Pressures of body image can kill

Feel so uncomfortable…Can’t stand to look at or touch my body because I’m afraid it will get fat…just want to cover up. Don’t deserve to look nice…I can’t imagine ever being normal. Hate everyone and myself…(Excerpt from journal of Erin* age 23, recovering Anorexic).

Fat phobia, food phobia, weight phobia, appetite phobia, phobia of oneself – that is the life of the anorexic. Anorexia nervosa – a Greek term meaning “loss of appetite due to nervous tendencies” – has become an illness all too familiar in our society today.

As many as one in ten women in university suffer from a clinical eating disorder, according to Support, Concern and Resources For Eating Disorders. Studies done in 2002 also indicate that by their first year of university, 4.5 to 18 per cent of women and 0.4 per cent of men have a history of bulimia.

It has also been reported that 1 in 100 females between the ages of 12 and 18, according to Support, Concern and Resources For Eating Disorders, have anorexia.

In addition, about seven million girls and women and about one million boys and men are affected by this debilitating disease.

It is estimated by Support, Concern and Resources For Eating Disorders as well that 200,000 to 300,000 Canadian women aged 13 to 40 have anorexia nervosa and twice as many have bulimia. These illnesses are fatal for 10 to 15 per cent of those affected.

According to the Canadian Press, a study of 11 year old girls found that 44 per cent were on a diet to lose weight. One simple diet can start it all.

When confronted with these statistics, Concordia students were shocked. “One word – society,” says Tina Mocella, first year political science student referring to the implications society has on an individuals’ perception of what body image is acceptable.

Anorexia nervosa is not necessarily a loss of appetite; it is more like a lack thereof.

Initially it was thought, according to Anatomy of Anorexia by Steven Levenkron that anorexia was simply a phase that young girls went through as adolescents.

Just as they hit puberty the urge to remain a child was too strong and so the eating disorder took over. Anorexia has no boundaries of age or sex.

The stereotype has changed as experts now realize that women and men of all ages are infected with the illness for a variety of reasons.

How does this disease start? There is no right answer when exploring the reasons for anorexia because just as we are all individuals the disease also becomes unique to the individual it has consumed.

Levenkron has found that the most common reasons for eating disorders are anxiety, depression, a sense of control, obsessive behaviourism and perfectionism. Family troubles can also play a big role – divorce or the loss of a parent or loved one as well as sexual or abuse trauma at a young age.

It has also been noted that for men the reasons are a bit different – society tells him to be a strong, fit man in order to provide for his family properly. Men face different issues than women, but in the end the result is the same. They strive for perfection, what they believe to be society’s norm, and a need to live a normal life with an obsessive addiction.

The victim is trying to express emotions through lack of eating, adds Levenkron, and telling the world how she/he feels with each jutting bone. Feeling good is associated with losing weight.

Therefore they can feel they have accomplished something, controlled an important part of their lives while everything else around them becomes obsolete. Food and weight is the only thing they think about. It is everything to them, their reason for living. They begin to starve themselves to live.

Medically, the end results of anorexia nervosa are not something for which to strive. As the individual continues to reduce the number of calories and, inevitably, the number of vitamins needed, says Levinkron, the body begins to shut down. Cardiac problems arise due to lack of electrolytes which causes a great imbalance and irregular heartbeat.

Not only is the heartbeat affected but the heart size is as well. Anorexia starves the body and muscle mass is lost. As the heart is a muscle, it shrinks.

Other common side-effects of anorexia are anemia, decreased testicular function, dental decay and discolouration, dizziness, dry skin, brittle hair and nails, fainting, increased risk of osteoporosis, lanugo – the growth of fine hair on the body in order to keep it warm – and low blood pressure.

Concordia Health Services recognizes the severity of anorexia nervosa and the effect eating disorders has on a majority of university students. “We offer psychotherapy, full physicals and a psychologist at the SGW clinic. Come in and talk to a nurse or doctor,” says Loyola’s on-campus nurse Donna Cooper. She is eager to offer advice for students seeking help and offers numerous pamphlets and hand-outs on eating disorders. There is a lending-library with an abundance of eating-disorder reading material.

“If I’m thin then my life will be better,” says Erin* who wanted control of her life. At age 17 she began the rough road to anorexia nervosa with a severe case of bulimia – bingeing and purging. She wanted to create the perfect body image in order to make herself imagine she was satisfied and gain the love and respect of those around her.

With each pound she lost, she sunk further into a fantasy world that she fashioned in order to make herself feel like she belonged. “I’m not happy like this but it’s safe, I know it,” says Erin*.

Food became her obsession and she preoccupied herself by reading cookbooks, anxiously awaiting the next visit to the grocery store, and constantly looking over the shoulder of anyone cooking a meal to make sure it was all done the way she wanted it to be. Time between meals was agonizing, the loss of food made her think about it that much more.

Erin* knew she had a problem. She recognized the destructive behaviour in herself and set out to seek help. Having a full library of medical books and self-help books on anorexia nervosa she wanted to believe she understood the disease, yet she still couldn’t understand how to fully recover from it.

“If I’m better, I’ll have no excuses for my shortcomings; being shy, not going out, being short tempered, lazy. If I’m not sick, who am I? I’ll lose myself and disappear and no one will see me. I’ll be ignored like usual,” she adds.

Erin* still battles the disease. “You have to accept you’re not a norm, you are constantly fighting your body,” she says. Her obsession with food has been subdued but still remains. She chooses to help herself and seek help in her family and friends as well as professionals who recognized the severity of her illness.

I can’t imagine ever being normal…I can but I don’t think I really ever will be. I’ll either be like this and skinny, normal weight and bulimic or overweight. Whichever way you look at it it’s a load of unhappy shit. (Excerpt from journal of Erin* age 23 recovering Anorexic.)

Eating Disorder Awareness week begins February 1st. Visit Concordia’s Health Services for more information or call them at 848-3565 (Sir George William Campus) or 848-3575 (Loyola Campus).

*Name has been changed.


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