Bits and Bites of Everyday Life

 

When body image clashes with healthy eating ...

"Do not be awestruck by other people and try to copy them. Nobody can be you as efficiently as you can". — Norman Vincent Peale

True North Perspective

Alberte Villeneuve-Sinclair is the author of The Neglected Garden and two French novels. Visit her website to learn more www.albertevilleneuve.ca.

Stéphanie Couture, a psychologist at Montreal University, warns approximately 60% of young women at the university level have developed unhealthy eating habits, whether it be skipping meals, vomiting, eating too little or excessive exercise. As part of her doctorate, Stéphanie Couture examined personality traits that were present before anorexic or bulimic symptoms appeared.
 
Anorexia is usually defined as a refusal to maintain weight at a minimally normal level for one’s height and age, a distorted body image, a loss of menstrual periods and decrease in sexual desire. Bulimia is usually characterized by binging and purging or excessive exercise after binging. Problems usually arise from an interaction between genetics, personality type and environmental factors.
 
Sometimes, anorexia or bulimia starts out as just trying to lose some weight or hoping to get in shape but the person gets caught in a spiraling, obsessive-compulsive addiction that gets out of hand. Teenagers and young women often have an intense fear of being fat or think they’re fat when they are not. Society’s exaggerated emphasis on beautiful bodies has encouraged girls and boys into an obsessive attitude towards weight and this is happening at an even younger age than before. Parents must be very attentive when a child becomes thin, frail or emaciated, obsesses about eating and refuses to eat certain types of food in an effort to control weight. Teachers and school attendants must make sure lunches don’t end up in the garbage. Peer pressure, teasing and fashion trends may play an important role at a time where affective stability is still fragile and young adolescents yearning to “fit in” will sacrifice their well-being to look “cool” or be accepted.
 
Stéphanie Couture’s study indicated that approximately 18% of female students who participated in the study either felt guilty after having a meal or neglected to eat when they were hungry. Of these students, 12% had a body weight inferior to the weight recommended for their height and age.
 
Bulimia, on the other hand often goes hand in hand with stimulus seeking and trying to fill an emotional void. Obsessive-compulsive tendencies are common. The person, male or female, will binge regularly on food and then purge by using vomiting or laxatives. I once observed a friend who rushed to the washroom midway through a meal. After returning to the table, her interest in food was gone. On vacation, she immediately developed a suspicious diarrhea which lasted half the week and limited her food intake. She was extremely thin and obsessed with her body which she paraded in a tiny bikini on the beach or nude in the hotel suite.
 
These problems of course are not new to our society. Narcissism and affective instability have long been associated with anorexia. When I met my first husband in high school in the 60s, he was awfully thin. His 5-foot ten-inch frame only carried 117 pounds. You could count his ribs; he was just skin and bones. His complexion was sallow and is brushcut hairstyle made him look like a concentration camp prisoner. He often layered clothes and was very uncomfortable in a swimsuit or a gym outfit. His food intake was erratic. He would often have only one meal a day and then eat a whole box of sugar donuts, a bag of pretzels or Smarties in the evening. Pepsi often replaced meals and always accompanied the snacks. Although his emotional life was out of control, he was an excellent student and determined to control his life, including every aspect of our courtship. Once we were married, he refused to have breakfast and became extremely finicky regarding food. Everything had to be homemade. Every aspect of our life together had to be controlled. He was a walking time-bomb and he exploded three years into our mariage! Only when he was diagnosed with bipolar disease and put on lithium did he finally start gaining weight.
 
Today, many males exhibit similar traits in that their eating habits are off-center. Mario Bouliane, who has a column in LeDroit, made me laugh when he talked about the new generation of “douchebags”. I had never heard the term but I am told it has been in use for a while. It commonly describes handsome young males, with gelled hair, who are completely devoted to their body. They are tanned (artificially of course), muscular, well dressed, arrogant, narcissistic and totally devoted to the body cult, sports and sexual performance. Not the kind of guy you would expect to help you mow the lawn or rebuild your collapsed compost bin!!!
 
You will find them at the gym or the fitness centers, the bars, beaches and sports events or buying their protein whey at GNC. They are popular with female bar hoppers but women must be aware they are on the A-list of EGO. “Pretentious, overzealous, pompous, vexatious with an inflated sense of self-worth, they fancy themselves the ultimate ladies’ man” but are quick to criticize anything that does not fit their beauty standards or lifestyle. To most people they are annoying, arrogant and phony and come across as “wannabes overcompensating for their insecurities”.
 
Preventing anorexia and bulimia starts at home with healthy eating habits and life skills that include parents showing a healthy respect for their own body. I was very lucky while growing up. My father disliked “skinny, tight-assed women” and assured us women were meant to be curvaceous. That’s what made them attractive and desirable! This came in handy when my anorexic husband started criticizing “my shape” despite the fact I wore a size nine back then. When compared to one of the pin-ups girls from his Playboy and Penthouse collection, Marilyn Monroe for example, I would remind myself she was a size fourteen and her life was a mess. I was ME and I loved life!
 
Parents’ negative attitudes, use of alcohol and smoking, pills (diet or steroids) and wacky diets can send the wrong kind of message to a growing girl or boy. Exposure to too much TV with its constant parade of thin celebrities and muscle-flexing men, too little communication at home, not enough praise and show of affection can leave a child struggling with cravings of approval and affection. We need to be more attentive and caring; we need to help children develop a healthy self-esteem and healthy habits.
 
So when anorexia, bulimia, binge eating or narcissism becomes a problem with your child, friend, partner or spouse, what do you do? You will want to offer patient guidance, eventually steering them towards individual therapy, nutritional counselling and making sure they schedule medical follow-ups during treatment. Support groups can help the person stay on tract when the problem has become obsessive-compulsive. Psychotherapy may be needed if there is an added dimension of anxiety or depression. For some people, it is a long journey to self-discovery, building their self-esteem and erasing years of negative messages or false expectations that may have polluted their mind and created stress. Eating disorders may have run in their family, fuelled by false values and unhealthy behaviours.
 
Teenagers, and adults too, need to learn how to identify their emotions and process them in a safe and effective way - especially the difficult emotions. They must learn to recognize “feel good” emotions that steer them towards health and happiness. Understanding an emotion and doing something positive about it is what empowers us and differentiates from the rest of the animal kingdom. No amount of dieting, exercising, following trends will insure happiness and true love. If you need to give up your true self to be accepted, you run the risk of losing yourself. Happiness is built from the inside out!
 
When body image clashes with your own well-being and healthy eating habits… steer clear of extremes whether self-imposed, imposed by others in your inner circle or the fashion world.
 
Be good to yourself! Forget the media; be the one to define what beautiful means. And remember: health is precious; you can’t buy it back if you ruin it!
 
Blessings and take care!

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