Straight Talk Advice

Conflicting media images drive eating disorders

Jan 20, 2015

Unhealthy weight-loss behaviors epidemic among youth

Dear Straight Talk: My 14-year-old daughter is being treated for anorexia and bulimia. Her clothes covered it well. I am writing about the media frenzy around being thin, which goes into overdrive in January. With epidemic numbers of young people trying to lose weight in unhealthy ways, why aren't New Year’s resolutions focused on a healthy relationship with food? How can parents help? —Pennsylvania Mom

Molly 22, Oakland, Calif. Ask me a question

Society promotes an unhealthy, conflicted relationship with food! Think nonstop images of unreasonably photoshopped women interspersed with ads for grease-dripping burgers and pizzas! Parents can help by focusing on health, not their kid being thin or pretty.

Shel 17, Pleasanton, Calif. Ask me a question

It's not a popular resolution because everyone wants to be pretty. In high school, you’re either athletic, smart, or pretty. Ideally, all three. Magically. Smart without studying, athletic without practicing, pretty without trying. And the closest thing to not trying is ignoring food. My best friend has suffered from bulimia and anorexia for several years. Her triggers are an intense desire to be pretty combined with intense guilt about feeding herself. Parents can reduce guilt by focusing on “fueling” the body rather than “feeding” it and keeping only healthy “fuels” around. It helps that vegetables, fruits and meats don’t show calorie counts. For that reason, put Cheerios and nuts into unlabeled containers. The calorie count on food labels can feel like an assault. Another help is highlighting role models with healthy bodies and successful careers that match your daughter’s interests. Anyone can be thin. Nobody can be your daughter.

Warning signs of anorexia/bulimia:
• going to the bathroom right after meals
• eating really fast and then suddenly stopping
• exercising soon after eating

Annie 17, Santa Rosa, Calif. Ask me a question

One of my biggest peeves is self-diagnosing, where young people claim having OCD, ADD, eating disorders, anxiety, etc., to seem interesting. It takes away from those with actual issues, who rarely publicize them. Thus, I wouldn't say I had an “eating disorder” because I never sought help and was able to correct my own behavior, but I was on a destructive path that could have lead to a full-blown condition. As a girl (and even now), I wanted to fit a certain media-driven mold. I also absorbed my mom’s negative relationship with food. In middle school, to counter my meal-skipping, my mom made a rule that nobody was allowed to leave the house until they ate breakfast. This is something I still follow, no matter how late I'm running. I still have bad body-image days where I want to curl up in a hole, but I’m much happier. I eat right and exercise regularly — not to lose weight, but to feel good. The satisfaction of caring for my body is 100 times better than the disappointment I got from mistreating it.

Elle 19, Mifflintown, Penn. Ask me a question

I've skipped countless breakfasts and lunches because I wasn't hungry, or was rushing and would “grab a snack later.” Yet, after the fact, I’d often go, “One less meal to burn off.” I’m aware of the implications regarding meal-skipping, so I do it less now. Luckily, I’ve been comfortable with my body. Sure, I’d like to be super fit, but starving myself or vomiting my lunch has never been appealing. I’m heartsick that so many aren’t comfortable. I love OperationBeautiful.com. It’s about ending negative “fat talk” and changing the way you see yourself.

Dear Pennsylvania Mom: Thankfully, your daughter is getting help. With over half of teenage girls and a third of teenage boys using unhealthy weight-control behaviors such as meal-skipping, fasting, smoking, vomiting, and laxatives, it is indeed an epidemic. A society-wide correction is needed. In the meantime, making home a media- and junk-food-free oasis is something parents can do and kids are dying for it.

Editor’s Note: In addition to the statistic in my comment above, below are a few others from ANAD, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders website. Eating disorders are not only at epidemic proportions, they are extremely deadly. They also cause lifelong health problems.

Best is to be honest with yourself if you have, or are on the path to having, an eating disorder. There is help for you, but many parents don't recognize the symptoms. I hear over and over how clothing is able to hide even severe starvation. If you have an eating disorder and your parents aren't getting it, it may be up to you to reveal (literally) the situation to them. Friends and siblings are often in the know — and if this is you, I beg you to tell a responsible adult. Don't wait.

Ubiquitous media images are a huge driver of eating disorders — in both females and males. I can't stress enough how important it is for parents to protect children and teens from the media and make your home an oasis from it. Parents also need to enlighten children from the youngest ages as to the commercialization of the media and expose how it only cares for profits at the expense of health, happiness and wellness. "Thin" sells, junk food sells, drugs sell, so that's what dominates the screens. Free speech combined with rampant capitalism has led to a virtual "crime-spree" of psychological manipulation.

