Myths of Eating Disorders, a Mommy’s Tale

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Due to a conversation with an older male college student that I cannot get out of my head, I have decided to blog about something slightly unusual, but still prevalent to the lives of mommies. This will be the first blog in a three part series focusing on the myths surrounding eating disorders, the common symptoms of a person with eating disorders, and what parents can do to promote health body image. These blogs will be my own version of a How To surrounding eating disorders.

Has anyone been able to tell yet? My blood is boiling.

Yesterday, in an offhanded manner, I was told, “You’ll love the paper I just finished in one of my classes. Our professor asked us to write a How To paper on the prevention of anorexia in young adolescent girls. I thought about consulting you concerning the matter, but I didn’t need some long-drawn-out explanation, plus, I think I did pretty good on my own.”

“Oh?” I replied, rolling my eyes at the very thought that a male with no prior history of being a young girl, or having an eating disorder for that matter, could be an expert–or even a novice advisor–on the subject. I followed up with the question, “Do YOU think you would be someone who could give advice on that matter?”

Hey, I was trying for polite, not tactful.

With a chuckle, he answered, “Well, basically I said that girls should stay away from magazines, and images of supermodels, but ultimately, getting over anorexia is up to the girl.”

Uh huh. Uh huh. … Uh huh. Sure. Sounds pretty straight forward, right? Don’t look at magazines, and you won’t develop an eating disorder.

Wrong!

Before I delve into the myths of eating disorders, let me share yet another tidbit about this overly-opinionated mom: I am a recovering anorexic, and have been recovering for the past nine years. During my trials through anorexia and recovery, I had a lot of time to read about the disease, and see it from the perspective of an educator. Heck, I even wrote a book about it, just to get it off my chest.

What can I say? I love to write.

Through all of my learning, and discussions with various people, I have learned there are a lot of strange ideas–myths–about the disease.

There are only two types of eating disorders: anorexia, and bulimia.

There are multiple types of eating disorders. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, eating disorders not otherwise specified, and overeating. There are several new forms of anorexia and bulimia, but from personal experience, all of the varied types fit under the umbrella of those four types.

Anorexics don’t eat.

Anorexics do eat, or else they would die within weeks. The human body cannot physically survive without some source of nutrients, and anorexics know that. In order to live with anorexia for as long as many of them do, it’s a process of calculation. How much food can go into the body, how many calories can be consumed, and how long exercise will take to work off that precise amount.

Bulimics throw up everything they eat.

Bulimics have a binge/purge cycle. Bulimics are generally skinny, but not skeletal. Some are even average sized. The difference between anorexia and bulimia (aside from the obvious purging aspect) is that anorexia is a constant need to control every minute of life, while the bulimia binge/purge generally occurs when an aspect of life feels out of control.

There are anorexics that purge on occasion, and bulimics that purge everything they eat. That group is classified as eating disorders not otherwise specified, because they cross over into both of the main areas of eating disorders.

Only girls get eating disorders.

Out of the eating disordered community, males with anorexia range between 5-15%, and males with bulimia average around 35%. Typically boys–and men–with the disorders are overlooked. They are either involved in weight-competitive sports, or are highly invested in work out regimes. They have the same emotional and mental distress, and the same body dismorphia.

Magazines and supermodels create girls with eating disorders.

Pffff, if I had a dollar for every time I heard THAT line. I’m about to shock the socks off everyone who ever thought this comment is true. Are you ready?

Eating disorders are not about being skinny. It is not about the weight. At all.

Yes, people with eating disorders are generally skinny to the point of being skeletal, and possibly one massive failing heart muscle away from death. However, it’s not about weight; it’s about control.

In all of the eating disorders, control is the main key. Something in that person’s life is making them feel inferior, or demeaned. They cannot take a firm grasp of their life, and their mind is racked with emotional turmoil. So they do the only thing that seems right, the same thing that people talk about day in and day out: eating right and exercising. Or, finding a huge piece of chocolate cake to make the situation better.

Sounds reasonable, right? We have all been there. The day is long, we’re stressed out, so we take a walk around the block, or settle down to a cup of hot cocoa with a side of pie.

It’s when one walk around the block turns into three hours in the gym, followed by a sudden need to eat only specific foods, followed by calorie counting, and the refusal of meals that a problem begins. Or when one piece of cake turns into a fifteen minute feeding frenzy, the sudden onset of “Holy crap, I just ate an entire cake, three Snickers bars, a bag and a half of Famous Amos, and fourteen mini donuts,” and the need to purge in order to rid the body of the emotion that caused the binge in the first place.

That is why I will reiterate: eating disorders are not about being a specific size, they are about maintaining control during emotional distress that gets out of hand.

If people can choose to have an eating disorder, they can choose to get over it.

By the time a parent, friend, colleague, or coworker realizes that a friend might have a problem, choice has flown out the window. The little known fact about eating disorders is that there is an internal monologue inside that person’s head, telling them they are worthless, that they deserve the life they are living, and that they are in control, mastering the scale, or taking charge of what goes in their mouth.

The mind plays a terrible role in body dysmorphia where eating disorders arise. Once those young women, or men, look in the mirror, all they see are the body parts they dislike–the ones that are wrong. There is nitpicking to the point of hysteria, and the inability to step away from the mirror and/or scale.

I should also say this one point again: no one sits down and thinks, “I think I’ll throw up in a toilet four times a day until I reach my goal weight,” or, “Hmmm, today is the day I start my anorexia.”

If my child had an eating disorder, I would be able to tell.

There are so many things I can say here, but the answer is no. No you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t hear your child throwing up in a toilet unless you pressed your ear to the door. Even then, your child has probably already devised the quietest way humanly possible to purge food without your knowledge. If your child has anorexia, he or she will not sit there in mute anger refusing to eat while you scream at them, unless you’ve already “outed” that child, by confronting the situation head on. Parents who have confronted children about eating disorders are the first to realize that policing food only makes for a belligerent child.

There are signs, which I will touch on tomorrow, but for now I will say that unless a child is watched like a hawk every day for the rest of his or her life, a parent will not be able to tell the signs, until it is too late.

Eating Disorders can be cured.

Sadly, unlike alcoholism, people with eating disorders can’t just give up food for the rest of their life. They have to face food, head on, and learn to eat like “normal” people. Only, normal in today’s society is ever changing. There are restrictions placed on foods, diets rampaging daily, exercise programs, and the ever-annoying “Five Minute Abs.”

So, when friends, family members, or newscasters talk about diet schemes, running a 10k, or trying for six-pack abs, the former persons with an eating disorder has to turn a deaf ear, and try not to internalize the situation. They have to work at seeing past bad body image, and recognize themselves as beautiful just the way they are, even if they aren’t a size zero, or even a size two.

People living in recovery have to find a fine balance in life, and set a goal to make them work hard to remain in recovery. For me, as a recovering anorexic, I set my focus on family. Tiny Tot keeps me eating, every day.

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No comments posted on April 12, 2013 in Opinions, Winging It, Mom Style

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