altogether. Make sure you are educated about the problem before approaching them to talk about it.
You should try to use--and avoid--certain types of language when having a conversation of this magnitude. The National Eating Disorders Collaboration recommends using statements centered on “I” rather than “you,” to highlight why you are concerned, rather than what they're doing wrong. Try to get them to talk about how they feel, rather than the problem directly and, of course, be a diligent listener.
It's important that this conversation does not revolve around food. Again, eating disorders at their core are not really about the desire to be thin, but psychological issues and a distorted self-image. Talking about food takes the focus off that person's real emotional and mental problems.
Do not place blame on to the individual; instead of saying "you’re making me worried," try "I am so worried about you.” Try not to use manipulative or threatening statements, as this will only deter your loved one from discussing the problem further.
If you feel they need more help than you can give, recommend they seek a professional. We are lucky to be so close to of the best eating disorder rehabilitation centers in the country: the Emily Foundation in St. Paul, Minnesota, a nonprofit organization offering in-patient treatment for many types of eating disorders. Our campus counseling services are always willing to help with such issues as well.
I still struggle with body image, as most people do. But, after dealing with this extreme, I’m at a much better place in my life. I’m still a vegetarian, but from an "eco-friendly," healthful perspective, rather than restricting food consumption for just that. I still work out, but because I enjoy it, rather than to lose two more pounds.
However, I don’t think I would have been able to completely beat this problem if those close to me hadn’t spoken up. In addition to Valentine’s Day this month, let’s celebrate those who have overcome this struggle, and promise to try and help those who have not yet.
Molly Kinney is a journalism student with a political science minor. She enjoys reading, camping, music, art and exploring new cities in her free time. In the future, she would love to travel the world and cover politics for NPR.