"Don't read beauty magazines, they will only make you feel ugly," was the old saying. The new saying should be, "Avoid commercial media, it can cause starvation." Take a look at the stats below. —Lauren

• Over half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives.

• 25% of college-aged women engage in bingeing and purging as a weight-management technique.

• About 10-15% of people with anorexia or bulimia are male. They are less likely than women to seek treatment.

• Anorexia is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents. It's mortality rate is 12 times higher than all other causes of death for females 15-24 years old.

• Only 5% of American females possess the "ideal" body type portrayed in advertising.

• 42% of girls in grades 1-3 want to be thinner.

• 81% of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat.

WARNING SIGNS OF EATING DISORDERS:
▪ rapid, dramatic weight loss
▪ scabs on knuckles from forced vomiting
▪ soft, fine hair on face and body
▪ obsession with food and calories
▪ perception/fear of being overweight
▪ may cook elaborately but not eat
▪ cuts food into tiny pieces
▪ won’t eat around others
▪ hides or discards food
▪ uses laxatives, diet pills, ipecac syrup, or water pills
▪ runs to bathroom after eating (to expel food)
▪ exercises frequently and strenuously
▪ complains of being cold
▪ withdraws or becomes secretive
▪ wears baggy clothing
▪ swollen cheeks and/or joints
▪ abdominal distension

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  1. By A.P., age 18, from Fullerton, CA on 01/20/2015

    I really think my roommate is anorexic.  She is obsessed with being thin and barely eats.  She also takes laxatives and spends a great deal of time in the bathroom, and I suspect she is also purging.  When she’s nude, I can see that she looks dangerously thin.  While I’m very concerned about her, I don’t know what I can do.  She’s legally an adult and not a family member, so I’m not in a position to try to force her to get help.  I’m especially concerned since I also went through this with my sister and didn’t tell our mom until she was in really bad shape.  She also took laxatives every day and since we shared the bathroom, I could also see that it was causing her problems there when she was on the toilet. As Pennsylvania Mom says, clothes can cover the extent of the problem and did so with my sister (as it also does with my roommate), but since we shared a room and I saw her nude she couldn’t hide it from me, so I knew she had a serious problem long before our mom did.  I feel g;uilty that I didn’t say something sooner so that she could get help, so I want to get help for my roommate, but don’t know how to do so. 

    A.P.

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    1. By Gina, age 16, from Carmichael, CA on 01/20/2015

      I have the same concerns about my younger sister who’s 14.  I’ve tried to tell our mom, but she doesn’t take it seriously.  My sister used to be very fat and got teased about it all the time, so now she’s obsessed about being thin.  Our mom says it’s a good thing that she’s finally losing weight and is no longer “eating like a pig.”  She thinks my sister looks “much better and healthier” now.  But she doesn’t see my sister naked like I do since we share a room and as sisters aren’t shy about our nudity in front of each other.  But my sister isn’t comfortable with our mom and doesn’t let her see her naked.  When she’s naked she’s literally “skin and bones” as I can actually see her ribs and other bones.  I told our mom that she needs to find a way to see her naked and suggested using a code phrase when she’s naked like I read about in Straight Talk.  But she says she doesn’t want to invade my sister’s privacy like that since she isn’t comfortable with being seen that way by her and says that I’m overreacting to her weight loss which she still believes is a good thing.  But if she could actually see, she would know that I am right.

      Gina

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      1. By C.M., age 16, from Santa Rosa, CA on 01/25/2015

        Our mom shamed my sister into becoming anorexic.  She was overweight but nothing really that bad.  I was normal weight and our mom kept comparing her to me which caused her to resent me.  She would make her strip and weigh her every week and yell at her if she hadn’t lost weight which I thought was very cruel.  She said that since she was her mother there was nothing wrong with making her strip for her. She got my sister so paranoid that she became anorexic.  She also started purging and taking laxatives which I could see was really screwing up her digestive system since we have to share the bathroom in the morning even when we’re going to the bathroom.  I could see how bad her body was wasting away when she was nude in our room that we share and our mom obviously could see when she made her strip to weigh her, but she didn’t see a problem.  I agree that someone who is anorexic needs help, but what do you do if your mom is causing her to be this way?

        C.M.

