How bad can it get, really?

An investigation of the harmful and sometimes deadly consequences that eating disorders have on a person’s mental and physical health

Reagan Reilly '24

          A Junior who has struggled with an eating disorder and who would like to remain anonymous told me that the best thing I could do with this article is not glorify the struggle of having an eating disorder. They told me to talk about how horrible the consequences of eating disorders are and how much they can negatively impact a person's health. So, that is exactly what I plan on sharing. Some of the topics that will be discussed in this article may trigger readers, so please do not continue reading if you feel uncomfortable at any time. 

The anonymous junior described how severe their eating disorder became, “I was almost hospitalized because it took over my brain to the point where my thinking was foggy and my heart was slowing down. I got used to the dreadful days that consisted of doctors appointments, therapists, dietitians, and miserable meals. My illness spiraled into my family physically carrying me to the kitchen table because I refused to get out of bed. I got sent away to a treatment center and that helped me tremendously but was by far the hardest thing I've ever had to do. There's nothing funny about not eating.” They went to rehab to recover from anorexia and bulimia.

Looking back on her struggle with anorexia, Ms. LaFever says, “now that I’m out of it, I realize how terrible that was mind-wise. It’s so consuming, it was all I could think about.” Ms. LaFever had an eating disorder when she was in high school and told me, “the older you get the less you care about what people think of you but when I was in high school, I felt like everyone was always looking at me, I felt like my looks were the biggest deal in the world.”

          While interviewing students about their experiences with eating disorders, I noticed that many mentioned that quarantine played a role in the start of their eating disorder. A Feb. 2022 ABC News article titled “Teenage girls had increased risk of developing eating disorders during pandemic,” states what Dr. Neha Chaudhary, child psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, says about the tie between the pandemic and eating disorders, “Some teens have shared that during times of great uncertainty, they find themselves changing their eating patterns as an unsuccessful attempt to regain a sense of control.”

          When I talked to Belle Akeredolu '24 about her previous struggles with binge eating and anorexia during quarantine, she told me, “I was really depressed at the time. I was hungry but I didn’t want to get out of bed to get food. So at some point I got used to it, to the point where I was full with a cracker.” I also asked Belle what the best way to support a friend or loved one struggling with an eating disorder was and she said, “I told my parents and we went to the doctors about it and they said ‘It’s a phase, you’ll get out of it’, so I guess just believe them. And since it's different for every person, just ask them what they need.” It is important to note that the doctors dismissed the severity of the eating disorder entirely, which is incredibly hard, especially considering the amount of courage it takes to reach out for help in the first place.

         Another sophomore who struggled with an eating disorder over the course of the pandemic spoke on the effect of isolation, “Because the only people I saw were my family, no one could tell I was undereating. My parents didn’t really notice, not because they weren’t paying attention but because I got really good at hiding it. And I felt like not seeing other people meant there was no one else to talk to about it except my family and I didn’t really want to do that.” They also talked about their journey developing a healthier relationship with food when they came out of isolation, “I started eating a lot more than I used to and felt so much better. I wasn’t shaking all the time, I didn’t get headaches, or feel weak from hunger like I used to.”

The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders states that, “28.8 million Americans will have an eating disorder in their lifetime.” To understand the prevalence of eating disorders in our community, I sent out an anonymous form asking students and teachers if they are currently, or have ever, struggled with an eating disorder. I received 65 responses, 25 people answering “yes” and 40 people answering “no.”

         I asked Mrs. Harrison, our school counselor, about the amount of people at our school she sees about eating disorder treatment and she said, “there's a social component to it where people can influence each other, so some years we might see that there are quite a few students that are struggling with a specific mental health issue and other years that might kind of be on the downward trend.” In other words, communities can adopt like-minded ways of thinking and people’s mindset about food is no exception to this. If there are quite a few people in a community that are struggling with an eating disorder, then unfortunately it is not uncommon for those disordered thoughts when it comes to food to be shared and adopted by others in that community.

