The Silent Epidemic: Anorexia and Bulimia

The mortality rate for anorexia nervosa is higher than that of any other psychiatric disorder and it is the leading cause of death in young women.

Ten to twenty percent of anorexics will eventually die from complications.
Female fashion models are on average 23% below what is considered normal weight.
Between 13-20% of female college students report engaging in the binge/purge cycle of bulimia. Signs posted in one universitys womens dormitory bathroom reads: "Please stop purging: stomach acid is destroying the plumbing."

70-80% of fourth grade girls report they are dieting, some claiming they would rather die than be fat.
An estimated seven million women and one million men suffer from eating disorders.
An eating disorder reflects a complete obsession with body image and food. This compulsion can be so severe that it becomes the focus of a persons entire existence and cripples them from functioning day to day in the real world. Anorexia nervosa is a condition when a person has a relentless avoidance of food in an attempt to stay thin, even to becoming malnourished whilst bulimia is a condition of being obsessed with food with self induced vomiting and purging once eaten.

Why is this happening? When does this start in a persons life? Why are so many people afflicted with this condition?

Can the cause of this be laid solely at the door of cultural conditioning and media exploitation? It is hard to refute that our modern society plays a role. For example, in 1951, at the Miss America Pageant, Sweden was represented by a woman 5 7" tall and weighing 151lbs. In 1983, Miss Sweden was 5 9" and weighed 109lbs. Since the 1960s when Twiggy became so popular, there has been a relentless drive to equate thinness verging on emaciation as beauty.

Looking at other possible factors, one has to consider the impact of the experiences of babies and children in their upbringing. If there is a lack of love and nurturing, a kind of emotional starvation and perhaps lack of physical nutrients, then children will feel a lack of love, leading to negative body image with distorted ideas of the body. Eating disorders can be a substitute for the lack of love or connection they feel with their family or their wider society. They may feel alienated and irrelevant and therefore compensate by becoming obsessed with their body, feeling ugly and even despised.

Whatever the cause, the epidemic of this condition indicates something profoundly wrong with our society. In a culture that has so much wealth and apparent ease, this self-inflicted behavior indicates something profound is missing. In attempting to assess the spiritual health of any particular society or culture, it is useful to look at those most vulnerable in the society. This is most often seen in children. Children are more vulnerable and dont have the emotional defense mechanisms to deal with things. They simply absorb the energy and consciousness of what is going on around them.

I dont believe that conditions like this simply happen when a child becomes old enough to be aware of her/his body image. The seeds of this have to begin earlier. In some cases I think it may occur for reasons mentioned above, where a child doesnt get the positive emotional nurturing necessary. In many other cases, I think it is because young children are exposed to issues of their body and sexual identity at far too early an age. Increasingly in western culture, girls as young as 7 and 8 are already exposed to sexual images and identity the Spice Girl culture and are forced to take on emotional baggage they simply should not be dealing with. Innocence is lost much too young, and they do not have the emotional maturity to handle this. Therefore, as they grow older they compensate by becoming anorexic or bulimic. The result now is a whole cultural conditioning around the bodys image. Children need to be protected from the unnecessary impact of sexual identity and other imbalances of being force to grow up far too quickly. The emphasis on intellectual achievement from the age of 3-4 at the expense of emotional development also has to be looked at.

It is tragic that our society does not want to recognize the level of the problem. It can be hard to get insurance coverage to cover the expensive treatments often necessary quotes of $20,000-$40,000 for a maximum four-week stay not being unusual. There is a great need to create more services to deal with this problem as well as fundamentally recognize the root causes of the problem.