This week is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. Growing up, that would have meant nothing to me. Sure, I learned about anorexia and bulimia in school. I was educated on some of the signs, and I felt confident that if someone had dropped down to under eighty pounds that I could recognize they had a problem. But no one I knew would be so ill-adjusted that they’d develop an illness. Eating disorders were for a certain “type” of girl, and I’d never be friends with that “type” of girl. Sure, we all wanted to be thinner, but like, “normal” thinner. Something like this could never truly affect me.
When high school rolled around, a quiet girl in my homeroom was hospitalized for two months due to anorexia. I never knew her well. All I really knew was that she used to be chubby, and she made a habit of screwing up the curve in our honors classes. When she became so thin she was hard to look at, it was obvious she had a problem. Her illness caused her skin to become jaundice, and her hair was falling out. She was seriously sick, and it was fairly apparent why, so when she was taken out of school, I wasn’t surprised. But why would I be surprised? She fit the profile. She was quiet. She was a straight-A perfectionist. While sad, and hard to watch, this made sense. I felt really bad for the girl — that she wanted to do this to herself — but I continued on with my life, largely unaffected.
My freshman year of college, my randomly assigned roommate and I did not get along. She was a control freak, and I, well, I was type B to the extreme. I could hardly stand to be around the girl, so I was always out of our room. She had her friends and I had mine, and we made it a point to stick to our own social circles. Yet she had no problem eating my food. It drove me nuts that I’d catch her using my things without ever so much as an apology or an explanation. I just thought she was inconsiderate until one day when someone heard her vomiting in the communal showers. And then someone heard it happen again. Before long, the rumors flew, and she was taken out of school by her parents and sent to a rehabilitation center for bulimia. This didn’t make as much sense to me. This girl didn’t look sick. She didn’t seem “weird.” But this was happening right under my nose. It was uncomfortable for me to come to terms with, but eventually, I brushed it off, and only felt mildly guilty when people asked me “what happened to your roommate.”
My senior year of college, one of my pledge sisters and best friends battled depression. She was always someone I’d looked at as confident and strong, and it both hurt me and shocked me to see her feeling so vulnerable. This truly beautiful — like knockout beautiful — girl was one of the funniest people I’d ever met, and she would later go on to graduate cum laude. Her personality was simply infectious. She could be there for serious advice or get down and party with the best of us. She knew how to let loose, but also how to get shit done. Everyone who met her loved her. She was, and still is, truly the whole package. She had her shit together, so it was hard to see her so sad. And after a year of serious depression…and serious weight loss from her already-slim figure, a girl who I’d shared so much with finally confided to me that she’d been suffering from bulimia for over seven years. And I, for the very first time, realized that eating disorders were all around me. They didn’t discriminate. They didn’t just affect other people. The affected my people — people I loved, and they did, in fact, affect me.
People with disordered eating make hiding their problems an artform, because their disorder becomes an addiction and they fear that someone may stop them. Someone may take control of the only thing they feel they have power over — whether you feel they’re in control in other aspects of their lives or not — and that’s terrifying to them. So whether you know it or not, you do know someone who struggles with an eating disorder. TSM’s audience — women age 16-24 — is more affected by eating disorders than any other group of people. Here are the facts.
- 24-30 Million people are affected by eating disorders. To compare, the Autism epidemic affects only 3.6 million.
- 25% of college-aged women engage in bingeing and purging as a weight-management technique. That’s one in four.
- 58% of women surveyed on a college campus felt pressure to be a certain weight, and of the 83% that dieted for weight loss, 44% were of normal weight.
- Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives
- Anorexia is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents.
- The mortality rate associated with anorexia nervosa is 12 times higher than the death rate associated with all causes of death for females 15-24 years old
- 95% of those who have eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25
Eating Disorders And Sorority Women
Eating disorders are positively correlated with sorority membership, an ongoing phenomenon observable since 1983. As you’ve heard countless times before, correlation does not mean causation, and as you cannot force women to join sororities, it is difficult to measure whether women self-selecting into sororities were already more likely to develop eating disorders — there may be a third factor that makes a woman more likely to both join a sorority and to develop an eating disorder. Regardless, sorority girls are affected by eating disorders more often and has been studied at length by researchers Susan Averett, Sabrina Terrizzi, and Yang Wang
We further consider how sorority membership affects weight-related-health behaviors including: dieting, trying to lose weight, vomiting or use of laxatives, and use of pills to lose weight. In general the OLS regressions show sorority membership has a positive and significant effect on all of the aforementioned behaviors.
