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I Had No Idea

I had no idea.

That’s the theme of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, which starts today. It also describes my reaction when I looked over the information and started to glimpse just how negatively eating disorders affect the lives of those impacted.

Some statistics that particularly struck me are:

  • Eating disorders have a higher death rate than any other mental illness

  • 20% of those with anorexia will die from resulting complications

  • Young people (ages 12-25) make up 95% of those who have eating disorders

  • Teenagers are so concerned about their weight that over half of girls and one-third of boys try to control it by using such measures as fasting, smoking, skipping meals, vomiting, and taking laxatives

  • Almost 20 million women and 10 million men will suffer an eating disorder at some point in their lives

When I take a minute to really think about this, I’m overcome with both sorrow and anger.

Sorrow for those who are suffering so much that they feel the need to risk their lives simply to meet an almost impossible goal. (Only 5% of American women have the body image portrayed as ideal.) Sorrow, too, for their families and friends, who lose a loved one.

Those who don’t die may still be lost in a different way, becoming so focused on their weight that it takes over their lives. Mary Pipher described this problem in her book Hunger Pains in discussion of anorexic patients: “They didn’t expect to have fun or to find human interaction rewarding. Their lives had become relentless, grim encounters with scales and calorie charts.” (p.65)

But my anger is even stronger. Our society spends so much time and effort convincing us to be ashamed of our bodies, telling us that we are overweight because of a moral failing, a lack of willpower, sheer laziness on our part.

Yet no one bothers to teach us that 95% of those who lose weight by dieting gain it back, or that dieting can lead to eating disorders, or that those eating disorders could result in death.

The reality is that eating disorders are not lifestyle choices. They are serious and chronic illnesses that can be treated effectively, but the best treatment is to prevent them from happening to begin with. With increased education about the damage of these illnesses, and increased emphasis on positive body images starting with young children, perhaps we can stop eating disorders before they even begin.

But the first step is awareness. For those of you who, like me, had no idea, please take some time to learn about the reality behind these illnesses and share with family and friends. For those who already knew, I hope that you, too, will take a few minutes to spread the word. As NEDA suggested, just do one thing. Every step helps.

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