- I see the problem EVERYWHERE around me!
- I think I see signs of a problem in my friend
- I am not sure whether or how to approach a friend I am worried about
- I am worried about a male friend
- I want to find a way to DO SOMETHING about this problem at my school
- I want to present my story of recovery to others!
- I am looking for good books about these issues
- What IS Recovery?
I see the problem EVERYWHERE around me!
Our media-drenched culture over-emphasizes appearance and advocates “thinness at all costs.” The fashion industry features anorexic models wearing stomach-revealing, extremely low cut jeans, skin tight dress, incredibly short skirts… the list could go on and on. The diet industry is a constant presense ready to swoop in and profit from your attempts to achieve that Hollywood Body.
Teens are the most vulnerable to these pressures: it’s a lethal combination of normal teen insecurity, a body that is growing and changing, the message spewing from every piece of media that if you have the right “look” (e.g. THIN!) you will attract opposite sex attention and then you shall be happy and fulfilled in every way! But what starts as a “simple diet” may not end that way.
Disordered eating is a problem of epidemic proportions. And here’s the real truth: the moment you START dieting, you STOP listening to your body. You start restricting because you think you’ll be fat if you eat when you’re hungry, then you BINGE past FULL because now that you’ve starved yourself and every cell in your body is pushing you towards food, then you swear a PROMISE to “be good tomorrow.” Do these patterns sound familiar?
This is the all-too-human result of food deprivation and disconnection from the wisdom of your body. It can take YEARS to get yourself back on a healthy track, where you actually listen to, interpret accurately, trust, and act on your feelings of Hunger and Fullness. Much of recovering from disordered eating can be simplied into those simple principles.
Dieting creates disordered eating and a disordered relationship with your own body. For vulnerable individuals (perfectionists, people-pleasers, those prone to anxiety or depression), a diet can push you down the slippery slope into an eating disorder. Suddenly the thing that you thought was the magic solution to your problem of low self-esteem has created a whole new array of problems: isolation, anxiety, depression, obsession, self-doubt… just to name a few. Eating disorders affect everyone around an eating disorder, friends, family members, coworkers, etc, not just the person who is suffering from this disease. It is EXTREMELY important to recognize that eating disorders can be DEADLY.
I think I see signs of a problem in my friend
Typically eating disorders first develop in adolescence when the body undergoes the normal increases in body fat associated with puberty. It is important to be aware of the various warning signs. Your friend may be suffering from an eating disorder that requires professional help, from a nutritionist to therapist to psychologist to treatment center. Prompt treatment significantly improves the chances of recovery.
I am not sure whether or how to approach a friend that I am worried about
As a friend of someone struggling with an eating disorder it’s natural to feel afraid, angry, and helpless. Get as much information as you can. Eating disorders are complicated. An eating disorder is often a person’s way of coping with or avoiding events or feelings in their life. It may be a way for a person to feel in control or to feel nothing at all. They may be trying to distract themselves from pain or fear. Your friend may be consumed by “disordered eating.” Disordered eating means your friend’s attitudes about food, weight and her body may be causing them to have very strict eating and exercise regimes that effect their health, happiness, and safety. Disordered eating may begin as a way to lose a few pounds or get in shape, but these behaviors can quickly get out of control, can become obsessions, and may even turn into a full-fledged eating disorder.
Here’s how to help:
- Be patient but also honest about your concerns
- Express your concerns in a loving way. Talk about specific things you see and feel. Share memories of two or three specific times when you felt concerned, afraid, or uneasy because of their eating rituals. Talk about the feelings you experienced as a result of these events.
- Use “I” statements ONLY (“I’m concerned about you because you refuse to eat breakfast or lunch. It makes me afraid to hear you vomiting.”)
- Avoid accusatory “you” statements (“You must eat! You are out of control!”)
- Avoid giving simple solutions, such as “If you’d just stop, everything would be fine.” There is a large possibility that your friend may have had the same through, and an eating disorder is not something you can make disappear in a day. It may also make your friend upset or angry.
- Be caring, but be firm. Caring about your friend doesn’t mean being manipulated by them. Your friend must be responsible for her actions and their consequences. There is a huge difference between being a supporter and an enabler.
- Don’t dwell on food-related discussions. Avoid commenting on the person’s weight or appearance, as your comments may not be taken in the proper context (“You’re too thin” may be viewed as a compliment by someone with an eating disorder, and “You look healthy” could be harmful because the person will think they are too big).
- Your friend may not listen. She may be defensive, hostile, or accuse you of having eating problems. Do NOT take it personally if they are not ready to take your advice and help. If she won’t listen to you, you may need to tell someone else. Consider telling her parents, a teacher, a doctor, a counselor, or any other trusted adult. Although you risk getting her angry, you may be saving her life. She needs as much support and understanding from the people in her life as possible.
