Saturday, August 11, 2012

Anorexia Revisited: Tweens, Teens, Adults

Teen anorexic

When I taught high school, I remember a discussion I had with the gymnastics coach. We were discussing some of the girls who had graduated and gone on to college. I was shocked when the coach mentioned that two of them she knew had battled anorexia and even confronted it when they were on the high school team. Somehow, I didn't equate the muscular-looking bodies with anorexia, but there was a correlation. The young girls had to whizz through the air, remain lithe and agile and after the season was over, without their rigorous routines, they gained weight which made it very difficult to get back in shape when the season returned again. So they became anorexics to maintain their "balance" on the beam and cartwheel and running flip to their hearts content 4 months of the year.

Example of a photo which sometimes is posted on #thinspo

This is not an unusual occurrence for teenagers engaged in gymnastics. One mother discusses that when her daughter stopped the rigorous training which by fourth grade included practicing 14 to 16 hours a week, she put on weight and thought she was getting "fat." So she ramped into the anorexia mode eating less and less, and flew under the radar with her parents because the weight loss was  gradual. Her mother noticed how emaciated she looked in a bathing suit and she rushed her to a pediatrician who hospitalized her. "I pulled every string I could think of" the mother says when she attempted to enroll her in a program and see a psychiatrist. However, there was a waiting list for new patients, and other doctors she called were already at capacity. The mother remembers, "I was hysterical calling the psychiatrist's office and saying, 'Please, we can't wait. My child will be dead in three months.'"

Anorexia is a disease that has spread beyond the once typical age group of teen girls. Doctors are changing their protocol to accommodate treating younger anorexics and older ones. They are now treating children as young as 8-years-old and the elderly who are reaching the upper 70s age brackets. Once identified as occurring amongst a wealthy population of 13-17 year-old-girls is increasingly common among the elementary age children, even little boys and it runs a complete economic and age spectrum so that no one population remains untouched by eating disorders.
And adult woman suffering from eating disorders which may have begun in her teens.

According to Margaret Kelley, clinical nurse manager for the eating disorders treatment program at The Children's Hospital in Denver, "In the last two years, we've actually had to add a treatment track to deal with kids ages 9 to 11, and we're getting many more boys. We used to see one or two a year at most, but we've almost always got one or two boys in the program now."

Because the eating disordered hide their condition in a culture that prizes uber thin celebrity, the svelte model and the thin broadcast media spokesperson, and touts diets, weight loss programs and fitness devices and gyms, the disease is not easily detected, especially when two-thirds of the US population is either dieting or poised on the brink of dieting. Children are not stupid. They recognize that great status enshrines the thin, and demeaning stereotypes slap the fat. The overweight and obese are denounced and shamed for their ungainly condition. They are assumed to be unintelligent, lazy, unfit, smelly, sweaty, unloved and gross. Fat kids have no identity other than "The Ridiculed" and in elementary school through high school, they are the lost population, perhaps self-designed to avoid bullying jokes, opposite sex rejection and daily embarrassment about their disgusting condition. They just slide into the wall like ghosts, unless they rise above their condition and make their teachers and peers forget with sterling performances in academia or other activities: music, the arts, technology, etc. However, this is too little too late; the damage is done. Tweens and teens see the peer treatment of the fatties and fear for lives and their ability to fit in and be cool.
Adult woman suffering from eating disorders which most probably began as Anorexia in her teens.

Is it any wonder that fat, considered a cultural taboo and anathema from the White House down to the Frat House is most probably behind most of the drive toward the silence of anorexia/eating disorders, a condition hampering an indeterminate number of preteens and 5% of adolescents and a growing number of young women, middle aged women, wealthy socialites and senior aged women and men? What? Has the world gone off its axis? You thought men could do anything and there would be a woman out there to love him? Yes...well, not the kind he wants: not a fatty woman. He wants a slender, beautiful woman, certainly not one who is obese, so he had better look the part or obviously be attempting to look the part. And in the case of a gay man? Whew! He has to be buff and beautiful. Yes, more than ever men are being diagnosed with eating disorders. (Just today, I was trying on black slacks in a GAP store that had a coed dressing room. I overheard a young guy; he was asking the salesgirl if the pants pushed up his waist and gave him love handles. She assured him she saw no bacon anywhere. Gee, I thought. There's a revolution going on...a man concerned about love handles and back fat showing

If the adult population is suffering from fat worry as they acknowledge that obesity is associated with poor, trailer-trash, Walmart patrons, and slender beauty with Ralph Lauren, Gucci and the good life, can kids resist internalizing these modalities and equations? Will kids act on such internalizations?

Here are some statistics. In a study by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 60% of elementary and middle school teachers reported an eating disorder problem with their students. Experts know this and are concerned about the rise in nearly epidemic proportions of "disordered eating" because of the perceptions of kids in elementary school, perceptions which can foreshadow the underpinnings of full blown anorexia a few years later.
  • Kids in first through third grades wish they were thinner: 42% or almost half said this.
  • Of the 10-year-olds surveyed, 81% are afraid of becoming fat.
  • Girls between the ages of 9 and 10 years-old say they feel better about themselves when they are on a diet: 51% said this.
If you feel this is a good thing, think again. Do we want kids preoccupied about weight issues before they have physically matured? Should they be stressed to the point of emotional, psychological and physical illness? Isn't our culture too fat obsessed as it is without our kids being traumatized about the horrors of being 10 pounds overweight with a higher than normal BMI? It appears that such stress is delivered to kids daily at school, by their caustic peers and by the media for it's not just overweight kids who are restricting calories, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Populations of normal-weight and underweight kids are dieting, for example, 16% of girls ages 8-11 and 19% of girls ages 12-15. Though the numbers are somewhat lower for boys, they, too, are dieting concerned that they not appear fat.

