This coming week, February 21-27, is the National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. I figure this is probably a good place to talk about this. Eating disorders are a very touchy subject in a society that revolves around image. What has been interesting to me is to see what the sociological trend that has emerged and evolved surrounding eating disorders in the past ten years or so.
There has been so much focus around weight and image, ranging from Milan banning models with a BMI (Body Mass Index) lower than 18.5 to the obesity epidemic which has led to Japan's recent move to legally limit the waist size of their population. And here, in America, food is a large part of our culture, as it is with many, or even most, other cultures as well. At the same time, discussion of eating disorders tends to be so taboo (and in some cultures more than others), which is understandable because it is such a sensitive subject. Though, maybe if it were less taboo it's be less sensitive? ...Let's not digress into a philosophical sociological discussion about the chicken or the egg here.
I apologize in advance if this becomes a very technical post. I'm honestly not sure where I'm going with this. I will say now that I have had my own encounters with eating disorders, as I'm sure most of you have--whether its yourself, a friend, or a relative/sibling to some degree or another. I will say right now, though, that all of my information is through my own research and my own experiences/exposure to eating disorders. No two stories are ever exactly the same, of course. But let's just start with the technical... (Click jump for more information.)
There are three definitions/terms characterizing eating disorders:
(Taken from NEDA in a nutshell. Click on links for more informational documents.)
* Anorexia Nervosa: a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss.
* Bulimia Nervosa: a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by a cycle of bingeing and compensatory behaviors such as self-induced vomiting designed to undo or compensate for the effects of binge eating.
* Binge Eating Disorder (BED): a type of eating disorder not otherwise specified and is characterized by recurrent binge eating without the regular use of compensatory measures to counter the binge eating.
Often, a person suffers from more than just one of these disorders, sometimes bouncing back and forth between two or three various types of "coping methods." The reason I call these eating disorders "coping methods" is because, as some of you might have heard at this point, it's not about food. It's often more than just about weight; it's a deeper and more psychological issue that must be addressed. And, from what I know, it's often more than just an issue of poor self image. The question is why that person has such poor self body image in the first place. Some research show that there may even be a biological component to it. During my undergraduate career, I took a public health class on health and eating disorders, my professor mention that eating disorders, specifically anorexia, was present in most (all?) cultures, regardless of how isolated or diverse these cultures were. (Don't quote me directly... it's been about 5 years since that class.)
Regardless of the reason, once started, these disorders result in a cycle of physical and psychological self-destruction that is hard to pull out of on your own. Most often, those suffering from eating disorders require professional help (either way, it's a long journey), and, similar to those suffering from addiction to drugs or other "coping mechanisms," can be triggered and fall into a relapse. It just never really goes away completely.
I'm not about to list a bunch of things to look out for or "warning signs" beyond the fact that if someone mentions that they are suffering from an eating disorder, take them seriously, and don't shy away awkwardly or shun them and get mad at them. Either reaction will probably result in the other person clamming up, hiding it even deeper inside and be more reluctant to open up again (any time soon, at least). If someone just brushes it off lightly, don't just drop it; it may take a little for somebody to open up to you. You just have to stay open and welcoming to talking. At the same time, only someone that wants to be helped can be helped. I've confronted a small handful of people regarding their body image issues and eating disorders. Some have been more successful than others. In the end, it's up to the other person to open up to help.
It's often a hard thing to detect. Just remember that just because somebody is very skinny, it doesn't mean that he or she has an eating disorder. On the other hand, just because somebody isn't emaciated doesn't mean that he or she does not suffer from an eating disorder.
If you, or somebody you know is suffering from an eating disorder, or if you want to conduct some of your own research, the National Eating Disorder Association has a webpage full of resources of basic information and ways to begin the healing process. It also has a page full of links and resources that will give you even more information. Please feel free to comment (anonymously, if you want, even), or even email me if you want to discuss this further. ...I might write more about this as the week progresses.