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When thin is too thin



A Body is a Beautiful Thing to Waste

We can't continue to let these magazines define what we think we should look like!
The magazines at the supermarket shout it. The movie theaters flaunt it. Radio and TV push and push it. The message is coming from all directions and it's always the same: You must be thin. Thin is beautiful. Thin can gain you popularity! Thin can get bring you success! Thin can make you happy!

What they don't mention is that Thin can also get you really, really sick.

Our culture constantly plasters images of models and actresses who have the "perfect body." This is the body that is posted on your mirror to remind you not to eat that extra doughnut today. To remind you why you're dieting before hitting the beach for the summer. What that "perfect body" doesn't tell you is that she weighs 23 percent less than the average woman (20 years ago, she only weighed 8 percent less than average.) That "perfect body" fails to mention that this is simply not a healthy, attainable weight for most women.

Kartini Clinic is devoted to helping youth aged 6-16 get through their eating disorders
But that "perfection" continues to be what girls and boys strive for. Eighty percent of 4th graders say they're on a diet, even though there's no way their pre-pubescent bodies could ever look like Jennifer Anniston's. This desire to diet can get really dangerous when those same kids don't feel good about themselves to begin with. When things aren't going well at home. When they feel like they have no control over anything in their lives.

It got dangerous for Monica Dancey (not her real name) when she was still in high school. Monica came from an Italian family where food -- and lots of it -- was everywhere. Yet there were always mixed messages. Her grandmother would cook wonderful meals, but then ask her, "Can't you ever stop eating?" When Monica began to work at a bakery after school, things got bad. She wouldn't eat all day, then she'd stuff herself on the cookies and brownies and treats that looked so good to her starving stomach. When she got home and her mom offered her dinner, Monica would lie and say she'd already eaten.

Her over-eating of sweets made her feel disgusting, and she hated the way she looked. When Monica stared at herself in the mirror, all she saw was "blubber," and she wanted to be thin.

She didn't consider eating balanced meals, exercising a few times a week, and cutting back on fatty foods. She also didn't consider that she was attractive and loved just the way she was. (How could she? Our society says you must be a size 6 no matter what your body type.) What Monica considered instead was buying a box of laxatives to force herself to have diarrhea, in order to get those offensive foods out of her body.

Give me a break!

Then she stopped eating altogether. Instead of feeding her body, Monica began to smoke and drink coffee. A lot of coffee. Her grades slipped, she pulled away from her family and isolated herself from her friends. She began to wear big, baggy clothes because she wanted to hide the body she hated so much. Monica didn't talk to anyone about anything she was going through, but kept her emotions bottled up inside instead. She continued to eat nothing but sweet foods at the bakery, and then take laxatives to get the food out of her system.

The climax came on Easter Sunday when Monica took an entire box of laxatives and downed a bottle of Tylenol. "Help me!" she seemed to be screaming to anyone who would notice. And they finally did. When she couldn't get out of bed the next morning, she was taken to the hospital. There, the doctor said the words that no one had acknowledged before (not Monica, not her mother, not her friends): eating disorder." In addition to severe depression, Monica was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, and sent to an eating disorder clinic in Boston.

When she checked in, Monica weighed 84 pounds. She stayed for one month, locked into a very structured routine that the doctors hoped would help her get better. She was under constant observation. They watched her eat. They watched her shower. They watched her go to the bathroom. They made sure she didn't exercise more than her allotted time for the day. They weighed her each morning in her hospital gown so she couldn't wear extra clothing layers or hide heavy objects in her pockets to bump up her weight.

And they didn't want her to spend too much time with the six other girls on the floor with eating disorders. The staff was worried that the girls would encourage each other - that they would trade secrets about how to trick the doctors (hold your bladder until after you've been weighed) and exercise together in hiding (extra sit-ups at night when the lights are out). Which they did, when they stole the time. When they did have a few moments to talk, the discussion always centered around food: "What did you eat this morning?" And around weight. The girls observed each other carefully, and Monica thought she must have looked "like a cow" to them, since she weighed a few more pounds than the others.

Monica wanted to get out. She hated being somewhere where she thought only crazy people belonged. "I am not a mental case!" she remembers thinking. "I am fine!" she told herself and others. Her body told a different story though, and so she did what the doctors told her to in order to go home.

She gained enough weight to be released (a whopping 90 pounds) and returned to her hometown to finish her last month of high school. This was really hard for Monica. She had already missed a month of school, and although rumors surrounded her, her friends did not. The only person to stick by her side through her ups and downs was her boyfriend from senior year. When I asked her what he did to support her, she tells me it was just that "he was there for me."

With the help of her boyfriend (now her husband), years of therapy and the support of her now tightly-knit family, Monica began to get better. She began to eat and to accept who she was, regardless of her clothing size. At some point in her hospital stay she decided she wanted to be a nurse. She has now been nursing for six years, and is about to finish her master's degree at Idaho State University. In her work, Monica sees so many serious life-and-death situations that she can't believe she ever was consumed with something so truly trivial: her weight.

Even though she's better, Monica can't completely erase her dark past: her body won't let her forget. Due to her anorexia, Monica developed chronic ulcers and is still unable to digest fatty foods. Now that she's accepted that her body needs some fats, she eats her favorite, banana cream pie - but her stomach wants to revolt, sending her to the bathroom with painful cramping and diarrhea after one small piece. She even had 15 cavities this year - a consequence of eating enormous amounts of sugar candy when she was trying to quit smoking. (Many anorexics consider sugar a "safe food" because it's fat-free and gives them a quick energy boost.)


Spring Has Sprung! / When we got to Portland, it was spring... we tiptoed through the tulips...

Today, when Monica looks back on the person she was 10 years ago, she doesn't recognize herself. "In my prom picture, my boyfriend's hands circle completely around my waist," she remembers, "and I had no butt!" She is simply shocked to see how scary she looked. "How could anyone have thought that was OK?" she wonders.

What we need to realize is that Monica's disorder was not OK. She didn't just have a thin wish - she had a death wish, too. Fed by a low self-esteem and unattainable expectations (from the media, from her parents, from herself), Monica chose to deal with her problems in a way that almost destroyed her. It was a lot to go through to learn a fundamental truth: what's important is who she is on the inside, not on the outside.

Awareness and intervention are the keys to helping someone through an eating disorder. If you are worried about a friend or family member who you think might have an eating disorder, please visit one of the websites listed in the Cool Links at the top.


Please email me at: rebecca@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Irene - It's a fact. Women rock!
Neda - Safety first and profits later? Don't bet on it with fast food companies
Nick - On the road to extinction?
Jennifer - Some people just have "The Healing Touch"
Stephen - What do 15 million Americans know that you don't? Find out!
Stephanie - Misunderstood or just insane? Cults in our nation