By Gayla Grace
Obsessed with every bite of food she ate, Christy’s weight plummeted to 65 pounds. She chewed food for flavor and then spit it out. She wouldn’t drink water for fear of bloating. Without nutrition she couldn’t get out of bed, her eyes changed color, her menstrual cycle ceased, and she endured a host of other physical problems. One day, her mom broke down crying and said, “You’re killing yourself, Christy. You can’t do this.” Finally, Christy recognized she had a problem. In the process of trying to be perfect, she had let food rule her world.
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, anorexia is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents. Many believe eating disorders are the result of a dysfunctional home or some kind of trauma suffered by the individual. Certain factors contribute to eating disorders, but the underlying cause is often difficult to determine.
Christy, a classic example, had loving parents who cared for and encouraged her through her pre-adolescent and adolescent years. They never suspected she would develop anorexia. But she did.
As Christy physically matured through adolescence, she says, “I was a curvy girl-not fat-just curvy.” When she obtained a contract to model with Crown Royal in her late teen years, she decided she no longer wanted her curves. Five pounds down felt good, so she tried for another five, then another five, then another. It became a mental struggle as she began to believe her body looked fat, when it really didn’t. She continued to lose weight, fearful of losing control and going back to her curvy self.
Once Christy acknowledged her need for help, her mom took her to an outpatient treatment facility for anorexia, where Christy checked in willingly. She began to get help through regular sessions of individual and group counseling. She made friends with other young women who struggled with similar issues.
Christy was given a meal plan that she followed religiously. She gained 40 pounds in a month and began functioning again. Many of her physical issues resolved themselves and she felt better than she had in years.
Christy’s advice to parents of tween and teens girls centers on awareness of their eating habits. If you notice a significant decrease in appetite or they start to pull back from eating, ask questions. “Are you not feeling well?” “Are you stressed out?” “Are you feeling pressure at school?” If they’re focused more on how they look and are making comments such as, “I’m so fat,” “Look at my belly,” “I need to lose 20 pounds,” pay attention.
Today’s society teaches girls the wrong thing. Girls are comparing themselves to photo shopped models and trying to emulate them. Reinforce to your daughter that the scale is just a number-it doesn’t define who they are.
Christy also emphasizes that the first female role model for girls is their mom. “Our daughters are watching and learning from us,” she says. She encourages moms to teach their daughters, “Beauty truly comes from within. It’s not your outward appearance that matters most.” And “they don’t have to be perfect, they don’t have to be a certain size, and they don’t have to look a certain way to be successful.”
If you determine your child has an issue, Christy says, “It needs to be addressed head on. Don’t let it go-it can spiral quickly. Start with a family physician and let the doctor give you suggestions.” Many physicians have their own nutritionist on site that can help. Parents often need help too. Ask for referrals for a counselor trained in eating disorders. “It’s an entire process. They need to know how to eat, what to eat, and actually how to start over,” Christy says.
Eating disorders often start in girls as young as 11 or 12 when their bodies go through significant change. There are long-term effects from the strain and pressure put on the body that many don’t recognize. Christy suffered from significant kidney issues that resulted in surgery to combat infection. Due to severe dehydration from her refusing to drink water for fear of bloating, her body couldn’t flush out its toxins. She struggles with long-term effects that include regular appointments to a urologist to ensure her kidneys are working properly and concerns regarding other internal organs that could prevent her from having children.
Christy began pageantry to increase awareness of eating disorders through her platform. She has won several titles, including Mrs. Texas 2010 and Mrs. Louisiana 2013.
Project HEAL: Help to Eat, Accept and Live is a not-for-profit organization that states, “We provide scholarship funding for people with eating disorders who cannot afford treatment, promote healthy body image and self esteem, and serve as a testament that full recovery from an eating disorder is possible.” Information on this organization can be found at www.theprojectheal.org.
Don’t ignore the signs. “Eating disorder is a living, breathing thing. There’s not enough awareness out there. It’s killing people,” says Christy, “but it doesn’t have to.”
Gayla Grace holds a master’s degree in Psychology and Counseling and seeks to educate and empower parents and stepparents.