By TEONEI SALWAY and MATT BENNET
At a time when politicians are making promises they can’t keep, it’s nice to know they have company in the likes of supermodels Kate Moss, Claudia Schiffer and Cindy Crawford.
Moss, Schiffer and Crawford’s promises can be found on the covers of magazines and in videos — that young women can achieve a body just like theirs. But psychologists say they can’t.
“If it’s not your natural body size to be a skinny-mini, you’re not going to be,” said Marleen Williams, clinical psychologist and assistant professor of clinical services at BYU’s Counseling and Development Center. “You can’t shape and sculpt your body at will.”
But the desire to try remains for many women. Williams said studies at colleges around the country show that 5 to 20 percent of women have some type of eating disorder such as bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa, and BYU is no exception.
An anorexic’s or bulimic’s struggle with food may be the only thing an outsider sees, but according to professionals, the food obsession is only part of the problem.
“Most researchers agree that eating disorders are an expression of unresolved psychological conflict,” said Harold A. Frost, Ph.D., in an information sheet distributed by Orem’s Center for Change.
He explained that unresolved conflicts can stem from traumatic life experiences such as physical or sexual abuse or any other experience that leaves a woman feeling flawed and defective.
Williams agrees. She said the eating disorder is only the “tip of the iceberg and not the core of what’s going on.” She explained that a traumatic experience leaves a woman feeling depressed and thinking losing weight would increase her “lovability.”
“They will think, ‘If I have an attractive body, then I’ll be loved, and all my other problems will go away and I’ll be happy,'” she said.
Frost added that while “eating disorders on the surface may seem a little vain, … it’s their way of dealing with pain.”
Often that pain comes from sexual or emotional abuse, he said.
“My informal statistic, and this is only with those patients that I see, is that as high as 70 percent of my patients have been sexually abused,” Frost said.
Three women recovering from eating disorders shared their stories with students in a family science class March 5.
Carmen, who has been anorexic for the past six years, said she can trace her eating disorder back to when she was a young girl and was sexually abused by her brother. She said she was unwilling to admit to herself that she had ever been abused.
“I wanted to be part of an eternal family so badly that I was willing to push everything under the rug,” she said. “Never in my life did I want to drag my family’s name through the dirt.”
Perfectionism is another reason women develop an eating disorder, Frost and Williams said.
Marnie, who has also been anorexic for the past six years, told the family science class of her experiences.
“I come from a family of perfectionists,” she said. “I remember as a young girl working on a paper for a class with my father.”
Marnie went on to explain how her father would hold her paper up to the lights of his office at 6 a.m. to make sure her page numbers and lines of text were lined up.
“I would say to him, ‘I’m tired, I want to go to bed,’ and then he’d say, ‘let’s just change this one paragraph and then it’ll be perfect.'”
Marnie also said her mother didn’t weigh 100 pounds until Marnie was a senior in high school.
“I was given my mother’s pants to wear, and they didn’t fit,” she said. “The lowest I dropped to was 78 pounds, and I almost died twice.”
Williams said she tells those who come in for counseling that a 36-24-36 body is not necessary to be acceptable to God.
“‘Be ye therefore perfect,’ should have read ‘Be ye therefore whole,'” Williams said.
The media also plays an important part in a woman’s self-concept, she said. Society says Schiffer and Crawford represent what makes up a desirable female rather than someone like Barbara Bush, Williams said.
Jean Taylor Scott, coordinator of Women’s Services and Resources in the Counseling and Development Center, said anorexics do not see themselves as too thin because they have distorted body images.
“It’s real for them; it’s very, very real,” Scott said. “They can’t understand people being concerned about them. … They look in the mirror and they see fat.”
While men also develop eating disorders, 90 percent of anorexics and 90 percent of bulimics are women, Williams said.
Frost thinks that number may be even higher.
“Ninety to 95 percent of all eating disorders are females,” Frost said. He explained that one reason for this is that “women go on a diet when they can no longer fit in their jeans. A man will go on a diet when he can’t fit in his car,” he jokingly said.
Frost said he has known women to take 200 laxatives a day and purge up to 40 times a day.
Some women with eating disorders actually have a combination of anorexia and bulimia. An anorexic may eat more than she feels she should — a form of bingeing — and then purge to rid herself of the food and the guilt, Scott said.
Scott said women with either disorder will often feel out of control around food.
Marnie agrees. “It’s really a controlling thing. It’s not a fun thing to go through at all,” she said.
“Anorexia is harder to get over than alcoholism,” Scott said. An alcoholic can commit to avoid anything associated with alcohol, but someone with an eating disorder cannot avoid food completely and live, she said.
But eating disorders are curable. The earlier the anorexic or bulimic recognizes her problem, the better, but she can recover from any stage, Scott said.
“It’s a difficult road, and you need help,” she said.
BYU offers several programs to help women overcome eating disorders.
Individual counseling is available anytime, and therapeutic groups begin each semester and term, Scott said. Class and church group presentations are also available.
A five-week Body Kindness workshop is offered each Fall Semester, covering media influence on body image, new ways of looking at the body, a spiritual outlook, psychological and philosophical factors, Scott said.