National Eating Disorder Awareness Week: A Survivor’s Story and How to Help Girls in Need

The first time I remember ever thinking I was fat was when I was in 7th grade. I was concerned with my thighs. They touched. They were too big. All these thoughts crossed my mind years before the whole “thigh gap” idea became a viral sensation. Those small thoughts that crossed my mind every now and then gradually became more and more intense. By my sophomore year of high school, my body was my obsession and the desire to be thin completely consumed me. I was diagnosed with clinical depression and anorexia when I was 15 years old. These diagnoses were difficult for me to accept at first, but being diagnosed began my journey to recovery.

February is National Eating Disorders Awareness Month and the week of February 21- February 27 is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. In honor of this special week, I decided to write a blog in order to tell my personal story, offer tips for preventing young girls from developing eating disorders, and advice on how to help someone who might already be suffering from an eating disorder. I am in no way an expert on the clinical aspect of eating disorders and of course, please seek professional help if you or someone you know has an eating disorder. In this blog I will be primarily speaking from experience unless otherwise noted. My tips include things that either helped me or that I believe would have helped me. Please remember, just as every person is different, every individual’s eating disorder is different as well when it comes to their weight, experiences, practices, etc.

How big of a problem are eating disorders among women?
• At some time in their life, 20 million women in the United States suffer from an eating disorder.
• There are 3 main categories of eating disorders: Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder (National Eating Disorder Association)

 

Starting Young
• 42% of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner ((National Eating Disorder Association))
• 81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat (National Eating Disorder Association)
• Only 4% of high school girls nationally are not trying to lose weight (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013)
• Issues with body image emerge in tween girls ages 10-12 with nearly 1 in 4 (24%) saying that it threatens their personal, positive self-image (Harris Poll for Girls Empowerment Network)

 

How can we help young girls feel better about their bodies and not develop eating disorders in the first place?

1. Talk to girls about what they see in the media
• Children ages 2-11 see an average of 25,600 advertisements a year
• Of American elementary school girls who read magazines, 69% say that the pictures influence their concept of the ideal body shape. 47% say the pictures make them want to lose weight.
I personally remember looking at Seventeen Magazine in middle school and wishing that I looked like the girls in the photographs. I wanted to just be able to cut the “fat” off of my stomach and make it disappear.

2. Expose girls to a diverse range of positive body image role models
• Growing up, I did not experience the adults in my life speak positively about their bodies. In fact, I often heard my mother, sister, teachers, and other women speak very poorly of themselves. • Young girls need examples of how to treat and speak about their bodies. They need to be taught healthy exercise and nutrition without being taught to be obsessive about it. Health needs to be the main focus and not weight or appearance.

3. Expose girls to female role models that prove that there is more to a woman than her body
• Women in politics, female athletes, female scholars, etc. Encourage young girls to reach for their dreams and use their minds.

4. Provide a safe place for girls to share their feelings about their bodies

5. Educate girls on the natural and normal changes their bodies go through during adolescence 
• When I, as many other young girls, began to experience body dissatisfaction, I was going through the normal transitional period from child to adult. I was growing breasts and my hips were widening. So many young girls are not taught that weight gain is a normal part of puberty and adolescence and that it’s a good thing.

 

**The programs provided by the Girls Empowerment Network help educate girls on all of these subjects**

 

How do we recognize if a young girl is suffering from an eating disorder or developing unhealthy habits?

Warning Signs:

  • Exercising excessively to the point of exhaustion

  • Constantly making negative comments about their body

  • Isolation and withdrawal from friends and the activities they used to enjoy

  • Eliminating food groups

  • Becoming obsessed with certain foods

  • Hiding food

  • Weighing themselves obsessively

  • Counting calories

  • Frequent trips to the bathroom after meals

 

Remember that eating disorders look different for everyone.

  • When most people think of eating disorders they imagine an emaciated person. Although some people with eating disorders are very thin, many are not.

  • There are different types and different stages of eating disorders.

  • Everyone’s body is different to begin with. Therefore, those suffering from an eating disorder can be any weight, height, gender, age, race, etc. Eating disorders do not discriminate.

  • You often cannot identify someone’s health simply by looking at their body.

 

It is the mindset that is important.

  • The main thing that sets apart girls with normal body image concerns and those who actually have a clinically significant eating disorder is the mindset. Those who suffer from an eating disorder experience an obsessive mindset about food, exercise, weight, calories, etc.

  • When I was struggling with anorexia, if I missed a day of exercise I would become severely depressed and anxious. I would cry and feel out of control. Missing a work out was the worst possible thing that could happen to me and I felt like such a failure.

  • Although I had virtually no body fat, I spent hours standing in front of a full-length mirror pinching and pulling at any “fat” I thought was on my body. I would cry, hit, and punch my body. I would turn and look at my body from all angles. My perception of my body was extremely distorted and there was nothing anyone could say to me to change my mind.

  • Recovery from an eating disorder and is a long, complicated process. It can take years to regain a healthy mindset and even then, those unhealthy thoughts can easily creep back in at any time. It has been eight years since I was first diagnosed with anorexia and I consider myself to be fully recovered now. However, every now and then I find myself briefly obsessing over my body and can feel my eating disorder attempting to take ahold of me once again. Most eating disorder survivors feel as if it is a part of them for their entire life, even after recovery.

 

How can we help young girls who may already be suffering from an eating disorder?

 

Speak up!
One main reasons why eating disorders are able to flourish is because no one talks about them. If you think that someone you know might be struggling with an eating disorder, say something! Eating disorders can be deadly and early intervention is key to recovery. When I was participating in unhealthy practices and losing a significant amount of weight when I was fifteen-years-old, no one voiced any concern to me. If anything, I actually received positive encouragement on my weight loss. It wasn’t until I saw a gynecologist because my body weight was so low that my menstrual cycle was ceasing to exist, that the alarm was sounded. Dieting, exercise, and thinness are so valued in our society that it is difficult for people to view these things as problematic.

 

Helpful Resources:
National Eating Disorder Association Help Guide – http://nedawareness.org/content/how-help-guide
National Eating Disorder Hotline: 1-800-931-2237

 

Works Consulted:
http://nedawareness.org/
https://www.eatingrecoverycenter.com/blog/2016/02/19/at-risk-for-an-eating-disorder-know-the-warning-signs/
http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/get-facts-eating-disorders
http://www.adweek.com/news/advertising-branding/look-kids-exposure-ads-156191

 

About Hannah:

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Hannah Steffan is a 23-year-old student studying psychology at St. Edward’s University. She has been involved with Girls Empowerment Network for 8 years. She first became involved with GEN when she served two years as a high school facilitator leading the afterschool mentoring program for middle school girls, clubGEN. Hannah went on to serve many hours for GEN as a volunteer at various events and is currently a member of the Girls Empowerment Network Youth Advisory Board. Her years of experience with GEN in addition to her personal experiences have contributed to her passion for female empowerment and awareness about eating disorders, mental disorders, and body image issues among young girls.

Vanessa Wright