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        1. By Ellen, age 15, from Anaheim, CA on 01/25/2015

          My stepmom does the same thing to my stepsister and I really feel sorry for her and like with C.M., what can I do when it’s her mom who is doing it?  I’m not sure if she’s anorexic yet, but she’s clearly headed that way.  I just share a room with her every other weekend on visitations, and she looks thinner every time when I see her nude body.  We’ve become close and she’s the closest I’ll ever have to a sister, so I really feel bad for her.  She’s also started taking laxatives and we sometimes share the bathroom, and I can tell that this is also causing problems with her bowel movement functions.

          There are worse things than being overweight and anorexia is one of them, and I wish that parents such as this would realize this.

          Ellen

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    2. By LAUREN, from StraightTalkAdvice.org on 01/21/2015

      A.P.—So glad you wrote. You understandably don’t want to sit by a second time. The thing to know in your situation that it doesn’t matter is someone is a legal adult or not a family member. If they need help, they need help and it’s become this thing to “not get involved” when people are actually dying for other people’s loyal and caring involvement! There are a few things you can do. If you know her parent’s contact information, or can get it, tip them off right away.  If you don’t have this information, tell the dorm head, or a nurse or counselor in the student health department about the situation and ask how you can get a message to her parents. If none of this pans out, talk to HER about it. Tell her you see her starving herself and show her some stats on the health ramifications of it. Tell her you can’t sleep well being the one who knows this and that you MUST do something. Tell her that you know that most people in her shoes DO want someone to tell on them because they are too scared to tell on themselves (it’s true). Work on her like this until she gives you the contact information. At the same time offer to go with her to student health. You could even make a deal with her: If she corrects the problem, you don’t tell them. If she’s unable to correct it, you do tell them. Her life is important! Let me know what you end up doing.  –Good luck! Love, Lauren

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  2. By LAUREN, from StraightTalkAdvice.org on 01/21/2015

    Gina—Your mom sounds like she’s totally in denial, not only of eating disorders, but of the effect of her own fat shaming. If you think she would spring into gear if she did know the extent of the problem, all you can do is keep hammering the point and not letting up until she takes a “look”.  I would even tell her that you’re so worried, you’re going to tell the school nurse and school counselor. That should bring her around. And if it doesn’t, make SURE to tell the school nurse or school counselor! If you do get her to see the problem and she doesn’t act, you definitely need to go to these other resources for help, including your family doctor or child protective services. The other person to work on is your sister. Acknowledge in a really loving and caring way what you see and tell her that for her sake, you aren’t going to live anymore like you don’t know what’s going on. And you’re not going to keep her secret from others either. You love her too much for that. You’re not under some kind of contract to keep your mouth shut about this, so start squawking (out of love) about it till your household wakes up. Let me know what happens! Your sister is in a lot of danger and I’m glad you wrote – Love, Lauren

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  3. By Andrea, age 15, from Lodi, CA on 01/21/2015

    There’s this girl whose locker is right next to mine in gym class so we change right next to each other every day.  I don’t go out of my way to look at her when she’s changing, but sometimes I can’t help but see her when she’s just in her thong and while I’m no expert her body sure looks like what is described about those who have anorexia.  Also, I was in the girl’s bathroom with her one time just after lunch and could hear her throwing up in the stall so she may have been purging.  I don’t even know her mom so I don’t know how I could approach her and let her know that she needs help.  I thought about maybe alerting our gym teacher so that she could happen to walk by when were changing and see and then she maybe could have her go to the school nurse who could check her, but I don’t know if its my business since as I say, I don’t really even know her.  I share a room with my sister so I see her nude and in her thong and if she was like like this I would definitely tell our mom.  The same if it was a friend and I saw that she was like this.  However, I’m not really sure what if anything I should do in this case.  She seems like a loner with few if any friends so she may not have any friends who see her undressed and could tell her mom. 

    Andrea

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    1. By M.L., age 17, from Sacramento, CA on 01/21/2015

      Andrea, I think you answered your own question and came up with the perfect solution.  Tell your gym teacher as it will be her responsiblity to check things out and refer her to the school nurse.  She will be doing what she’s supposed to do, so there will be no reason for this girl to suspect that you were behind it, if that is what you’re worried about.  However, I wouldn’t be surprised if she wants someone to notice and tell.  I was being physically abused and was afraid to tell anyone, and my bruises were in places you could only see when I was naked or just in a thong.  Even though I was shy about my body, I started taking communal showers so that everybody could see my nude body and hopefully someone would notice and tell somebody.  I also started to be very casual about undressing in front of everybody and being naked at sleepovers and slumber parties.  However, nobody ever said or did anything even though I can’t believe that no one ever noticed.

