Body image pressures feed eating disorders

Ashley Chapman
Contributing Writer
Between one to two percent of VCU students report having an eating disorder, according to Katherine Vatalaro Hill, VCU Health Service’s assistant director and Nutrition Services coordinator.
Over the past few decades, eating disorders have become a hot-button issue in the world of mental health. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, in the United States alone nearly 10 million females and one million males suffer from anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. Millions more are struggling with binge-eating disorder.
According to NEDA, the causes of eating disorders often include social pressures, media persuasion and negative influences at home.
Catherine Parris, a former VCU student, said her problems started in childhood when strict ideas about weight and beauty were imposed on her from a young age.
“Since I was little I was always warned not eat too much because I would get fat,” Parris said.
Parris said cheeks were puffed out at her when people told her that guys like girls who are skinny.
Any form of an eating disorder, even with seemingly mild symptoms, can be detrimental to one’s physical and mental health. Vatalaro Hill said that because victims usually exhibit signs of seclusion to avoid situations involving consumption of food, the disorder is incredibly isolating.
Parris said her eating disorder greatly affected her relationships.
“If I was supposed to go out to dinner with people I would tell them ‘I can’t go out with you if it’s past six because if you eat past six that’s when you gain weight,’” Parris said.
Rapid weight fluctuations, rigid eating or exercising habits, distorted body image, frequent trips to the bathroom immediately following a meal and making excuses to skip meals are some signs of an eating disorder, said Vatalaro Hill.
Parris said she held to a strict diet and exercise schedule in order to lose the weight so she could be “skinny.”
“I exercised about an hour a day on a treadmill and lowered my calorie intake from a little over 2,000 calories per day to about 500,” Parris said. “Some days it was less than that.”
Parris said she is 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighed about 145 pounds when she decided to start losing weight. She now weighs about 110 pounds and still struggles with her image when she looks in the mirror.
Both anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa wreak havoc on the body. According to Vatalaro Hill, destruction of teeth, hair loss, fainting spells, seizures, permanent loss of bone mass and incontinence/constipation are all consequences of prolonged issues with eating disorders. In extreme cases an irregular heartbeat, cardiac arrest and kidney/liver damage are more fatal consequences.
“I was often lethargic,” Parris said. “Exercise helped, but even basic tasks often seemed to wear me out.”
Vatalaro Hill says the best method approach when attempting to help a friend of family member showing signs of an eating disorder is being non-judgmental, using “I” statements and avoiding a power struggle. Also to remember not to offer “simple” solutions because eating disorders are complex mental disorders and the best solution is to seek a professional’s help.
Vatalaro Hill urges students to seek treatment early. Information and support can be found through University Counseling Services, University Student Health Services and the Wellness Resource Center. Facing the problem is the first step.
“One of the most important things I learned through my therapist is to not beat around the bush, to just get out there and tell the truth,” Parris said, “Because telling the truth makes it eventually sink into your head. You begin to admit ‘I have a problem, now what am I going to do about it?’”

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