The warnings are out there. Experts see them, but does the rest of the culture care, or are the benefiting corporations happy that they are creating continued generations of rebellious obese and weight obsessives who will need their products: their weight loss drugs, teas, diets panaceas, programs, medical devices, gyms, protocols, doctors' visits, etc.? How many more anorexic suicides does our culture have to produce before more medical groups, schools and parents demand enough is enough with the obsession about weight and being uber thin? We could learn a lesson from the UK whose organized groups prompted the government to create a guide for parents to help their tweens be realistic about their body image and not believe the photoshopped images on magazines and covers and the camera lighting and angles on TV and in films.
This is the photo of an older, eating disordered woman in her 60s.

Faux, thy name is traditional  media. Its egregious misrepresentation of principles, values and human integrity to sell product is pernicious and harmful to the body and soul. The public is on to you! And a time will come, it is already beginning, in fact, when consumers will no longer allow themselves to be bullied into buying useless product or be influenced by stupid and ridiculous concepts like YOU ARE DISGUSTING IF YOU ARE FAT (meaning anything over a normal BMI range.) That is why every opportunity I get, I sign petitions like the one on to get Teen Vogue to show teenage models realistically and stop the photoshopping. We need a critical mass of public support to educate against such fascism about images. We are who we are individually and realistically; in our uniqueness we are beautiful and that runs clean to the bone.

All photos courtesy of


Diandra said...

Last weekend, I read two "health" magazines.

One was directed at runners in general and covered topics such as healthy nutrition ("you have to eat enough for proper workouts"), great running places, records of races and events, product reviews and the first female marathon runner.

The other one was directed at women and covered: Diet, more diet, salad recipes, how to get that great backside, fashion, makeup emergencies, how to get straight hair (if you have curls, and curls if you have straight hair), how to cover up "nasty" body habits such as farting and how to give a guy great sex.

Really? That is what women's health is about? I spent two days ridiculing the magazine. Unfortunately neither the female friend I first showed it to nor my BF seemed to understand what my problem was.

We live in a truly f***ed up society.

Carole Di Tosti said...

Agreed. Because the media embraces "F***ed" values and folkways, it pushes images that will help fuel its advertisers who are corporations making money over their consumers' unwellness. Their version of health which you brilliantly point out is unrelated to real health and sanity, but is a promotion of SICKNESS-FAT OBSESSION,FITNESS DISTORTION, and unreality. Great advice for those who read. I hope your friends eventually wise up. Wellness and health are not only metabolic, as you appear to know, but emotional and social.

Thanks for your insightful comments.

Unknown said...

Carole, the pictures alone should be an 'eye-opener' for anyone with an eating disorder. However, I have heard that when they look at themselves in the mirror that is not the image they see. It is so sad that 'skinny' has become so acceptable. Models, of course, seem to be targets of eating disorders. I have often wondered why modeling is not modeling real-life people in real-life environments. Advertisements definitely lean too much toward what THEY think is the 'ideal'.

Carole Di Tosti said...

The pictures should be...such images are rarely seen. You are right...anorexics and eating disordered don't see very thin, they see overweight bodies. I think eventually, young girls will catch on and adults will work in support against photoshopped images, but it will probably take a longer time than it should. Business is profitable (of so companies gauge) when such uber thin images are used to sell product.

Fiona said...

Thank you for this thought provoking, while heart breaking article. We need to direct ourselves to perfection in acceptance and helping other people.

Carole Di Tosti said...

Agreed, Fiona. It's the inner being that is the reality, but the outer is what the media, etc., wants us to look at to sell product. It doesn't care that people are destroying themselves.
Thanks for your heartfelt response.

Margo Dill said...

Those photos are so hard to look at. Thank you for caring so much about this topic and informing us about it too.

Carole Di Tosti said...

Yes. It's tragic. What's worrying is that eating disorders are happening to Tweens and elderly women and more adult women. The culture is relentless about having to BE THIN; exemplified in all the media. The obsession with not being considered overweight and/or fat is ever present. I believe that helps to fuel eating disorders.

Unknown said...

Carole, just visited your acceptance for the Reader Appreciation Award. Thank you for paying the award forward. Hope to check out your nominees soon:>)

Jennifer Pittam said...

Excellent post especially as in London we've just had the Olympic Games. It was good to see so many fit young people around our City but there are dangers attached to following an 'athletic' regime without knowledge.

I suffered from an eating disorder as a teenager and although cured I still have a 'weight buddy' ie best woman friend who can assure me I don't look massive in the mirror. It's true that this is how an eating disorder changes your brain, and as far as I know there isn't a cure for that.


Carole Di Tosti said...

Thanks, Jennifer. It's a problem, I believe that is made so much worse by the cultural ethic that you are not pretty/beautiful if you are overweight/fat. This ethic is targeted to women, though average middle and lower middle class men don't think that way about women. But it doesn't matter what men think...women's perceptions are what are important. It's good you have a buddy system...because if we judge ourselves based upon what eating disordered celebrities...some of whom work out 2 hours a day...or who take make themselves uber thin...then we are all obese by comparison. (The weight loss industry/medical device industry, pharma industry are thrilled about this...we will use their product as a result of our inferiorities/insecurities.)

Thanks for posting. Great to have your support.