      M.L.

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      1. By LAUREN, from StraightTalkAdvice.org on 01/25/2015

        M.L. and Andrea—So sorry M.L. for what you went through and that nobody “got a clue” and told on you… though, unfortunately, it’s not too unusual. Andrea, M.L. is correct about talking to the gym teacher. You indeed have the right instinct! Please follow it and let us know how it goes.—Love, Lauren

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  4. By Phyllis, age 41, from Westminster, CA on 01/22/2015

    My daughter was in a similar situation and I did not have a clue, but in retrospect all the signs were there.  She was overweight, but not extremely so.  When she started dieting and losing weight, I saw it as a positive thing and complimented her.  I had no idea that she was anorexic and becomming far too thin as she wore clothes that covered up the problem as others have reported.  At the same time, she suddenly became very modest.  Before this, she had never been the least bit shy about her body with me.  I’m a single parent and she’s an only child, so it is just the 2 of us in our home.  She would go to the shower in the nude and walk around in her underwear and had no problem with my coming in her room when she was undressed.  We only have one bathroom and she even wasn’t shy about my coming in when she was on the toilet if I needed to.  However, she suddenly started wearing a bathrobe, keeping her door closed and locked when she was undressed, and locking me out of the bathroom.  I didn’t think too much about these things at first, and figured that it was not unusual for a teenage girl to become more modest even with her own mother.  However, he best friend’s mother told me that her daughter had seen her nude during sleepovers and that she was dangerously thin, but that she did not want my daughter to know that she had “told” on her.  I therefore told my daughter that I had read an article about anorexia and that since she was losing a great deal of weight I needed to make sure that she did not have a problem.  I didn’t see a need to make her strip completely nude and wanted to respect her privacy as much as possible, so I told her that she needed to undress down to her bra and thong for me.  She protested, but I was firm, and I was shocked by the state of her body.  She broke down and said that she had become “obsessed” about her weight after others made cruel comments about her being overweight.  She agreed to get help and after going on a reasonable diet, her body is now in a healthy condition.

    The lesson from this is that parents need to keep a close watch for the signs of anorexia and take action when they see the signs which may not be obvious when someone is completely dressed.  A small invasion of privacy may be necessary, but I do not believe it to be an unreasonable invasion for a mother to see her own daughter in her underwear when it is balanced against the threat to her child’s health and even potentially her life.

    Phillis

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    1. By LAUREN, from StraightTalkAdvice.org on 01/25/2015

      Phyllis—Thank you so much for sharing this! What you describe is a common scenario. I’m so glad her friend said something to her mother and that the mother tipped you off, and that you had the ingenuity and guts to come up with a reason to check on her. You all saved her life! No, it is not an unreasonable invasion at all, under the circumstances, for a mother to insist on seeing her daughter in her underwear. Seeing someone nude isn’t necessary. Thank you again for describing the entire situation. So glad she is healthy again!—Love, Lauren

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  5. By Annie, age 16, from Vacaville, CA on 01/22/2015

    My best friend’s stepsister’s body looks like she’s anorexic.  I was shocked when I was there for a sleepover recently when her stepsister was there for a visitation and they were sharing a room and I saw her nude.  I’ve never seen anyone’s body wasted away like this, and it literally made me feel sick to my stomach.  When we were alone, I asked my friend if she’d told anyone and she just shrugged it off and said “it’s her problem.”  She doesn’t like her stepsister and hates having to share a room with her when she comes for visitations and says that if her stepsister wants to do this to herself and won’t seek help for herself, why should it be her responsibility to take care of her?  Even so, from what I’ve read about this issue in Straight Talk and elsewhere, many people do need someone to tell somebody so that they can get help and even want someone to do so.  She was very open about nudity in front of us despite the condition of her body, so she clearly wasn’t trying to hide things from us, so that makes me think she wants someone to tell, either consciously or subconsciously.  Like others, you can’t really tell when she has clothes on and she just looks thin. I don’t even know her stepsister’s mom, so I don’t see how I could go to her and my friend isn’t going to say anything, but it really bothers me and I don’t know what to do.

