Food has always been associated with feelings of happiness and comfort such that people eat not only for sustenance, but also for occasions to celebrate. A birthday is a good reason for binging on food, much as reunions or casual meetings among friends. However, people also turn to food when they feel down and discouraged as well as when one has a low self-esteem. That is the reason why there is such a thing called "comfort food" – the one food that helps in raising and building one's confidence during moments of weaknesses. What happens then when food becomes the source of one's destruction? Food that once served as nourishment for the body suddenly turns into the enemy that further degrades one's self-image. Such is the case of millions of individuals in the United States who are suffering from eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. For this case study, the main subjects are Katey Tracey (a dancer), Erin (14 years old and is suffering from anorexia), Kate Dillon (plus-size model), Eleena Melamed (a gifted dancer), Erika Goodman (former dancer, now 54 years old and suffering the consequences of anorexia) and other patients of eating disorders featured in the PBS program, Dying to be Thin, a NOVA productions (McPhee, 2000). After learning about their plight, can students correctly assess the psychological implications of anorexia and bulimia as eating disorders?
Anorexia and Bulimia Defined
Anorexia is an "eating disorder [that is] characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss" ("Anorexia Nervosa", n.d.). It is connected with the fear of gaining weight even if, in reality, one is underweight or is not even near the recommended body weight for one's height and age. Bulimia is another eating disorder but is rather the opposite of anorexia. When one is suffering from bulimia, the tendency is to binge on food to the point of excessiveness, and then use varying methods to prevent weight gain (Bulimia, 2012). These methods include the use of laxatives or vomiting. Apart from weight prevention, one thing that is common for both eating disorders is the lack of control sufferers experience with anorexia and bulimia (McPhee, 2000). Control in stopping themselves from eating, control in their aggressive actions and reactions, control in their obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and control in being a perfectionist.
The common symptoms of anorexia nervosa include avoidance of food, body consciousness when it comes to weight or feeling heavy (fat), aversion to certain food types, obsession about weight loss and dieting, excessive exercising, withdrawal from certain activities and groupies, and obvious personality changes brought about by the disease.
Bulimia, on the other hand, is the opposite where an individual indulges too much on food only to purge after completing the meal. When it comes to eating, usually, bulimia sufferers tend to eat huge portions of food and then forcefully vomit the food in order to prevent possible weight gain. Sometimes, they do not eat anything at all. Physically, patients have calloused knuckles or hands from sticking their fingers down their throats to force vomiting. They also have discoloration of teeth due to constant contact to stomach acid. They also have a tendency to use laxatives and diuretics to aid them in purging the food they just ate.
People suffering from these eating disorders share some commonalities when it comes to their character traits. Strikingly common traits include being obsessive and perfectionists. They want to do things exactly as how it should be done. Likewise, they are commonly referred to as "harm-avoidant" (McPhee, 2000) people.
Assessing Psychological Effects of the Eating Disorder
Knowing the symptoms of both eating disorders, what are students' chances of evaluating the various signs and symptoms of anorexia and bulimia correctly? How can they correctly appraise the psychosomatic consequences of the eating disorder?
The primary method is education about the disorders, including the effects on the body and one's mental condition. Because these disorders can eventually lead to self-destruction and alienation from existing relationships, it is best that students are aware about the consequences of the disorders so they will know how to manage the condition.
Anorexia and bulimia often cause or lead to the development of various other psychological problems such as phobias, panic disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD), and other similar mental illnesses. Without proper education, students with low self-image will spiral into self-destruction, pity, and helplessness. Typically, sufferers claim that they want to stop feeling obsessive about food and their weight, but in the end, lose the battle due to lack of control of the disease. Instead of them controlling the urge to eat or purge the food, the disorders "control" their behavior such that sufferers tend to act differently when under the control of the disease. They become irritable, panicky, and sometimes act insanely.
Of these eating disorders, anorexia is more difficult to treat considering the complexities of the disorder. Evidence shows that "the lower the weight, the greater the risk of death and medical complications" (McPhee, 2000). Therefore, in treating anorexia, doctors consider the individual's weight as the peg when determining whether treatment is complete or not.
As in the case of Katey, Erin, Kate, Eleena, and Erika, they had everything going perfectly well for them considering that they were all beautiful and talented. Yet, despite these attributes, they still succumbed to eating disorders that eventually destroyed their personality and future. From the once beautiful and promising women emerged self-destructing ladies who say they want to stop the disorder, but cannot find a way to do so. Despite help from their families, they still could not get it out of their system. As they were consumed by their negative eating habits, their families also suffer as they struggle to get them back on track with their lives.
Partly to be blamed is how society portrays or defines beauty. With a twisted perception of who is considered beautiful, women who are otherwise healthy strive to lose weight to fit in. Fashion models become thinner and thinner. Dancers lose about 15%-20% of their regular weight. Students try to fit in the "culture" as dictated by society (McPhee, 2000). The result? More women, and young adults, believing that beauty equates to thin and slim.
Since the disorders can turn worse than when it initially started, having the support of friends and family can help sufferers to change their eating habits and perception about themselves. In this light, even family and friends must be educated about the disorder, including how to deal with family members suffering from anorexia or bulimia. They must be taught not to let themselves sucked into the sufferer's twisted ways of dealing with the condition. Encourage the sufferer to seek professional medical attention and not enable the sufferer even more by feeding the need for reassurance about how they look. Furthermore, this only stresses the importance of involving themselves (the patients) in group and individual therapy sessions.
Anorexia and bulimia are chronic diseases borne out of the need to look good by not gaining weight. For sufferers, even a pound makes them look fat although in reality, they are reed thin and skinny. As patients continue to suffer from these diseases, their self-image remains poor and with low self-confidence. Millions of Americans are suffering from these disorders and according to studies, anorexia and bulimia are more prevalent in females ages 15-24 years old. As the number of sufferers increase, the need for widespread education about eating disorders and related psychological problems will help the younger generation and their families understand and cope with the diseases.
Anorexia nervosa. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/nedaDir/files/documents/handouts/Anorexia.pdf
Bulimia. 2012 February 13. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001381/
McPhee, L. (2000, December 12). Dying to be thin. [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/thin/program_qt.html