Two weeks ago I found myself in the middle of an absurd conversation. The topic of discussion was what diseases each of us could handle and what diseases we would hope to have. I looked around at the group and watched as all the participants chimed in with their answers. Was I the only one disturbed by the subject matter? What would someone actually living with a disease say if he or she overheard this discussion? How would a friend or a family member of a sick person react upon hearing someone say that they hoped to be inflicted with the cause of that person’s potential endless worry and heartache? The antipathy showed on my face. “Oh, c’mon,” my friend said to me, “We’re not being serious. People joke about being anorexic and bulimic all the time.” The problem is that she was right. The terms “anorexic” and “bulimic” are thrown around so commonly nowadays that to many people the words are almost void of all meaning. Referring to them as diseases seems almost dramatic. An even more severe problem is that often these names don’t have meaning for a person to begin with. We have become desensitized to these terms. This week marks 2010 National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. One of the three goals of the week is to “reduc[e] the stigma surrounding eating disorders” by properly informing people that “eating disorders are serious, life-threatening illnesses—not choices—and it’s important to recognize the pressures, attitudes and behaviors that shape the disorder.” These objectives address two areas of common misconception. The first area is how the condition originates, and the second is what it means for someone to suffer from one of these diseases.
Almost everyone knows what anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa look like to an outside observer. Both involve an obsession with not gaining weight and an intense anxiety about food, though this obsession manifests differently in each case. These disorders, however, extend beyond just “not wanting to get fat” and physically inhibiting weight gain. It is an obsession brought on by a host of unconscious and debilitating mental processes. For example, potential triggers of an eating disorder could be feeling that no one likes you, feeling that you don’t like yourself, or feeling as if you have no sense of control. The desire to be thin stems from the socially constructed emphasis on slimness as a mark of beauty, which may seem like a perfect way to accrue friends to someone who feels like a social outsider. For a person who feels a loss of control, the ability to refuse the food your body naturally desires provides a needed sense of empowerment.
What it means to live with an eating disorder is definitely not what people assume it to be. Aside from the mental strain eating disorders have on a person, there can be physical consequences as well. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, anorexia has one of the highest death rates of any mental disorder. For people with anorexia, abnormally slow heart rates can lead to a heightened risk for heart disease, not to mention constant migraines that contribute to lack of sleep and loss of concentration. Irreversible osteoporosis develops in some cases, and with the addition of muscle loss and general fatigue, moving even in the slightest bit can cause much pain. Hair loss and dry skin can also occur, and the person can develop an unshakable chill. For a person suffering from bulimia, electrolyte imbalances can lead to irregular heartbeats and possibly heart failure and death. The person may suffer from chronic irregular bowel movements and constipation. In both cases, there is much organ damage, and women may lose their periods indefinitely messing up their cycles and causing infertility issues.
Anorexia nervosa affects between .5 and 1 percent of women, while bulimia nervosa affects 1 to 2 percent. Contrary to popular belief, men make up a significant portion of eating disorder sufferers—about 10 to 20 percent. These statistics mean that as you walk around Columbia’s campus to get to class you will probably pass at least one person affected by an eating disorder. The terms anorexic and bulimic have almost secured a place within contemporary vernacular to mean “too thin.” But the statistics indicate that there are heavy implications for society, and the realities surrounding the disorder indicate heavy consequences for individual victims. Each of us should try to consider what actually having these diseases means before our words make them meaningless.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore.