“If you only lost a little weight …”
For me, the sentence usually ends with: “you’d be so much prettier,” or “maybe you’d have a boyfriend.” I hear them all the time.
According to current Student Health statistics, one out of four women at UCSB has a diagnosable eating disorder. Approximately 8 percent of men do, too – a seemingly unimpressive statistic, except that it is eight times the national average. An additional 37 percent of the 536 students polled could be classified as chronic dieters and compulsive exercisers.
Eating disorders have a variety of sources: a $40 billion diet industry, UCSB culture, the media. Student Health Educator Louise Ousley said media and culture play off each other to create unrealistic body-image ideals.
“Our culture hates, we loathe, body fat, in spite of the fact that people in our culture are getting heavier and heavier over the years. We still, as a culture, feel that putting on body fat is a sign of moral weakness, inferiority, and that somehow you wear your failure.”
Bad habits start young. Senior psychology major Angela Cook began her first unhealthy diet at 13, and after a bout with anorexia, works with Student Health in educating students.
“Santa Barbara is very health-orientated,” Cook said. “There are a lot of attractive people here, and some people feel like they have to compete. Also, a lot of freshmen are afraid of the freshman 15.”
Student Health Educator Michael Takahara said 50 percent of 9-year-old girls have been on a diet, and the number jumps to 80 percent by age 10. Approximately 90 percent of high school seniors are on a diet at any given time. What is more surprising, says Takahara, is that only 10 to 15 percent of those dieting could be considered overweight.
Cook said most eating disorders result from a feeling of losing control or after a traumatic event.
“For example, moving away from home for the first time to go to college, or breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. For me, it was the onset of puberty. My body was changing noticeably, filling out in different places, and since I was one of the first out of my group of friends to hit puberty, I mistook what was happening to mean I was getting fat.”
Although most people would consider 95 pounds anything but fat, Cook found a diet that promised results of losing 7 pounds in three days. Thirteen-year-old Angela went on the diet, despite the odd food combinations it required, and lost 5 pounds. When you only weigh 95 pounds to begin with, 5 pounds is very noticeable.
“I started getting a lot of attention. People who never used to talk to me before would compliment me on my weight loss.”
Food became her enemy. She began lying to her parents and trying to hide her problem from them.
“My whole world revolved around food: when my next meal was, how I was going to lie and how to compensate for the calories,” Cook said. “Honestly, I was petrified of gaining weight,” she said.” I would have rather starved to death than gain the weight back. It’s hard to explain to someone who has never had an eating disorder. People get really frustrated. They say things like, ‘Why don’t you just eat?’ The reason that they don’t want to eat is because they’re scared.”
Cook had lost 20 pounds, but when she looked in the mirror, she didn’t notice the difference.
“I still thought I weighed 90 pounds,” she said, “but other people were telling me that I looked sick. I had gotten down to 70 pounds, but I still thought I looked fat. When I looked in the mirror, I saw a distorted image. Lots of girls have this, even those without a disorder.”
Cook said while she might have been skinny, she looked “like shit. You could see my bones protruding. My hair was brittle, falling out, and my nails were disgusting. I was a 14-year-old who looked 8.”
Throughout what she called “the worst experience of my life,” Cook did not realize that she was anorexic. “People think that just because they don’t throw up everyday, they’re not bulimic. I thought that anorexics didn’t eat at all, so I thought, ‘that’s not me, I don’t do that. I eat. ‘ ”
Eating disorders are grouped into four major categories in the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition (DSM IV): anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder and eating disorders not otherwise specified (EDNOS). The 1997 survey used the criteria listed in the DSM IV to define exactly what constitutes an eating disorder. EDNOS is the most prevalent of the eating disorders, because the definitions for the first three categories are very specific.
For example, to receive a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa, you must skip at least three consecutive menstrual cycles, Takahara said.
“If you skip two menstrual cycles [in a row] and then it comes back for one month, and then skips again, you won’t be diagnosed [with anorexia], but obviously there’s still a problem there,” Takahara said.
One factor that is frequently overlooked in the development of an eating disorder is friends. For Cook, compliments from well-meaning friends and peers about her weight loss just put more pressure on her, driving her to lose more weight. She now warns people to be careful when they compliment someone on their weight loss.
“The problem is that no one knows how they lose that weight,” Cook said. “They could be starving themselves to death, and compliments just add fuel to the fire.”
Whether it’s the diet industry, media, society, friends or all of the above, the fact is diet products are everywhere. Just walk into the local Kmart, and you will find everything from diet pills to protein powders, all promising to give you “energy” and “power.” Most diet pills are made from ma-huang – the same herb efedra, or effedrin, comes from – and many include caffeine as well, creating a double dose of stimulants.
Ousley warned that the use of words like “natural” and “herbal” can lead to misconceptions about what people are actually putting into their bodies.
“Because they are herbal supplements, most people don’t realize they’re taking cheap, lousy speed,” Ousley said. “All of those products are found to cause strokes, high blood pressure, eurythmias, in young people. They do nothing. There is no pill or supplement that can cause the body to burn fat faster.”
In the end, what causes the disorders doesn’t matter. The fact is, with such a high percentage of UCSB students affected, there’s a good chance that either you or someone you know will develop an eating disorder at some point in your career here. How you deal with it is really all that counts. Cook has come a long way since junior high, and she is now one of the coordinators for the Nutrition and Eating Disorder Peers group at Student Health, helping others learn about and deal with what she survived. Of course, not everyone is going to be able to do what Cook did. The point is, people can recover and go on to lead a healthy and happy life. If you are concerned about yourself or a friend, or have any questions, call Student Health at 893-3371.