National Eating Disorder Awareness week (NEDAwareness) lasted from February 26 to March 3, but I’m still thinking about it. I took the opportunity to catch up on research about the disorders and follow current conversation on the topic through twitter and comment threads.
I noticed a major difference from when I first tuned into these diseases in the late 1990s. For one thing, people are talking about them. Those afflicted open up about their experiences and recoveries through memoirs and online testimony. Various organizations have sprung up to offer frank discussion on the causes, treatments, and preventative approaches against anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders.
I was disturbed to learn about pro-ana and pro-mia. This online movement consists of people afflicted by anorexia and bulimia who claim their disorder is a lifestyle choice and share techniques on how to continue the mentally and physically harmful practices in secret.
Another disturbing fact: more and more women – and men – continue to develop these diseases. Between eight and ten million people suffer from these diseases. And some of the afflicted die from related physical complications or suicide. According to the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, eating disorders have higher mortality rates than any other mental illness.
Most with these diseases do not seek treatment, and maintain disordered behaviors in private. Treatment can be extremely costly, requiring tens of thousands of dollars or comprehensive health insurance. And certainly not all sufferers have health insurance. To make matters worse, not all health insurance plans cover eating disorder treatment.
A 2003 review of literature revealed that only a third of anorexics and six percent of bulimics receive mental health care.
The sheer volume of people suffering from eating disorders can be viewed as a symptom of national low self-esteem (0.5% of American women have anorexia, 2-3% suffer from bulimia). These diseases reflect major issues our society has with food, dieting, and body shape. We have so many obese residents, and yet our models lose more and more inches through the Photoshop process. My colleague posted extensively on her blog regarding this subject.
The fact that Americans spend $40 billion a year on diets and diet products, suggests rampant dissatisfaction with our bodies. The industry literally banks on people’s low self-esteem. I highly recommend Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth for an in-depth look at the media, advertising, and body image.
But skinny models and ubiquitous diet regimes cannot be held fully accountable for the development of eating disorders. Recent research suggests that 50% of the formation of an eating disorder derives from genetic factors. Other environmental factors contribute to these diseases such as stress or trauma, or a family members’ obsession with body image and food.
Research and dialogue on eating disorders continues to progress, and yet so do these diseases. They are entrenched in our population. Forty percent of Americans suffered from an eating disorder or knows someone who has.
Please visit this sensitive letter from Ms. if you or someone you know needs a push to begin the recovery process. To end on a hopeful note, people recover from these illnesses with psychological, emotional, and medical support.