By F. Keith Davis
Logan Mingo Area Mental Health
Perhaps you’ve watched paper-thin models on television strutting up and down the fashion runway, or viewed glamorous lean, long-legged females competing in beauty pageants. Even the new crop of Hollywood actresses are mostly tall, long-limbed and extremely slender. The contemporary fashion world stresses—and societal beauty predisposes—that the thinner you are, the better you are. America and most Western cultures now associate slimness with being healthy and attractive. Ronald Comer, director of Clinical Psychology Studies at Princeton University, believes that in this country, thinness is not just a preference—it has become a full-blown national obsession.
Dr. James Dobson, nationally known psychologist, family advocate, and New York Times bestselling author, concurs and called this fixation on the slender body image part of what he calls the modern-day “beauty cult.” He added, “Very early in life, a child begins to learn the social importance of physical beauty. The values of life cannot be kept from little ears … [and] it is an oblivious child who fails to notice that the ugly do not become Miss America, nor do they become cheerleaders.” Dobson further states that, in his opinion, there is a terrible injustice in the value system of modern culture, where societal pressures and the Western standards of female beauty have shifted over time. Over the last thirty years, along with this fascination toward a leaner body frame, there has been an upsurge in two serious eating disorders that are often related to body shape and the fear of gaining weight: Bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa.
Bulimia nervosa, which is sometimes called the binge-purge syndrome, is a serious disorder most common among females, which is characterized by frequent eating binges—where a person will consume large quantities of food—trailed by forced vomiting or other dangerous behaviors (such as misusing diuretics, laxatives, fasting, or enemas) to avoid weight gain. Also, the eating behaviors are preceded by feelings of tension or anxiety. Many with bulimia also have symptoms consistent with depression.
In contrast, anorexia nervosa involves a person who is unwilling to maintain a normal weight; this individual is often emaciated and continues to go to great measures to prevent weight increases. The individual, who fears weight gain, takes in too little nourishment, resulting in an extremely low body weight, below that of other individuals of similar age and gender. The person typically has a distorted body image, as well (Info from APA, 2013). Dr. Comer adds that individuals with anorexia often have certain associated psychological problems, like depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and sleeping disorders. Some even suffer from substance abuse or obsessive-compulsive patterns of behavior. Researchers have found that in 85 to 95-percent of reported cases, bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa occurs most often in females; and, besides cultural pressures to be thin, there may be biological issues, cognitive factors, ego deficiencies, or family complexities present that are partly accountable for eating disorders, as well.
Another eating condition is binge-eating disorder (B.E.D.), where sufferers go on unusual eating benders, though they do not purge after the binge. Such individuals do not fear gaining weight to the point that those with bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa do (but they often have some of the other symptoms associated with these disorders).
The good news is that eating disorders are treatable medical illnesses. To decrease or eradicate binge-and-purge behaviors, patients can submit to nutritional counseling and psychotherapy, particularly applying cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) methodology. Also, sometimes patients can be prescribed beneficial medications, such as antidepressants (especially if the individual is dealing with cooccurring issues with anxiety or depression). CBT is also applied during the treatment of psychological issues that are related with binge-eating. So, if you suspect you may have an eating disorder, contact your local mental health agency for an accurate diagnosis, and for effective treatment.
Editor’s Note: Keith Davis is a psychology student at Liberty University, and a staff member at Logan Mingo Area Mental Health (LMAMH). For additional information about today’s column, contact LMAMH at Logan, (304) 792-7130; or Chattaroy, 235-2954.