You cannot force someone to seek help, change their habits, or adjust their attitudes. You can make a difference by honestly sharing your concerns, providing support, and knowing where to go for more information. Eating disorders are extremely complex and as much as you care about your friend, you cannot fix their problem. You may need outside help for yourself as you support your friend before and after they seek help. If you are feeling overwhelmed or frustrated, talk to your school counselor or another professional. Click here to find some helpful resources.
I am worried about a male friend
Now that the media presents super-muscular body ideals to men and boys, they want to be buff, ripped, glisten with six-pack abs and granite pecs. And they want results fast. Nearly half a million teens in the US used steroids this past year. The number of high school seniors who had used steroids within a month increased nearly 50% last year.
While the labels say people under 18 should not take them, they are aggressively marketed over the internet with promises of getting huge and muscular FAST. The mania over Instant Bulk is just a sign that BOYS struggle with body-image, too. 20% of teens who admitted taking body-enhancing drugs did it because they wanted “to look bigger”, not because of sports. Boys as young as 10 and high school students who do not play team sports are bulking up with steroids or legal derivatives like androstenedione, commonly known as “andro.” Andro is a steroid precursor which metabolizes into steroids once it is ingested. Steroids falsely signal to the body to stop producing its own testosterone. There are serious and sometimes irreversible physical and mental consequences for taking these substances.
Steroids and steroid derivatives can:
- shut down normal adolescent development in male bodies
- stifle bone growth
- lead to testicular shrinkage
- lead to liver tumors
- cause the development of male breasts
- create “’roid rage,” a dangerous increase in aggressiveness
After seriously abusing steroids, Chris Benoit, a WWE wrestler, murdered his wife and son before he killed himself. Six-pack abs are not worth the price. If you have noticed dramatic changes in a friend’s appearance and/or mood, and you are concerned about his possible steroid or supplement use, refer to the guidelines above about how to approach a friend.
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I want to find a way to DO SOMETHING about this problem at my school
You have come to the right place! If you want to help make a difference, you can create a LULA club to educate and engage fellow students in the fight against disordered eating and bad body image. You can find more information about LULA as well as see a sample of LULA literature here.
Another great way to reach your peers is to cast your friends in a performance of the play What’s Eating Katie? You can cast anywhere from 6 to 20 students, and direct the show yourself! It is designed to be performed during a 50 minute class period so it fits into a typical school day. This play has been performed at dozens of schools around the country. You can create an awesome sound-track, design your own costumes… and suddenly you have created a fantastic way to get teens and adults talking FOR REAL about this taboo and complex subject. Audience members who are struggling with these problems will be more likely to seek help. You may be saving their lives. Please contact us for more information and so we can provide your with all the support and help you may need to put this together.
I want to present my story of recovery to others!
If you have recovered from an eating disorder then you have important unique and personal information about these complex problems. It is tremendously helpful for people to hear directly from those who have struggled with eating disorders. You can help dispel myths and educate others about how to help and support sufferers. We have created some guidelines for telling your story publicly because this is a potentially risky topic to discuss with students and we want this experience to be valuable for you and your audience. We also recommended that an eating disorder professional accompany you for your talk.
I am looking for good books about these issues:
- Real Gorgeous: The Truth About Body and Beauty by Kaz Cooke
- Perk!: The Story of a Teenager with Bulimia by Liza Hall
- All Made Up by Audrey Brashich
- Stick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self by Lori Gottlieb
- Life Without ED by Jenni Schaefer
- A Very Hungry Girl by Jessica Weiner
- Eating in the Light of the Moon by Anita Johnson, PhD
- Transformation Soup: Healing for the Splendidly Imperfect by Sark
- Body Wars by Margo Maine
- Can’t Buy My Love by Jean Kilbourne
- Making Weight: Men’s Conflicts with Food, Weight, Shape and Appearance by Arnold Andersen, M.D., Leigh Cohn, M.A.T., Thomas Holbrook, M.D.
- The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession by Harrison G. Pope Jr. M.D., et al
What IS Recovery?
Recovery from an eating disorder can be a difficult process and sometimes involves lapses into “unhealthy” thoughts and behaviors, particularly during times of stress and transition. Recovery also usually requires some type of therapeutic treatment, either inpatient or outpatient. Often a team of professionals may be required, from psychologists and psychiatrists to nutritionists and art therapists.
