Social comparison can produce black holes of attention. Granted, these black holes are almost inescapable in a world where we are bombarded by information. There are many ways that we can compare our lives with others. We might not have the newest BMW, the sexiest mate, or the best-planned vacation. Perhaps the most destructive comparisons, however, stem from our ideas of body image. We hold ourselves to an impossible standard and want a thinner, more “attractive” physique. For many people, it is an all-encompassing obsession. The most common cause and consequence of this phenomenon are eating disorders, where we are starving ourselves to fit in.
The statistics on eating disorders make one literally sick to one’s stomach. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), up to 30 million people in the US suffer from an eating disorder. If scientific studies are any indication, we should be worried that the percentage of those who suffer from an eating disorder will only increase with time. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) reports that for young women ages 15-19, the incidence of anorexia has increased in each decade since 1930. Given that an estimated 90% of anorexia or bulimia sufferers are female, this is cause for alarm. Furthermore, only one in ten of those with eating disorders receive any treatment whatsoever. Perhaps the most startling statistic is that according to ANAD, the mortality rate for eating disorders beats out all other mental illnesses.
I spoke with a few female students who have dealt with an eating disorder. Let’s call the first student Chelsea. Chelsea talks about adjusting to her new college life:
Freshman year, I came to school and didn’t really do much exercising, gained a little bit of weight and second semester I guess I felt like I needed a little control in my life — this is the kind of person I am — so I over-exercised and lost a lot of weight freshmen year.
Chelsea became fixated on her diet and exercise routine. She didn’t realize that her addiction was actually controlling her, not the other way around:
I was anorexic second semester freshman year. It took over my life. Exercise and my diet were ways that I thought I could control something on my own and I guess grades I couldn’t control. Luckily –I guess I’m a very strong person –I realized that my social life was zero, I was stressing out about meals, I was stressing out about everything.
Chelsea decided to make a change and is now living a healthy lifestyle. It is important to note that only Chelsea could make the decision to get herself out of trouble after she herself noticed a problem.
Nancy had a similar experience:
Coming to college, I weighed 98 pounds. My whole entire high school career, my whole life, I’ve been 98 pounds. When I went home for winter break, I was 103. 103 is nothing, OK? But I freaked out because I had always been 98 pounds. And so the fact that I wasn’t OK with being over 100 pounds was just ridiculous. And I think that if I wouldn’t have gone through the stages I had gone through and went down to 84 pounds, I might have thought this was normal.
Nancy’s dire circumstances at 84 pounds prompted her to take action.
Now I’m 113, 115 pounds and I never would have been OK with it if I wasn’t down, like hit rock bottom.
Nancy told me of when she cracked:
I went on vacation and I couldn’t keep track of the calorie count on my food with my family, and I started crying one day at dinner because I didn’t know how many calories were in the food that I was about to eat. My mom was freaking out and was saying this is ridiculous and saying, “You’ve lost so much weight over the year”. When your mom says something like that, it affects you.
I asked Nancy how she arrived at an 84-pound body, how she had let her anorexia go on as long as it did:
I would have never noticed that I had a problem until I had a problem… I wish that people would have come up to me because now that I can talk about it, everyone’s like, “Oh, Nancy, I noticed it, oh Nancy I tried telling you”—no one tried telling me anything. It’s weird because I look back at pictures of me during that stage and I look absolutely disgusting but when I was taking those pictures, I thought that there was absolutely nothing wrong and even that I was a little bit fat, which is absolutely crazy.
Nancy received treatment:
I went to my Dad and started getting help over the summer, so I didn’t let it get to the point where I was not going to recover from it.
She says that she can recognize now when her friends are struggling with eating disorders. However, she says that when she approaches these friends, their response is often along the lines of, “You’re jealous of my healthy eating style.” Sadly, they are ‘locked in’ just like Nancy was.
I want to also include one more student – Susan – who has also struggled with anorexia. She identifies the image-conscious culture among the general student body as a contributing factor to her eating disorder:
You know, our beauty ideal has gotten progressively thinner and more muscular over the past just couple decades, and it’s unrealistic. But we understand having grown up in it that that’s the ideal, and even though you know men and people are always telling us, “Oh, that’s not realistic” or “those are models” – it’s still is a huge factor. You watch TV, you read magazines and it just forms this perception of what beautiful women should be like. When I came to college and there was suddenly all this freedom of food choices, that was when I first started thinking, “Oh, if I start eating less, I can lose weight and sort of fit more into the clothes that I do see at these parties and that I see at the school gym.”
Susan is onto something. According to NEDA, the average American woman is 5’4” tall and weighs 165 pounds and the average Miss America winner is 5’7” and weighs 121 pounds. Susan concluded her interview by saying,
Releasing myself from feelings of guilt after eating something has been a hard process.
One might expect with the frightening numbers of those affected with an eating disorder, combined with the seriousness of the disease and possible mortality of the affected, that we as a country are doing everything to battle this public health tragedy. Not so. NEDA lists on its website the amount of research dollars the National Institute of Health devotes to each major mental illness per affected individual in 2011:
- Alzheimer’s Disease averaged $88
- Schizophrenia averaged $81
- Autism averaged $44
- Eating disorders averaged just $0.93
Perhaps if we share our stories, the people who make important public health decisions will pay closer attention. Perhaps there will be less Chelseas, Nancys, and Susans.
Empower women and men to know that eating disorders can be overcome and you don’t have to starve yourself to fit in by sharing your story with us in the comments. We think it would be #JustVibing.