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Body Image & Disordered Eating

Body image is how you perceive yourself in your mind and how you see yourself reflected in the mirror. It's how you feel about your height, shape, and weight; how you feel in your body. Not all body images are positive, and some can have significant impacts on your mood and behavior.

A healthy body image

An individual with a healthy body image thinks of him or herself as a whole person, considering character, friendliness, intelligence, skills, and feelings. When trying to maintain a healthy body image, or retrain an unhealthy image:

  • Focus on goals and strengths that go beyond your appearance.
  • Refuse to spend an unreasonable amount of time worrying about food, weight, and calories.
  • Spend less time in front of mirrors.
  • Exercise for the joy of feeling your body move and grow stronger.
  • List your good qualities.
  • Get to know people beyond physical appearances. Admire unique qualities in individuals.
  • Surround yourself with people and things that make you feel good about yourself and your abilities.
  • Consider the media’s portrayal of beauty standards critically.
  • Celebrate and appreciate your natural body shape.
  • Admire parts of your body for their functions and how they make you feel.
  • Enjoy meals with friends or family members.

A healthy body image can also be created when an individual sets a goal to improve his or her health, energy, appearance and mood, instead of trying to maintain a certain size or shape. When adapting a body image to these new goals, it’s important to:

  • Recognize negative outside pressures: Advertisements can trick you into creating a negative body image to sell you products or services. Your friends and family may be buying into this commercial and pop culture and they may influence your thoughts and views.
  • Notice when you feel negative about your body: The first step is to notice your negative thoughts. Then, you can take further steps to challenge and modify those thoughts.
  • Accept your natural size: If you incorporate healthy eating habits and physical activity, your body can reach a healthy weight naturally.
  • Allow time for change: Developing a healthy body image takes time because body attitudes can be powerful and deep. Take time to appreciate your body one part at a time.
  • Use different measures: The scale and the size you wear are not always good ways to rate yourself. Instead, think of what your body does for you and the activities that you can do to feel and look healthy.

What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are extreme expressions of a range of weight and food issues experienced by both men and women. They include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating. All are serious emotional problems that can have life-threatening consequences. All eating disorders require professional help.

Eating disorders arise from a combination of psychological, interpersonal, and social conditions. Feelings of inadequacy, depression, anxiety, and loneliness, as well as troubled family and personal relationships, may contribute to the development of an eating disorder. Our culture, with its unrelenting idealization of thinness and the “perfect body,” is often a contributing factor. Sometimes, people try to cope with painful emotions and feelings of loss of control by dieting, bingeing, and purging, but these behaviors undermine physical health, self-esteem, and a sense of competence and control.

Symptoms of eating disorders

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss. Symptoms vary, but can include:

  • Refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for height, body type, age, and activity level.
  • Intense fear of weight gain and being “fat”
  • Feeling fat or overweight despite dramatic weight loss
  • Loss of menstrual periods
  • Extreme concern with body weight and shape

Bulimia nervosa is characterized by a secretive cycle of binge eating followed by purging. Symptoms can include:

  • Binge eating: eating, in a discrete period of time (e.g., within any 2-hour period), an amount of food that is larger than most people would eat during a similar period of time, accompanied by a sense of lack of control over one’s eating during the episode, and by eating beyond the point of comfortable fullness.
  • Purging: recurrent, inappropriate compensatory behavior in order to prevent weight gain, such as self-induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives, diuretics, enemas, or other medications, fasting or excessive exercise
  • Extreme concern with body weight and shape

Binge-eating disorder (also known as compulsive overeating) is characterized primarily by periods of uncontrolled, impulsive, or continuous eating beyond the point of feeling comfortably full. While there is no purging, there may be sporadic fasts or repetitive diets, and often feelings of shame or self-hatred after a binge. Body weight may vary from normal to mild, moderate, or severe obesity.

Other eating disorders can include some combination of the signs and symptoms of anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder. While these behaviors may not be clinically diagnosed as a full-syndrome eating disorder, they can still be physically dangerous and emotionally draining.

  • Warning signs that someone may have an eating disorder
  • A marked increase or decrease in weight not related to a medical condition.
  • The development of abnormal eating habits such as severe dieting, preference for strange foods, withdrawn or ritualized behavior at mealtime, or secretive bingeing.
  • An intense preoccupation with weight and body image.
  • Compulsive or excessive exercising.
  • Self-induced vomiting, periods of fasting, or laxative, diet pill, or diuretic abuse.
  • Feelings of isolation, depression, or irritability.

Treatments for eating disorders

The most effective and long-lasting treatment for an eating disorder is some form of counseling, coupled with careful attention to medical, psychiatric and nutritional needs. Care should be coordinated and provided by health professionals with expertise and experience in working with eating disorders. The treatment needs of each individual will vary.

Helping someone who may have an eating disorder

  • Set a time to talk: Set aside a time for a private, respectful meeting with your friend to discuss your concerns openly and honestly in a caring, supportive way. Make sure you will be away from distractions. Realize that you may be rejected; people with eating disorders often deny their problem. If this happens, don’t take it personally. Take your concern to a trusted adult or medical professional immediately.
  • Communicate your concerns: Share your memories of specific times when you felt concerned about your friend’s eating or exercise behaviors. Explain that you think these things may indicate that there could be a problem that needs professional attention.
  • Suggest professional help: Ask your friend to explore these concerns with a counselor, doctor, dietitian, or other health professional who is knowledgeable about eating issues. If you feel comfortable doing so, offer to help your friend make an appointment or accompany your friend on the first visit.
  • Avoid conflicts or a battle of the wills: If your friend refuses to acknowledge that there is a problem, or any reason for you to be concerned, restate your feelings and the reasons for them and leave yourself open and available as a supportive listener.
  • Avoid placing blame: Don’t place shame, blame, or guilt on your friend regarding their actions or attitudes. Do not use accusatory “you” statements like “you just need to eat” or “you are acting irresponsibly.” Instead, use “I” statements such as “I am concerned about you because you refuse to eat breakfast or lunch” or “it makes me afraid to hear you vomiting.”
  • Don’t reduce: Avoid giving simple solutions such as “If you’d just stop, then everything would be fine!”
  • Know your limits: Don’t take on the role of counselor or food monitor; it is important for you to maintain appropriate boundaries.
  • Express your continued support: Remind your friend that you care and want your friend to be healthy and happy.

If after talking with your friend you are still concerned about their health and safety, find a trusted adult or medical professional to talk to. You can consult with an SHS counselor for support and assistance with helping your friend.

More eating disorder help

  • Uncle Joe’s Peer Counseling and Resource Center has a 24-hour hotline at 314-935-5099. If you wish to speak with someone in person, their office is in the basement of Gregg Hal, 10p.m.-1a.m. nightly.
  • You can request an educational program on eating disorders and body image from the Reflections student group (washureflections@yahoo.com).
  • The National Eating Disorders Association provides information and resources about eating disorders.
  • Screening for Mental Health has information on self-evaluation for an eating disorder, as well as other mental health resources.