While eating disorders are readily associated with anorexic girls supposedly wanting to be model-thin, the reality is far more complex than feminine vanity.
“There are many types of eating disorders,” says Dr. Greg Jantz, founder of A Place of Hope, an eating disorder treatment center, and the author of “Hope, Help, and Healing for Eating Disorders.” “For example, there’s binge eating and food addiction. An eating disorder is a chronic faulty relationship with food that controls one’s life.”
Behavior includes binging and purging, starvation, laxative abuse and compulsive overeating; but Dr. Jantz warns that these are all symptoms, not the problem. A complex range of psychological and/or emotional conditions are behind eating disorders, including feelings of inadequacy, depression, anxiety and loneliness. Troubled relationships with family, friends or work colleagues may all play a part. According to Dr. Jantz, young girls and women age 13 to 30 are most at risk, with about 5 percent of eating disorders occurring in males.
Eating disorders can be triggered by a single traumatic event, such as death, divorce or rape — or a degrading comment. They can also take longer to develop, building as traumatic experiences mount up. Focusing on food gives relief to unaddressed emotional pain, until it spirals out of control.
“It becomes an addiction because it controls you despite many attempts to quit,” Dr. Jantz says.
And though sufferers can exhibit considerable shame about their condition, the stigma is being reduced. Public figures like Lady Gaga and Elton John have come forward about bulimia, and the National Eating Disorders Awareness Week — currently underway now — seeks to educate the public.
“It makes it safer to get help, because you realize you’re not alone,” says Dr. Jantz. “Be bold and seek help.”
First-person: Life with anorexia
Some people live to eat. Others eat to live. With anorexia, I lived to starve. Though I lived with anorexia for many years, I never appreciated how complex eating disorders are or how ravaging their effects.
When you see someone, perhaps with skeletal frame, who you think has an eating disorder, you are seeing the outward effects of starvation. What is more damaging is the decay of a starved spirit, mind and personality.
It’s hard to grasp the emotional and mental bondage that traps people in these illnesses. Friends, family, even too few doctors have any idea what goes on in the mind of someone with an eating disorder. This is a fundamental barrier to early diagnosis and effective treatment.
There is no one-size-fits-all recovery method. A team approach, including help from field specialists, is needed to address the mental, physical and emotional aspects of these potentially deadly diseases.
—Judith Shaw is an artist and creator of “Body of Work: The Art of Eating Disorder Recovery,” a sculptural diary.