As a kid, I was skinny: a genetic predisposition that occasionally led to name calling: parachute pants were in style at the time resulting in the unfortunate and politically incorrect "gail" reference of "Ethiopian in a bag"! My parents tried to fatten me up by changing "FRI"days to "FRY"days and force-fed me french fries at least once weekly!
As a teen, skinny began to mean something entirely different. With fashion magazines reinforcing skinny as beautiful, maintaining my skeletal genetics became of utmost importance! Walking four kilometres a day, to school and back, coupled with two aerobics classes on less than a few cookies and an apple became my norm. When I think back on my years from ages 14-18, I cannot fully comprehend how exactly I survived.
Anorexia (long-term calorie restriction to the point of starvation) is an interesting pathological disorder: from a mental-emotional perspective, anorexia gives the sufferer a sense of control when everything else in their lives seems completely out of control - it is a coping mechanism of sorts. From a patho-physiological perspective, the body attempts to maintain homeostasis in the event of starvation which results in an inability to determine hunger (due to a slower metabolic rate) and an inability to determine when the appetite has been satiated (an inability to determine fullness). This mechanism is implemented as a protective measure: if the anorexic begins to eat, the body does not initiate the feeling of fullness because it doesn't really want the person to stop eating! Chemically, low levels of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) is found in anorexics. This neurotransmitter plays a key role in learning and memory: it's really no surprise that I was failing high school organic chemistry and couldn't add to save my life!
Anorexia and body dysmorphia are not conditions that an individual recovers from with ease: many physiological mechanisms are still in place long after an individual has achieved a healthier lifestyle. For instance, even now, I have a difficult time determining hunger and fullness - these mechanisms have never re-regulated themselves completely.
In athletics, anorexia and body dysmorphia are glaringly present. In a 2002 study of 425 female, university level athletes, 43% said they were terrified of being or becoming too heavy, 55% reported pressure to maintain a certain weight. I can appreciate this! Even years after my difficult eating challenges, while training to compete nationally (age 27, height 5ft 6.5", 106lbs), I was told by a coach that I would run faster if I lost a "good 5lbs". I never went back to that coach: better to run and not feel like collapsing and dying!
Anorexia is a complicated condition with a multitude of influencing factors. Recovery is a bit of a winding road with quite a few setbacks. Sometimes it is difficult to let go of behaviour patterns that don't serve us simply because they become our comfort zone. My disordered eating was an unhealthy behaviour pattern that I used to cope. Letting go of that pattern meant letting the illusion of control and the outside appearance of having it all together. This still feels vulnerable and chaotic sometimes, but at least now I have the chaos AND some curves!
**For additional information and statistics, please go to NEDIC: the National Eating Disorder Information Centre**