In order to be a speaker for an awareness event, we recommend that you have been actively in recovery for at least one year. By this we mean that you have enlisted some type of professional help and that you have not been actively binging, purging (through vomiting, laxative abuse or compulsive exercise), or dieting. You must be at a healthy weight for your height. However, no matter what stage you are in recovery, you will still have a “bad day” or a “fat day,” and this is completely normal and should not stop you from sharing. Another reason we stress the importance of having a significant time in recovery is because while speaking openly about your experiences can be very beneficial, it can also bring up difficult or painful feelings. You should have developed positive, healthy ways of coping with these feelings so that you do not fall back into disordered eating thoughts and behaviors to cope with the stress.
If you are still dangerously underweight or have been purging recently, but you are telling the audience that you are “recovered,” this sends a confusing message to your audience. This could serve to inadvertently reinforce the denial of students who may need help (“She says she’s OK, and I weigh more than her, so I must be fine”).
As you tell your story, one way to organize your thoughts is to tell your story chronologically. Create a timeline as you prepare for your talk. Write out answers to the following questions:
- How old were you when the problem first developed?
- What were early signs of disordered thinking and eating before the full-blown eating disorder kicked in?
- What influences led you to turn to food/dieting as the solution to your problems?
- What are the unpleasant realities and consequences of living with an eating disorder? To your relationships, to your health, to your self-esteem, to your academic/career pursuits, to a certain period of your life… etc.
- What type of help (inpatient treatment? group therapy? individual therapy?) has worked best for you?
- Have you had “lapses” and how have you overcome them?
- What issues do you still struggle with?
- What new life skills have you developed through your recovery process?
Do’s and Don’ts
Do stick to Your Own Story. You are not an eating disorder expert, but you are the expert on your own experience! Defer general questions (about medication, the biology of eating disorders, specific diets, etc.) to a professional.
Do describe your eating disorder in terms of the underlying issues which fueled it. For example, talk about your difficulty trusting others or trusting your body, your need to feel in control of your world, your fear of getting close to people, your difficulties expressing your emotional needs, your desire to be perfect.
REMEMBER, EATING DISORDERS ARE NOT ABOUT FOOD, even though many people in the audience may bring it back to discussions of food, fat and weight.
Do NOT discuss specific behaviors, such as weight loss techniques, purging methods, etc. This can serve to “teach” kids how to do it and this is the LAST thing we want to do.
Do NOT provide specific numbers, such as fat grams or calories, lowest weight, current weight. This can cause audience members to compare, compete with you, or dismiss their own issues. If asked, simply state that it is extremely important to get away from a focus on numbers and that it is more important to discuss experiences.”We focus on feelings, not numbers.”
Do NOT idealize or glamorize your life when you were severely underweight. This simply reinforces our nation’s sick obsession with “Thinness at any cost.”
Do NOT give advice other than suggesting that someone seek professional help. You are the expert on your own experience only, but you are not an eating disorder expert! You cannot rescue or save audience members who may look to you for advice!
Do NOT blame others for your eating disorder. Other people’s actions (a dieting mother, a brother who teased you, a mean kid at school) may have contributed to your eating disorder, but it’s best to talk about these relationships as contributing factors, not “the cause.” There is no one thing that causes an eating disorder, there is a “perfect storm of problems.”
Do NOT simplify your recovery process. Your recovery has involved many experiences, relationships, decisions, and struggles. If audience members understand how hard getting better can be, they may be less tempted to experiment with disordered eating.
There are typical questions asked of recovering speakers. Write out your answers beforehand so that you feel prepared for these questions.
- How old were you when it first started?
- How did you hide it?
- When did people start to notice?
- How did your family react
- How did you deal with your family?
- What made you finally seek help?
- Was there anything anyone could have said to you at the time that would have gotten you help sooner?
- What are right and wrong things that were said to you by others?
- What worked best for you in terms of your recovery?
- How do you feel about your body now?
- How do you deal with food/going out to dinner, etc. now?
If preparing for this talk brings up uncomfortable feelings, fears or questions, please seek out help and support. If you are having strong second thoughts, you may not be ready to do this, and that’s OK! Part of getting better means knowing when to say NO, and putting your own needs before everyone else’s.
After Your Talk
Benefits of Speaking:
- You may feel tremendous relief
- You may receive lots of support from fellow students and faculty members
- People may view you with new respect
- People who are struggling may seek you out to share their problems or ask for advice. Please remember you cannot save your friends! Offer to accompany someone to speak with a trusted adult.
Risks of Speaking:
- You may feel exposed
- You may feel vulnerable after revealing something so personal about yourself
All of these feelings are normal. If they become overwhelming or are causing you anxiety or regret, seek out help from your counselor or a trusted adult. If you would like some one-on-one assistance with preparing for this talk or dealing with the feelings around speaking publicly, please contact your school counselor.