The Destructive Self-image
Maggie Baumann was a young mother in her 30s when she was rushed to the emergency room, where doctors delivered her devastating news. After years of hazardously excessive exercise, Maggie’s organs had begun to deteriorate, and her heart was gravely close to cardiac arrest. Five days after she was admitted to the hospital, Maggie visited an eating disorder support group she credits for saving her life.
Like most women with eating disorders, Maggie is a perfectionist. Yet it wasn’t simply Maggie’s dissatisfaction with her appearance that led to her condition. Instead, Maggie believes that her disorder developed in order to cope with an abortion she had in the past. Her symptoms, most notably compulsive over-exercising, first manifested while Maggie was pregnant with her eldest daughter. According to Maggie, her rigorous exercise routines were an attempt to escape the guilt she experienced because of her abortion.
Yet, Maggie’s story isn’t unique. Many of those who develop eating disorders abuse food in order to escape personal problems they are unequipped to cope with alone. Eating disorders most commonly affect young men and women during early adulthood, but are capable of surfacing at any age. The three most severe forms of eating disorders include binge eating, anorexia nervosa and bulimia.
Most widespread of the three disorders is binge eating. According to the National Institute of Diabetes & Digestive & Kidney Diseases, binge eating affects nearly four million Americans, and is most often found in men and women who are severely obese. The disorder is characterized by excessive over-eating in one sitting on a regular basis. Many victims experience depression and maintain low self-esteem. The fluctuations in weight gain and loss due to binge eating can permanently damage a person’s health by increasing his or her risk for type two diabetes and heart disease.
Perhaps the most familiar condition is anorexia nervosa. According to the Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders’ web site, the condition is distinguished by an individual’s rejection of food in order to lose weight. At least 86 percent of those who suffer from anorexia are affected by the condition before the age of 20.
Literature available at UCI’s Health Education Center diagnoses the condition when an individual experiences weight loss below 15 percent of his or her normal body weight.
In women, the menstrual cycle often fails to function as a result. Individuals become listless, weak and highly sensitive to cold temperatures. While victims of anorexia deny the body its essential nutrients, they often think about eating and tend to exercise regularly.
Long-term health risks include brain damage, heart and kidney failure, brittle bones, loss of hair and nails, and eventually, if the condition is left untreated, cardiac arrest or starvation. In some cases, victims have been known to commit suicide in order to escape their debilitating condition.
Bulimia, the most elusive of the three chief types of eating disorders, is estimated to occur in at least 1.1 to 4.2 percent of females sometime during their lives, but can affect men as well, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Bulimia tends to remain the most difficult eating disorder to diagnose because its victims usually maintain normal body weight. The condition is known to cause frequent episodes of binging and purging. That is, large volumes of food are consumed at once, and then immediately vomited out of the system.
Over time, the acidic contents in vomit may cause bleeding and destruction of tissues in the throat. Like anorexia, bulimia may lead to brittle bones and cardiac arrest, but it is also capable of causing fatal ruptures in the stomach.
Many believe that social expectations and standards of beauty are to blame for the high percentage of young adults who develop eating disorders, especially in young women determined to be beautiful.
Devina Sindhu, a second-year English and political science major, agrees.
‘As women, we have that social pressure all the time. Just looking through magazines, it’s always skinny girls with really great bodies. Looking at something like that makes an average girl who isn’t that skinny want to look that way, and some girls just aren’t built that way,’ Sindhu said.
At the same time, Sindhu points out that popular media is also capable of pressuring men and women to exercise.
‘If I look at too many magazines, I’ll feel sad, but they can motivate you to lose weight,’ Sindhu said.
The difficulty of losing the weight, however, is what leads to unhealthy eating habits.
Commonly, students like Sindhu are unable to stick to healthy diets because their course loads are time constraining and demanding.
‘I’ve tried diets, but I always cheat. I don’t have time to work out; I have too many [academic] units,’ Sindhu said.
On the other hand, Chris Guidotti, a third-year student majoring in anthropology and ICS, feels no social pressure to change his appearance through dieting or exercise.
Unlike Sindhu, Guidotti says he’s never felt inadequate about his appearance, and that his slenderness has always been more of a joke among friends.
‘It would be nice to look like [the fashion models], but I’m fine with how I am,’ Guidotti said.
Still, finding the time to eat nutritiously is a problem that Guidotti considers inevitable.
‘It comes down to: you do your schoolwork, and then you want to do leisure activities that get in the way. I can spend time cooking or I can do [something] I enjoy and just eat whatever,’ Guidotti said.
That is not to say students seeking healthier eating habits have no options. The Health Education Center next to Cornerstone Caf