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Culture of thinness drives eating disorders

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Mary-Kate Olsen’s struggle with anorexia nervosa has put the disorder back on the discussion agenda for parents.

Mary-Kate Olsen’s struggle with anorexia nervosa has put the disorder back on the discussion agenda for parents. Not since singer Karen Carpenter died in 1983 from an anorexia-related heart attack has so much attention focused on the health problem, according to Lynn Grefe, executive director of the National Eating Disorders Association. And that is a good thing, given the prevalence of the condition among teens and young adults. “This illness is not understood enough,” says Grefe. “There is a lot of shame. Even though people know it is an illness, they think it is self-inflicted.” Far from it, she says. The disorder has psychological, interpersonal and social causes — that is, a cultural obsession with looks and thinness. The same magazines that put Mary-Kate on their covers are filled every week with page after page of svelte stars and their fantasy, have-it-all lives. The disorder even has what The New York Times described as a “secret society” of followers who promote their “pro-ana” views on the Internet. Several weeks ago, Olsen checked into an undisclosed treatment center — cited by some as Cirque Lodge at Sundance, although the exclusive center has repeatedly denied the reports to The Salt Lake Tribune. Her father Dave Olsen told US Weekly Mary-Kate has battled anorexia for the past two years. Her eating problem reached a critical point just as she and twin sister Ashley assumed management of their $1 billion merchandise enterprise and prepared to enter New York University in the fall. Typically, those who develop an eating problem are perfectionists who have low self-esteem, feel inadequate in their lives and have difficulty expressing emotions and feelings, according to experts. “Young women are particularly vulnerable to trying to make their lives feel better, and one way to do that is to change their bodies,” said Michael Barrett, president and clinical director at the Center for Change in Orem. And, like Mary-Kate, they may be feeling pressure or a need for control in their lives for very normal reasons. Summer Mears of Valdese, N.C., said after she and her husband separated earlier this year, their 14-year-old daughter showed signs of an eating disorder. She also may have been influenced by a friend who was obsessed with her own weight. “She was cutting back on [food] portions,” said Mears, who asked that her daughter’s name not be disclosed. “It got smaller and smaller and smaller until she was eating a fourth of a sandwich and she was stuffed if she ate that.” The teen began hiding food in her napkin. She would whip up meals in the kitchen, and then sit back and enjoy the food by watching others eat it. She also exercised excessively. Soon Mears’ daughter was shedding 2 to 3 pounds a week. Those are classic signs of an eating disorder. Others include a phobia against certain food groups or engaging in eating rituals — eating food in a certain order or excessive chewing, for example. There may be frequent trips to the bathroom after a meal, an obsession with exercising and significant weight loss. Often, those with anorexia withdraw from family and friends and display dramatic mood swings. “Those are all beginning tips, but weight, the obsession with weight and the need to lose weight, is the first clue that parents should pay attention,” Grefe said. Mears hit the Internet and local library to figure out what was going on with her daughter. When the girl, who is 5 feet 7 inches tall, dropped to 82 pounds, the worried mother acted. The girl spent three weeks in a North Carolina hospital, hooked up to a feeding tube that helped her regain 10 pounds. “It was a very emotional, traumatic experience for all of us,” Mears said. “She wouldn’t even drink water before she went into the hospital. She thought it would make her fat.” Mears then checked her daughter into the Center for Change in Orem, where the teen spent four months in a residential program and several more weeks as an outpatient. “Sometimes we think it’s about the food and gaining weight [but] we learned it is a lot of underlying issues,” Mears said. “It is a lot to do with feeling loved and feeling some control.” Mears’ daughter fit the typical profile of someone who develops an eating disorder. About 40 percent are girls between the ages of 15 and 19, though peak onset now occurs at ages 11 to 13, Grefe said. She is also typical in another way: overcoming problem eating isn’t instantaneous. The teen weighed a far healthier 116 pounds when she left the Center for Change; she has dropped to 106 pounds, Mears said, and is now working to add more weight. “I’m really pleased she is sitting down and eating a whole sandwich now,” Mears said. “That is really pleasing to me. I’m praying now that she won’t fear food and will just enjoy life.” (Source: The Salt Lake Tribune, July 2004)

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Posted On: 5 July, 2004
Modified On: 5 December, 2013


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