Several years ago, I had a terrible dream: My sister, Rebekah, stopped eating. Day after day she got weaker, energy left her body, and she became dangerously thin. And as this nightmare became more and more frightening, I grew worried, because no matter how hard I pinched myself, I couldn't wake up.
Because it wasn’t a dream. My sister, Rebekah, was dealing with anorexia, an eating disorder that caused her to voluntarily starve herself. I was only 10 years old, and I remember feeling helpless - knowing what she was doing, but not knowing what I could do to help.
Today I hope to give hope to anyone who is currently dealing with anorexia, or who knows someone with it. We’ll see what we need to know about it, what we did to cause it, and what we must do to address it. We will see that anorexia is rooted in lies: lies that all of us bear the responsibility to negate both verbally, and by our actions.
What we need to know about anorexia.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Anorexia… nervosa… is a potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by an abnormally low body weight, intense fear of gaining weight, and a distorted perception of weight or shape.”
In her book Almost Anorexic, Doctor Jennifer Thomas reports that 1 in 200 adults have anorexia nervosa, but 1 in 10 teenage girls have at least some of the symptoms.1 in 10. That means we all know someone who is at least a little anorexic; they are probably just hiding it. But our words and actions affect them all the same.
Almost Anorexic describes one such girl, Jenni Schaefer. Ever since she was four years old, every time Jenni looked in the mirror, a voice in her head would tell her she was fat. She named this voice Ed, or ED, for eating disorder.
An average morning for her went something like this:
Ed: Your legs are fat.
Jenni: I know.
Ed: You should skip lunch today.
Jenni: Okay.” (Schaefer 10).
Eventually, “Ed’s” remarks became so commonplace that Jenni thought they were her own thoughts, not those of an abusive impostor.
I’m all for maintaining a healthy body and even avoiding certain foods. Yet, anorexia is antithetical to good health, because it deprives the body of vital nutrients and energy. According to the Mayo Clinic and National Institute of Mental Health, this anorexia can lead complications such as:
What we did to create this problem
First of all, I will note that some risk factors are biological. For example, according to the Eating Disorders Review, having a parent or family member who had an eating disorder makes you 12 times more likely to get one yourself.
However, existing risk factors are amplified by insurmountable cultural expectations. Golden, Peterson, and Kramer note in their book The Truth about Eating Disorders that most fashion models are skinnier than 98% of women. (Golden et al. 58). Our perception of beauty is distorted. It’s distorted by the media, by culture, by entertainment, by social media, by advertising, and by Photoshop.
Yet, because “perfect” is what culture expects, teens may feel that they don’t really have a choice except to be “perfectly” thin. Rebekah explained her feelings at the time, thinking, “I’m worthless, I’ll never be good enough. I have to be perfect, and if I’m not, I’m a failure.”
n her groundbreaking 1977 book on anorexia, The Golden Cage, psychoanalyst Hilde Bruch, found that high expectations from parents can result in children feeling like they have to be perfect (Bruch, 1977), and in The Truth about Eating Disorders, Golden, Peterson, and Kramer record that the highest-risk group is Caucasian high academic achievers who come from goal-oriented families (Golden et al 15). This really strikes home when we consider that NCFCA members are often described by perfectionism, high academic achievement, and high expectations.
However, the tipping point that drives many people into anorexia is often a series of deeply scarring, emotionally traumatic experiences. At our old church, Rebekah faced routine bullying from her peers, and even from the adults, who didn’t bother to try to understand but instead criticized her appearance and generally made her feel like an outcast. The hardest blow came when she found out that there was sexual abuse going on, involving some of her closest friends, but it was being covered up by people she thought she could trust.
With her life exploding out of control, Rebekah turned to the one thing she knew she could control--her food. A simple diet quickly escalated to the point that starving herself became a psychological dependency. Rebekah recounted, “I think the numbness and complete loss of emotion that accompanies severe malnutrition helped me “deal” with the conflict.”
As all feelings, including joy, left her body, Rebekah roboticly kept endeavoring to be “perfect.”
Clearly, the lies empowering anorexia have devastating impacts. So, how should we overcome them?
What we must do to address anorexia
If anyone reading this is currently dealing with anorexia, please seek out help and accountability from trusted friends. Be open and honest; don't deceive the people who love you most. Make of list of people to call when you need help.
Second, don’t believe the lie that your identity is found in achieving perfection, because human perfection does not exist. We are all broken humans waiting for the final redemption; just, some people are better at editing their Instagram pictures.
Finally, literally throw away your scale.
Furthermore, we all need to be aware of the destructive influence of media. A Harvard study on the Pacific island of Fiji found a significant increase in disordered eating among girls watching risqué soap operas and commercials after television was introduced on the island for the first time. (Golden 58-59, news.harvard.edu).
But I'm going to stop there, because it's easy to point our fingers at Hollywood, when really, one snickering or fat-labeling remark from a friend, or worse, a family member, can cause far more damage than some movie star. We need to have a zero-tolerance policy in this area. It is our responsibility to negate the lies driving anorexia both verbally, and by our actions.
The first action you should take, if it is your place, is to get medical help for an affected friend or family member--soon. Seriously, I am not saying this to fill space. Anorexia is the most deadly mental disorder, period. Up to 20% of individuals struggling with anorexia die, with the death rate increasing the longer the illness goes without treatment. Rebekah says that being taken to the hospital by my dad is what saved her life.
Thankfully, Rebekah ended up at a recovery ranch in Arizona, where she found critical counselling and healing. Second, just be willing to listen and understand that person’s feelings; don’t rush to assume the cause of their fears like that annoying psychologist friend we all can’t stand. Third, be a faithful friend. Pray and be there for them, and never give up on them.
Today, Rebekah is healthy, but certainly not “fat,” in case anyone was worried. That’s because overcoming anorexia isn’t foundationally about regaining weight; it’s about overcoming the lies.
That’s the key point I want you all to remember; eating disorders are created and propagated by lies - Lies telling people they have to be “perfect”, that they don’t really have a choice except to starve themselves, and that they are never thin enough. Lies that we, sometimes, reinforce by our actions. Thus, all of us have responsibility to negate those lies both verbally and by our actions.
Jesus declared: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” In her book Life Without Ed, Jenni Schaefer later wrote that the key to overcoming her anorexia was to separate the lying voice of “Ed,” disagree with his lies, and disobey him (Schaefer 137).
Earlier, I shared a terrible dream I had - the nightmare that turned out to be real. But today, I have a new dream. It’s one in which human beings are not judged by their metabolism, but by the quality of their kindness. It’s a dream I know can also become real if all of us remember that we are all inherently valuable, not because we have a picture-perfect body, but because we are made in in the image of God.
About Nathaniel Hendry
I blog on common social issues from a reasoned, conservative Christian perspective in easy to understand writing. I am committed to academic excellence in writing and supported by solid reasoning and research.
About A Worthy Word
The Worthy Word isn't mine, but God's. I just try to explain the truly Worthy Word and encourage you from it.