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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Facing the mirror: the skinny on eating disorders

    Every time I go to the grocery store, I play a little game. I walk past the magazine rack and count how many of the tabloids plastered a skinny actress and the words “”eating disorder”” across their covers that week. I always find at least one.

    As someone who has overcome an eating disorder, it is frustrating to see a disease I struggled with be compared to a movie star’s vain attempt to appeal to the industry.

    Yes, eating disorders have been thrust back into the media headlines this year with events such as the banning of skinny models in Madrid and the tragic news of 21-year-old model Ana Carolina Reston’s death from anorexia. However, the media seem to always report eating disorders as phenomena that occur only among the glamorous and famous.

    Any sufferer of an eating disorder, however, would tell you that the disease goes far beyond a need to be skinny or to fit in with today’s beauty ideals. In fact, it came to a point for me where I physically and mentally could not eat, no matter how much I wanted to.

    By viewing a disorder in a sensational way, we are failing to address the root cause. This may explain why eating disorders have now become the deadliest psychological disease, surpassing even depression.

    Contrary to popular belief, anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, two of the most talked-about eating disorders, have actually been shown to be caused by an interaction between the environment and chemical imbalances in the brain.

    A groundbreaking study done by Dr. Walter Kayne at the University of Pittsburgh found increased levels of serotonin in the brains of anorexic patients, even after they had recovered from the disease (and thus, they were not attributable to the effects of starvation on the body). While this chemical is usually associated with warm and fuzzy feelings, high levels of it can cause an extreme amount of anxiety and obsessive thinking.

    Since food helps our brain produce this chemical, one way to reduce serotonin levels is through starvation. This explains why, instead of feeling agitated and grumpy like the rest of us do when we get really hungry, a person with high levels of serotonin in the brain will get a calming feeling from starvation. This also explains how an anorexic patient can work against her body’s natural instinct to survive and voluntarily starve herself.

    Why is all this important to the life of a college student? Bulimia nervosa is the second-most common mental disorder among college-age women. As such, the UA’s Counseling and Psychological Services has devoted multiple resources for students, including an eating disorder specialist on staff and a free eating disorder support group.

    Because of the disorders’ prevalence on campus, chances are that you will not leave the UA without meeting someone who has one. However, your current efforts to help friends or family with an eating disorder may be backfiring.

    Family and friends will often fall back on common stereotypes about eating disorders when attempting to help. The focus will be on the loved ones’ looks and self-esteem instead of anxiety and control issues.

    In my past experiences with the disorder, I remember the frustration I felt when my friends and family tried to tell me my problem would be solved if I just improved my self-esteem. I know it was done out of love, but I felt like a failure for not being able to fix something that seemed so simple on the surface.

    It was not until my family started probing deeper and started helping me to manage my anxiety that I was able to start working on my disordered eating habits.

    So instead of placing the focus on looks, create a calming and relaxing environment with your loved ones who may be struggling with this disease. Ask questions such as when they are most likely to feel the need to starve or purge and how you can best help them overcome this urge.

    Take them out to eat. Let them choose the time and place, and don’t comment on what they order. Even if they don’t eat, it helps them learn what normal eating looks like and to associate food with social activities again.

    And above all, encourage your loved ones to seek professional help, because these are deadly diseases with much deeper roots than a need to be skinny.

    Jessica Wertz is a senior majoring in family studies and human development and psychology. She can be reached at mailto:letters@wildcat.arizona.edu

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