Educate yourself on eating disorders: Thigh Gaps and Everything in Between

By Tahlia Terhune, Guest Writer

Eating disorders are the most lethal psychiatric illness.

According to ANAD (National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders), up to 24 million people  suffer from an eating disorder. This can include anorexia, bulimia and binge eating.

This isn’t a new topic. Eating disorders have been discussed decade after decade, yet we still don’t understand them.

“I almost feel like eating disorders is a tired-out topic for some people; it isn’t new and cutting edge,” senior Ruthie Kovanen said. “I feel like there is a danger in dismissing that and thinking it’s not a problem.”

I believe it’s important to draw attention to the ridiculous online culture we have created via media surrounding the encouragement of treating our bodies poorly.

Instagram, Tumblr, Reddit, Pinterest and other social media platforms have become ammunition for a constant war a large portion of society is battling.

“Why can’t we just be satisfied with the way our bodies look and be honest with ourselves about what’s really going on?” said Dr. Neeru Bakshi, Medical Director of the Eating Recovery Center of Washington.

The Dove body campaign was a fresh alternative to the usual objectification of women we often see in media. I was relieved to finally see a company attempt to alter what we accept as the “norm” for beautiful.

Beautiful should be you, not a comparison of yourself to an idealistic-photoshopped image.

I was discouraged to learn that internal contradictions prove that loving your body is far from the core message. A beautiful movement was soon discredited once I realized Dove’s parent company, Unilever, also owns Axe.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Axe Body commercials, imagine barely-there clothing draped upon conventionally beautiful women lusting after men.

This double standard creates a lack of credibility in any uplifting movement they attempt to pursue.

We see what we want out of media. If you want to see recovery stories being used to raise awareness, you’ll find it. If you want to see “real body” campaigns encouraging all shapes and sizes, you’ll find that too.

Alternatively, if you want to find unrealistic bodies to compare yourself to, the Internet is plastered with them.

Blogs such as Tumblr, Pinterest and Reddit have subsections titled “Pro-Ana” (pro anorexia) or “Thinspiration,” which naturally encourage eating disorders. Eating disorders tend to be secretive, so having online eating disorder communities can be empowering and create a sense of community.

For example, if someone was aiming to lose a certain amount of weight, and they felt the urge to eat, they could turn to that online community for support to continue their unhealthy abstinence from food.

While it is comforting to feel support, there is a danger in a community that would encourage any form of malnourishment. Another danger to this vicious thinking is the recent push to be fit or get healthy.

Of course health and fitness are something we should strive for, but we may just need to redefine what “fit” is and what “healthy” looks like. Bakshi believes healthy is a balance with food, exercise and life. This idea of balance is so important.

If you are only focusing on the food and exercise, the stress of reaching perfection might compromise your quality of life. That is no way to live. Anytime we are cutting out food, we are treating our body poorly by malnourishing it to some extent.

It seems a pattern of eating disorders is often to set a goal for what will allow the individual to feel OK. A goal might look like the common buzzword “thigh gap.” This fairly recent trend calls for blank space between thighs. Some may have this naturally, and for those in the media it may be airbrushed. This means that the goal may be entirely unobtainable.

As college students, it’s not uncommon to feel the pressure to have a slender body. According to ANAD, 95 percent of those with eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25.

For those of us in that age demographic, we are most likely familiar with the dreaded “freshman 15.” In recent studies, it has been exposed as a myth that negatively contributes to the influence of eating disorders.

“For someone already at risk, it provides mental ammunition to perpetuate behaviors,” Bakshi said.

It’s important to reach out for help because the side effects of eating disorders can be severe. According to ANAD, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any other mental health disorder and have a suicide rate 50 percent higher than the general population. Physical side effects include osteoporosis, heart damage, hair loss and fertility issues.

Many of us, including myself, can be naive to the truths of eating disorders. Bakshi provided some of the most common myths about eating disorders: you don’t have to be skinny to have an eating disorder, it’s not just about the food and it’s not just for women.

“Men, like women, feel similar pressures to have a certain body type. I’ve experienced many male friends consume extreme amounts of protein just to bulk up because they feel like a muscular body type is what they need to view their body positively”, first-year Matt Salzano said.

If you suspect a friend or family member may have an eating disorder, don’t stand by. Indicators may include the individual becoming more withdrawn or isolated. Changes in appearance or performance in school or work may be potential signs as well.

To begin, just acknowledge you’ve noticed some changes and you are genuinely concerned for them. It all begins with creating a dialogue. It is imperative that you are selective of the words you choose.

Avoid saying things such as “If you just ate you’d be okay” or “If you went on a diet then you’d feel fine.”  Being empathetic and willing to help are the best things you can do. Take that extra step to accompany them to the doctor’s  office or visit websites with them.

“Even if there is a hint of a question that you might have an eating disorder, reach out and get some help,” Bakshi said. “There is no harm in reaching out and asking or getting an assessment with a professional.”

Seeking help is nothing to be ashamed of and can only help. Even taking a moment to visit websites such as http://www.eatingrecoverycenter.com to get information can be beneficial.

“You are very strong and you are not alone,” Kovanen said. “There are people to help you in this and it’s not your fault; recovery is possible.”

According to ANAD, only one in 10 people with eating disorders receive treatment.

Here at Pacific Lutheran University, many resources are available for those looking to reach out. LuteFit acknowledges the relevancy of eating disorders and it’s impact upon the college-aged population. They encourage students to seek support from the Health and Counseling centers.

As a community, we must understand that eating disorders aren’t just about food and they are not about a choice. Not eating isn’t the problem, it’s a symptom.

Eating disorders are a complex issue, emotionally and physically. We need to responsibly use social media to portray ourselves and our bodies. We need to hold advertisers to a higher standard or at the least, acknowledge the truth behind brand messages.

“Accept your body for what it is and what it can do for you and the strength and power that it has,” Bakshi said.

The college age is a difficult time, earning new responsibilities and being thrown into a new culture in which we have more control over our lives. We need to respect ourselves and our bodies so others will too.

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