Eating disorders affect about 70 million people worldwide, with an estimated 24 million of them hailing from the United States alone. Each day, that number continues to grow.

Eating disorders are mental illnesses that occur within both men and women. These illnesses do not discriminate among economic class, race or culture. Although some are more susceptible than others, chances are you know at least one person who is suffering with an eating disorder.

Research has found that nearly half of all Americans personally know someone who is struggling or has struggled with an eating disorder at some point. One in every five women will struggle with some form of disordered eating in her lifetime.

The fashion industry often takes the brunt of the blame for this disease. This is because of the waif-like models used on runways and presented in ads. Many believe that more needs to be done to hinder the glorification of eating disorders.

Ester Tanton, a senior scrub nurse at BMI Chaucer Hospital, believes that the media and advertising industries are to blame. “[They] create the desire for this look: be a size 0 and you will be happy,” Tanton said. “Fashion designers should design clothes that look good on ‘normal’ people who have a body mass index of around 20 to 25.”

Eating disorders are classified into three areas: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.  These three eating disorders can overlap with one another, though all of them share the same symptom of depression. It has been determined that both genetics and environment play huge roles in whether the genes that bring out eating disorders will be expressed.

Anorexia nervosa is a disease that is characterized by a premeditated loss of a significant amount of one’s body weight. This large loss of weight is accomplished by severely dieting and purging. Anorexics also struggle with the intense fear of becoming fat. Because of this, they become overwhelmed and preoccupied with thoughts of food and weight.

Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by recurrent overeating and then the immediate purging of food.

Binges usually involve the quick consumption of 1,000 to 3,000 calories in one sitting. Bulimics then attempt to rid their bodies of these large quantities of food by means of vomiting, using laxatives, exercising or fasting. Studies have found that 25 percent of college-aged females engage in bingeing and purging as a weight-management technique.

Binge Eating Disorder, or BED, is also known as compulsive eating and is the most newly recognized among all three of the disorders. Those suffering with BED frequently engage in binges.

Unlike bulimics, people with BED do not always purge following food intake. This disorder is most common among yo-yo dieters. Research has found that between 15-50 percent of those enrolled in diet programs suffer from BED.

In addition, some people may be categorized as Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. One example of this disease includes women who meet the criteria for being anorexic, but still have a normal menstrual cycle or maintain a normal body weight.

Another example includes repetitive chewing and spitting out of food to purposely not ingest calories.

Brittany Jones – her name has been changed to maintain privacy – is a model and dancer who has been struggling with anorexia and some of the symptoms of bulimia since she was 15 years old. She agrees that being involved in the fashion industry hasn’t made her battle any easier.

“When doing a photo shoot, you always worry about the angles and what will make you look thinner,” Jones said. “Staying in shape is a must in order to get the shots you want. There is always the thought in my mind that someone may look better than me and I’ll lose that casting. I don’t want that.”

Jones said that the disorder is mentally draining and has left her with severe anxiety. “I worry about food constantly,” Jones said. “I could be having a great time and I’ll think all of a sudden, ‘have I eaten enough today?’ In the end, it exhausts me.”

Anorexia has also affected Jones’ relationships. She said a small joke can hurt her feelings, but she tries to cover it up and then suffers by thinking about it later.

“[My friends] have to have a sensitivity to sometimes just sit with me as I talk about how I’m feeling,” she said. “I don’t need them to give me advice. I just need them to listen.”

Anorexia has affected Jones’ health too. She acquired a thyroid disorder at the age of 17 because the lack of nutrients from her eating disorder interrupted the chemicals in her body.

“I will take medication every day to keep my thyroid levels in a healthy range and treat symptoms of the disease,” Jones said.

She also said that her eating disorder has caused heart palpitations and her hair to become thinner. In addition, she said she had damage to her back teeth, a couple of which she had to get pulled.

Jones, who has been treated for anorexia, says she still struggles with the disease to this day. While she said she now consumes between 800 and 1,300 calories per day, she said she usually only eats half of what people would consider a “normal” meal.

Eric Schaefer, a pharmacist at Millcreek Community Hospital, has worked with patients struggling with eating disorders. Due to his profession, Schaefer has seen the effects of eating disorders firsthand.

“Most people don’t understand that this is a psychiatric disorder,” Schaefer said. “Patients suffering from these illnesses have a distorted view of themselves. Even once treated, the majority of patients relapse because it is easy to fall back into the same routines if social support is broken.” Schaefer said the most common health problems among bulimics relates to their teeth and throats.

“The acid contacts enamel and then erodes teeth. The esophagus can also be damaged due to stomach acid eating away at the lining. The erosion of the esophagus can even lead to cancer in extreme cases,” he said.

Anorexia is associated with a mortality rate 12 times higher than the death rate of all causes of death for females 15-24 years old. Anorexia is also the third most common chronic illness among adolescents.

