Written by Amy Elsasser
Let’s consider the quote, “you can never be too rich or too thin” by Wallis Simpson. Think what you will about the rich part, but I believe, too many people in our culture today agree with the second part. What is wrong with being too thin, you ask? In America alone, it is estimated that there are 8 million people with eating disorders and 7 million of these are women. It seems we have taken, “too thin” to epidemic levels. An emphasis on the idea that thin equals healthy has fueled the notion that thinner equals healthier. And this means more people, particularly females, are buying in to the idea that “you can never be too thin”.
Although eating disorders are usually thought of as an adolescent problem or phase, in recent years eating disorders among older women (as well as younger children), have been increasing. That was the case with Judith Shaw. For Mrs. Shaw, the desire to be healthy and in shape after having two children in her early thirties, triggered her extreme dieting and exercise. The weight loss and praise from her family and friends helped her to keep going, even while her body began to show the effects of starvation. Eventually, After close to 15 years of extreme exercising and restricted eating, she was able to face the fact that she was suffering from anorexia and began her road to recovery. For Mrs. Shaw, art became a tool in her healing.
In 2011, Mrs. Shaw, displayed her artwork at a show called “Body of Work” in conjunction with Columbia University’s Center for Eating Disorders. According to Mrs. Shaw: “the pieces became a valuable communication tool, at times providing a clearer understanding of my feelings and perceptions. More precise than words, the sculptures have become a way to record my progress and keep me engaged in recovery… It has been powerfully healing.”
So why are more older women starting to suffer from eating disorders? There are likely many reasons, but a large part may be due to the portrayal of a “perfect women”, women who are thin and beautiful-admired for their body as opposed to their intelligence, kindness or other personality traits. For some women, eating disorders can manifest during, or right after pregnancy as they feel the need to control their weight. Life changing moments such as the loss of a spouse or other close family member can cause feelings of losing control, which can lead to eating disorders. Even just an awareness of the fact that their body is aging and changing, (which is out of their control) can lead to problems.
So what can we do to help? It would be very difficult to change what is displayed on TV, advertisements, magazines, etc. – I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try, but it isn’t something we can count on happening any time soon. In the mean time, be a model of healthy self-esteem and body image. When hanging out with your friends, practice not judging or gossiping about other people’s weight changes, including actresses. Recognize that parents, siblings and close friends play a significant role in guiding and supporting others. In many cases, individuals with eating disorders cannot recognize a need for help in themselves, and it takes a strong, caring individual to reach out.
Being aware of our friends and loved ones is important. Noticing extreme changes in weight and eating behavior are a good start. If you notice a friend who seems to be struggling with restrictive eating or extreme exercise (can’t go a day without exercising, even when sick), it may be up to you to express your concerns in a loving and supportive way. While you may be able to get the ball rolling, so to speak, treating an eating disorder takes a group effort. Working with a physician, a therapist and a dietitian, along with the support of family and friends is key to recovery.
If you or someone you know are suffering with an eating disorder, get some help and support – sooner rather than later. Good resources include the National Eating Disorders Association, helpguide.org and the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, Inc. Check out Judith’s work to learn more about her struggle and recovery.