When I asked Ms. Harrison about whether eating disorders ever really go away, she said, “if you're an alcoholic, you can choose not to drink alcohol. So even though it's tough and a lot of people relapse with substance use, the relationship with substances and eating is very different because you have to have a relationship with food in order to live. I absolutely believe people can overcome eating illnesses and conquer them and manage their lives in a healthy way with eating, but I do think that it is not unusual to have a period of time where you might relapse.” People who struggle with eating disorders have to figure out how to have a healthy relationship with food again in order to recover, having to develop a completely different mindset from the disordered one they've adopted.

           I also asked Mrs. Harrison about the danger surrounding eating disorders, she told me, “About 18-20% of people that suffer from eating disorders will prematurely die from complications related to their eating disorder, including suicide and heart problems. Eating illnesses are very deadly mental health illnesses."

Like many mental health illnesses, the topic of eating disorders is not one that is greatly talked about, which can make it hard for people to know exactly how to address it due to lack of education. Because of this, some people are not aware that comments complimenting people on weight loss, or telling someone how skinny they look can have a very negative impact on a person, even when the intentions behind the comments aren’t meant to cause harm.

           Complimenting someone on looking “skinnier” or on losing weight not only supports the idea that beauty means a certain way of looking, which is not true, but can also fuel a person’s desire to reach their image of an ideal body because others are telling them they look better due to their weight loss. 

A junior who has struggled with orthorexia spoke about their experience with this, “when I had started losing that initial weight, people would kind of exalt me and be like, oh my God, you look so good. Like give me your workout routine, and stuff like that. And I think that comments like that really fueled me, just pushing it more and pushing it to a point where I didn't even realize how much I was losing and I didn't even see how much weight I had lost. I definitely had a lot of body dysmorphia. From start to finish, I really didn't realize how much I had actually lost and how detrimental that would be to my health.”

           Instead of complimenting someone on how their body looks, you can tell them how pretty their hair or eyes are, or how much you like their style or instead of focusing on physical appearance, you can also tell someone your favorite thing about their personality or how great of a friend they are.

I interviewed a sophomore who struggles with bulimia and anorexia and who brought up the relationship between sports and eating disorders, “Playing sports has made it better because I need fuel for my body to play and I realized how dizzy and fatigued I’d be when I didn’t eat.”

          This relationship is an important one to explore, especially when sports play such a large role in our school community. I interviewed Mr. Humphreys, our school’s wrestling coach, about the connection between eating disorders and sports such as wrestling. Mr. Humphreys spoke about the sports focus on weight, “Unfortunately, with any kind of weight class sport there is a time where you’re going to need to step on a scale but for the most part, at least from my experiences, we’ve done things very differently here. When I was in high school, I cut a lot of weight and I would never want to see anybody go through that and so that’s one thing that we really make sure that we don’t do here and anytime an athlete wants to drop a weight class, it’s a joint conversation and effort together to get them there safely.”

           Mira Henry '24 is a student who dances, another sport where eating disorders can be common. She talks about ways to develop a better mindset when it comes to body image, “I would recommend to stop following people on social media that make you feel bad about yourself. You can also delete social media or get your social media to be a place that has people who are encouraging you and not hurting your mental health”

           From speaking with many people who have endured so much pain because of their eating disorder, I've learned that it is incredibly hard to recover but also that it is incredibly worth it in the end to become healthier and happier after recovery. 

         When talking about their eating disorder recovery journey a junior says, “I think it definitely needs to be a harsher support system and someone who's gonna push you to get help. Both my family and my nutritionist were very harsh voices, and I really didn't like that at first. The first few months of my recovery were definitely really painful, especially eating out and social situations and stuff like that. But I saw how life had started changing once I started gaining that weight back and how I could really shift my life. I think it is self recognition and realizing yourself that you don't wanna live that way anymore.”