by Joan M. Thomas
An inquisitive, creative, and healthy teenager, “Julie” sometimes felt awkward around other girls her own age. Taller than her friends, she loathed her comparatively larger frame and shoe size. Yet that did not hinder her from fitting in with the crowd.
Then, while wearing her favorite shorts one hot summer day, she arrived home to find an acquaintance of her mother’s visiting. Eyeballing the unsuspecting teen’s naturally stout legs, the insensitive woman exclaimed, “When did you get so fat?”
That simple comment instigated this emotionally vulnerable girl’s plunge into an unhealthy state of mind and body. She fell victim to anorexia nervosa long before the term came into common use.
For some time, Julie’s family failed to notice her deteriorating body and personality. Finally, her mother realized the need for intervention. With no knowledge of such a thing as an eating disorder, the distressed teen’s mom did exactly the right thing. She took measures to get her daughter to eat enough to restore her body to its normal weight.
In retrospect, Julie now painfully recalls how it all unfolded, and wishes to share her experience with modern parents. Her list fits the model for what is now called classic Anorexia Nervosa:
1. Although not overweight for her frame, she felt fat and set her sights on wearing clothes two sizes smaller.
2. She went on a starvation diet, and often ate as little as a half an apple for dinner. This went unnoticed by her family at first because they had been caught up in a move from the farm to town, and then her mother started working outside the home. Prior to that, the family always had always eaten meals together.
3. To curb her hunger, she would page through magazines seeking tantalizing images of food, and imagine herself eating everything pictured.
4. She felt pressured to be like her older sister, an outgoing and popular cheerleader at the school they both attended. She rationalized that being thinner would help her in that respect.
5. As her body weight dropped, her hip bones and collar bone protruded. She became withdrawn, antisocial, depressed, and even paranoid. Thoughts of suicide began to creep into her fragile mind. Her friends were the first to notice the change in her behavior because she had always loved cooking and participating in their potluck dinners. She no longer enjoyed eating or socializing.
6. She stopped having periods, and viewed that as a plus. That symptom, coupled with the alarming weight loss, finally prompted her mother to take action.
Julie’s experience mirrors that of many of today’s teenagers. Changes in family life; unrealistic body image goals; unfair comparisons with siblings, friends or media personalities; and other social pressures can set the stage for a full-blown eating disorder.
Although the condition can affect all segments of the population, male and female, and all age groups, young girls seem to be the most susceptible. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that “the mortality rate among people with anorexia…is about 12 times higher than the annual death rate due to all causes of death among females ages 15-24 in the general population."
Other types of eating disorders
NIMH describes eating disorders as treatable diseases. In addition to anorexia, these are others:
Although the causes and cures for eating disorders are still somewhat elusive, ongoing research provides hope for those affected. Here are some relatively recent findings:
Fortunately for “Julie,” the girl whose mother wisely intervened and stopped her anorexic behavior, she lived to write about it. I am that girl.
I was never officially diagnosed, and I never received medical or psychiatric treatment for my condition. I was lucky, because my mom inadvertently got me back on the right track. But I urge parents to seek professional help as soon as they suspect an eating disorder.
The media may contribute to the onset of eating disorders, but they can also serve to educate parents and physicians alike. A number of online resources can help you learn more about eating disorders, including what to look for and how to get your child the proper treatment. Your parenting style here needs to be assertive. Don’t hesitate to seek help. It could be a matter of life or death.
Help for parents
The author of three books, freelance writer and historian Joan M. Thomas also enjoys writing feature stories and essays on current topics. Born in Carroll, Iowa, she now lives in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband, Bob, and canine pal, Sasha.