The largest effects are found with the behaviors of vomiting or use of laxatives and using pills to lose weight. Using our estimates from the most robust OLS specification, we find that sorority membership increases the likelihood of these behaviors by 41% (0.015 percentage points) and 35% (0.014 percentage points), respectively. Sorority membership increases the probabilities of dieting and attempting to lose weight through other means, by approximately 9% (0.037 percentage points) and 5% (0.030 percentage points), respectively.
Read the full study here.
Averett, Terrizzi, and Wang go on to say that they are aware that there are a lot of missing variables that their studies do not, and cannot account for. Their methods “[address] “selection on observables” but [do] not fully deal with the selection problem because unobserved characteristics are likely to influence both sorority membership and body weight.” Do not leave here thinking that sororities give girls eating disorders, but be made aware that this is very much “our problem,” meaning we should be doing everything we can to foster supportive environments for women suffering from eating disorders, and do our best to educate our members on these illnesses.
Especially because the effects are serious.
Effects And Mortality
Mental illnesses don’t always lead to physical illnesses, but in the case of eating disorders, there are almost guaranteed to be physical effects, among them, death. With a mortality rate of 20%, EDs kill more people than any other mental illness. They are the number one killer of women ages 15-24 with a mortality rate twelve times higher than all other causes of death for that group. Many people with EDs experience depression and anxiety, and may become suicidal or engage in self-harm.
People with anorexia may experience slow heart rates and low blood pressure putting them at risk for heart failure. Bone density weakens, muscles weaken. Severe dehydration may result in kidney failure in addition to overall fatigue. Hair loss is common, and in some cases, people diagnosed with AN may develop hair all over their bodies (including their face) in an effort to stay warm. People with bulimia may experience irregular heartbeats putting them at risk for heart failure, gastric rupture, esophageal rupture, tooth decay, or ulcers.
The illnesses are not glamorous. They’re not pretty. And they’re very, very serious.
But more and more people are developing EDs, and it’s affecting people younger and younger.
Eating Disorders And The Strive To Be Thin
- The rate of development of new cases of eating disorders has been increasing since 1950.
- There has been a rise in incidence of anorexia in young women 15-19 in each decade since 1930.
- The incidence of bulimia in 10-39 year old women TRIPLED between 1988 and 1993.
- 42% of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner.
- In elementary school fewer than 25% of girls diet regularly. Yet those who do know what dieting involves and can talk about calorie restriction and food choices for weight loss fairly effectively.
- 81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat.
- 46% of 9-11 year-olds are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets, and 82% of their families are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets.
- 35-57% of adolescent girls engage in crash dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, diet pills, or laxatives. Overweight girls are more likely than normal weight girls to engage in such extreme dieting.
- The average American woman is 5’4” tall and weighs 165 pounds. The average Miss America winner is 5’7” and weighs 121 pounds.
- The average BMI of Miss America winners has decreased from around 22 in the 1920s to 16.9 in the 2000s. The World Health Organization classifies a normal BMI as falling between 18.5 and 24.9.
- Of American elementary school girls who read magazines, 69% say that the pictures influence their concept of the ideal body shape. 47% say the pictures make them want to lose weight.
Despite its prevalence, proper attention is not being paid to eating disorders and those who suffer from them. With 30 million cases of EDs, only $28 million has gone into its research compared with Autism and Schizophrenia, with prevalences of 3.6 million and 3.4 million, respectively, and $160 million and $276 million, respectively. 5.1 million people have been diagnosed Alzheimer’s disease and $450 million have gone into its research — that’s one sixth the prevalence and sixteen times the funding.
Spread awareness this week. Shed light on this very serious issue that is likely affecting someone you not only know, but someone you love. Someone you’re close to. The problem is closer than you think, and you are doing your friends — your sisters — a serious disservice by ignoring it if the warning signs are there..
If you (or someone you know) are struggling with an eating disorder, call (630)-577-1330, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders website and helpline for more information.
To take a confidential, eating disorder screening created by the National Eating Disorders Association, click here.
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