Schaefer said that the most common health problems among anorexics relates to bones, their reproductive systems and organs. “Malnutrition leads to hair loss, weakening and deterioration of bones and hormone changes,” Schaefer said. “In severe cases, these drastic hormone changes lead women with anorexia to stop menstruating and eventually, they can become infertile.”

It is debatable whether eating disorders are curable or not. Some believe that anorexia is a fluctuating condition that does not simply go away once weight is put on. After all, it is a psychological illness. However, Schaefer said that treating eating disorders includes not only medication, but therapy and a lot of support from others.

Schaefer agrees that the media plays a huge role in the development of disordered eating. Humans are very impressionable and it is only natural to want to fit in and be accepted.

The average fashion model was only 8 percent thinner than the average woman 25 years ago. That figure has increased to 23 percent today.

“The social aspect comes into play,” Schaefer said. “Women see super thin models and in turn think that is how they need to look to be accepted.”

Schaefer believes that changes need to be made to hinder the growth of these mental illnesses. “Our society is very appearance and sexually driven,” he said. “Even though the images depicted by the media are not what every man wants, women feel that they must look that way to get a male’s attention.”

Schaefer believes that changes need to be made to focus less on looks and instead, more on personality and smarts. “[The media] practically forces women to worry and think ‘am I pretty enough?’ when they really should be focusing on the notion of intelligence,” Schaefer said. “Think of Paris Hilton. She’s a perfect example.”

Women are not the only people susceptible to eating disorders. An estimated 10 to 15 percent of people struggling with anorexia or bulimia are males.

“There is so much pressure put on males involved with sports, that it’s not uncommon to see them sacrifice their bodies in order to win,” Schaefer said.

Many agree that the fashion industry is to blame for the development and growth of eating disorders. With waif-like thin models strutting the catwalks, airbrushed images filling up the pages of magazines and constant dieting commercials being aired on television screens, it’s hard for women not to compare themselves to these unattainable standards.

Among these magazines that glorify thin models is the popular men’s publication Playboy. A recent study found that, according to Canadian weight guidelines, 99 percent of Playboy centerfolds were underweight.

That is not the only women-centered organization that promotes underweight representatives. That same study found that 100 percent of Miss America pageant winners were also underweight. This study found that 29 percent of centerfolds and 17 percent of pageant winners had a BMI of less than 17.5, which is one of the criteria for being diagnosed with anorexia.

Dr. Cynthia Kapphahn of Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital agrees that the media play a large role in influencing how young people should look. “Kids are incredibly affected by images and models are still held up as the ‘perfect’ standard,” Dr. Kapphahn said.

There are secret websites that  encourage eating disorders. These sites are referred to as pro-ana, short for pro-anorexia, and pro-mia, short for pro-bulimia, pages. These websites encourage extreme thinness and advocate eating disorders as lifestyle choices instead of the psychological illnesses that they truly are.

One popular feature among these pro-ana and pro-mia pages are thinspiration photo galleries. Thinspiration, or thinspo, are collections of pictures of either extremely thin people or the exact opposite, extremely obese individuals, which in turn provide viewers with motivation to lose weight.

Steps are being taken to stop these types of sites. In 2008, France’s lower house of parliament passed a bill which made it illegal to promote intense dieting or extreme thinness. Punishment for these crimes includes fines up to  $72 ,000 and possibly jail time.

The body type that is portrayed in advertising as the ideal is actually only naturally possessed by 5 percent of American women. Schaefer said the modeling industry is under scrutiny because of the size of the models they choose to use for campaigns. He said that if models gain weight they often in danger of either losing their job or being replaced.

“[The fashion industry], which is aware of this drastic difference, continues to use unnaturally thin models even though they understand that it sends out an unattainable message,” Schaefer said.

Schaefer is not the only person who believes that changes need to be made by the fashion and advertising industries. Graham Houghton is a nurse consultant for the Correctional Health Service. Houghton explained that these days, young people are even more fashion-conscious than ever before and that they will then yearn to emulate the models that they see presented in the media.

“Society needs to take a long, hard look at what it values,” Houghton said. “Clothing manufacturers, model agents and the media should take responsibility for the problems created by their promotion of skinny models.” Houghton would like to see ‘normal’ sizes represented instead of the almost unattainable size 0 that the fashion industry praises.

Change is taking place in the fashion world. Recently, officials of Madrid’s Fashion Week banned models with a Body Mass Index lower than 18. Concha Guerra, vice council woman for the Economy in Madrid’s regional government, commented on this change. “Our intention is to promote good body image by using models whose bodies match reality and reflect healthy eating habits,” Guerra said.

Madrid’s change has had a snowball effect on other fashion events. Organizers of similar fashion events in Argentina and Brazil have followed. Shortly after those changes, Netherland’s adverting campaigns agreed to only use models who had BMIs between 18 and 25.

The national government in Spain quickly followed suit by preventing stores from using mannequins smaller than what is equivalent to the United States’ size 6. Many critics of the fashion world applaud these changes and hope they will decrease the popular belief that you have to be a size 0 to be beautiful.

COURTNEY MCGRAW

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