By: Lauren Staehle
February 25, 2015
While you're leading your busy life as a college student, balancing classes, work and social activities, there's a group of people walking amongst you who are crumbling under the pressures that you may find just a normal part of your everyday routine. They may look completely normal, act normal around friends and classmates and tell you that everything is just fine when you ask, but you may never know that these people are actually suffering from a crippling illness. Eating disorders are as serious, life-threatening and common as diseases like cancer, and yet, as a culture we are still so hesitant to open up the conversation about eating-related issues.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), 20 million women and 10 million men in the U.S. alone will struggle with an eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia or binge-eating disorder during their lifetime. However, only 1 in 10 of eating disorder sufferers will get treatment, as reported by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.
This year’s Eating Disorder Awareness Week—February 22nd through the 28th—is centered around the theme, “I had No Idea,” highlighting the variety of triggers, signs, symptoms and methods for intervention that NEDA wants the public to be able to recognize, in order to create a better informed society.
To help us kick off Eating Disorder Awareness Week, Rebecca Berman, Clinical Supervisor at The Renfrew Center in Bethesda, MD, agreed to answer some questions and highlight some important facts to help spur conversation about the issue. Ms. Berman has two graduate degrees, in Clinical Social Work and Law and Social Policy, from Bryn Mawr College Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research and serves as a Trauma Expert at Renfrew, specializing in eating disorders, self-injurious behavior and trauma.
First, I asked Ms. Berman about some common myths surrounding eating disorders, and she pointed out five common misconceptions:
1. You can tell someone has an eating disorder simply by looking at them. Eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes. Eating disorders are often silent illnesses and someone with a "normal" body weight may be struggling physically, emotionally, and medically as someone underweight or overweight.
2. Eating disorders only affect white, upper class woman. Eating disorders stretch across men and woman of all socio-economic classes, of all races, and all faiths.
3. Eating disorders are a choice. People do not choose to have an eating disorder. They are an illness that impacts individuals both medically and psychologically. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness.
4. People with anorexia don’t eat. Those struggling with anorexia significantly restrict their nutritional intake and often have rigid rules around food. They do however eat, and in fact may go out of their way to eat in front of others in order to appear as though nothing is wrong, while others eat secretively and in private. People with anorexia may also struggle with bingeing and/or purging behaviors.
5. Eating disorders are just about food and bad body image. This is also false. The food and body has become the avenue for dealing with the distress in one’s life, but the issues at hand go much deeper.
So why do eating disorders still fail to get the kind of attention that other diseases receive amongst the general public? Ms. Berman pointed out that "eating disorders feed on secrets and often have much shame associated with them by the individual struggling," but also that media tends to "reinforce the myths" about eating disorders with a glorified view of an underweight figure. "Talking about eating disorders in a glorifying and misinformed way continues to recreate the cycle of shame leading to more silence."
Ms. Berman also mentioned though that eating disorders are often misdiagnosed and altogether under diagnosed. One of the telling symptoms of an eating disorder is “over-exercising which also includes having an unhealthy relationship with exercise,” however it is often overlooked because of our culture’s veneration of "unrealistic expectations of beauty" and "healthy clean eating." "There are many struggling with eating disorders that don’t know they are because their behavior and poor relationship with food has become normalized."
However, if we can educate ourselves and learn to be aware of the triggers and symptoms of an eating disorder, we can help improve the odds for treatment, and ultimately, for survival. Eating disorders can be triggered by “trauma, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, a desire for control in a world that feels out of control…chaos in one’s home, school, and/or work environment, and demands of sports that focus on weight and body just to name a few.” College is also a common time when eating disorders arise, because it is a time of considerable change. Therefore, restrained eating can be “an unconscious way of regulating emotions…to find a sense of control.”
If you recognize the signs of an eating disorder in yourself or a friend, Ms. Berman indicates a couple of steps you can take. First, if you are concerned about someone else, “talk to them and let them know you are concerned. You can support a friend who is struggling by helping them to call 1-800-RENFREW for an eating disorder assessment. You can also call for your own assessment if you or others are worried about your relationship with food and to your body.”
National Eating Disorder Awareness week is the perfect time to educate yourself and others about the importance of a positive body image, and to start a conversation about the disease. You can also get involved, as The Renfrew Center Foundation will be sponsoring its 4th annual Barefaced & Beautiful, Without & Within. This year, on Thursday, February 26th, we are asking women, men and adolescents alike to post to Facebook or Twitter a ‘throwback’ photo of themselves without makeup or photo retouching, and comment on why they love the particular photo of themselves.” Show your solidarity and commitment to this great cause, and spread the word about what true beauty looks like to you.