    Annie

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    1. By Monica, age 19, from Rohnert Park, CA on 01/23/2015

      Annie, as someone who went throught this a couple of years ago when I was paranoid about my weight, I can just about guarantee that your friend’s stepsister wants someone to tell.  Why else would she be openly letting you see her naked if she wanted to keep her condition a secret from you?  I knew that my sister with whom I shared a room could see my condition when I was naked in the bedroom.  The same with my best friend and her sister when I had sleepovers in their room and made sure that they saw me naked.  I also was hooked on taking strong laxatives, and since my sister and I had to share the bathroom, she couldn’t help but notice the issues I was having with my bathroom functions because of this.  However, nobody ever said anything.  I was finally in such bad shape that I told my mom that I needed help.  At first she didn’t really believe me, so I had to strip naked for her and she realized how bad I was when she saw the “evidence.”  She was furious with my sister for not telling her sooner.  Even though I wanted my sister to tell, I’m not sure that this was fair since I wasn’t even taking responsibility for myself.  However, one has to be in this situation to understand why we don’t seek help, but want others to tell someone about our condition.  I’m now healthy and well and in college, but I wish I had sought and received help sooner.

      Since your friend will not do anything and you don’t know her stepsister’s mom, I would suggest going to your friend’s mom in confidence and informing her of the situation.  Maybe she could find a way to “accidentally” see her stepdaughter undressed and tell her dad and/or mom about the situation so that they can get help for her.  If that won’t work,  maybe your friend’s mom could let her stepsister’s mom know that she has confidential information and that it is important for her to see her daughter’s body and her own mom could find a way to see her naked or at least in her underwear.  I really hope you will find a way to do something, as I am very confident that she wants someone to do so.

      Monica

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      1. By LAUREN, from StraightTalkAdvice.org on 01/25/2015

        Monica—Thank you so much for sharing your amazing healing story. I’m so glad you finally told on YOURSELF. Sometimes nobody does speak up and you’ve given a wonderful encouragement both to others to tell, and to those waiting for someone to tell, to stop waiting and just get the help you need. Thank you for also sharing the part about your mom not believing and you having to show her the “evidence”. Many parents are in denial right up to that point. So glad you are better and that you helped so many others by writing in!—Love, Lauren

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    2. By SallyAnne, age 17, from Northwood, OH on 01/24/2015

      I agree that you should find a way to tell someone, and I think that the best way would be for you to tell your friend’s mom.  You could find a way to talk to her in private without your friend knowing.  My sister has a friend whose body I could see was in horrible shape when she was here for a sleepover and I saw her nude and she was very casual about nudity in front of us, so I thought it was obvious that she wanted somebody to see and tell someone.  I told our mom and we worked things out that I would cough 3 times when she was nude and our mom would make up an excuse to come into our room.  It didn’t seem to bother her in the least when our mom came in and saw her nude, and I got the feeling that she wanted our mom to see her.  Our mom didn’t say anything at the time, but she told this girl’s mom and she checked out her body and made her get help.  She was here for a sleepover recently and I saw her nude, and her body now looks much better and healthier, so I am glad that I said something.

      SallyAnne

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      1. By LAUREN, from StraightTalkAdvice.org on 01/26/2015

        SallyAnne—Yay! Great experience that you shared. Thank you! It’s a great example of how to do it.  I love how you all help each other here!—Love, Lauren

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    3. By Julie, age 16, from Auburn, CA on 01/25/2015

      I have a friend whose body looks like this and she also goes out of her way to be naked in front of everybody at slumber parties when we undress.  Most girls, including me, aren’t shy about undressing in front of each other, but nobody else goes out of their way to expose their body like she does.  So from reading this it makes me think that she wants us to notice and tell somebody.  I’ve been to her house and I know that she shares a room with her older sister, so I assume that she must see her naked and should be telling her mom.  I would do so if my sister who I also share a room with and see naked had this problem, but she doesn’t.  I’m reluctant to but in, but from the state of her body, she definitely needs help and I really wonder why her own sister isn’t doing anything.  I want to do something but I don’t really know how to approach her mom about something like this.

      Julie

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      1. By LAUREN, from StraightTalkAdvice.org on 01/25/2015

        Julie—Start with telling your own mother and ask her to figure out how to tell the girl’s mother. (See the letter from Phyllis above…it is a great example of how to work this situation.) Good luck!! She definitely DOES want someone to tell!
        —Love, Lauren

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  6. By St. Martin, from Santa Rosa, CA on 01/25/2015

    In addition to all the media influences about our bodies we look to our friends too. One of my best friends is 5’2”, and 105 pounds. She’s petite and gorgeous. I on the other hand am a ranch girl with muscles and have never been “petite” so every time I’m around her I feel like a hippo.
    If there is anything that helps it would have to be a weight chart for various height and body types ‘cause I had no idea what was “normal” for me. Now I know I can ask my doctor and that info is available. My normal is closer to 150 than 105 and that doesn’t make me “fat”.

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