For women, being thin is still society’s archetype for defining beauty. And well if you can be skinny it’s even better than being just thin. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines skinny “as lacking sufficient flesh : very thin : EMACIATED.” Why should being emaciated be something women need to strive for? No wonder eating disorders kill more people than any other mental health disorder (besides Opioids).
Yes, we are beginning to see some advertised brands include models with more diverse body types, (like Dove) but it doesn’t compare to the constant barrage of the hyper skinny models and influencers young women see all around them while their bodies are still forming. The worst contributor to this growing problem is social media which is devoured by young women across all cultures.
In my opinion, Instagram is the most egregious platform of all. For instance, there is a widely distributed food brand constantly promoted on Instagram by the owner herself; Bethenny Frankel (@bethennyfrankel). She was once a reality star and leveraged her fame to start the Skinny Girl line of products. She has become a leading Instagram influencer with 2.3 Million followers and her brand page titled Skinny Girl (@skinnygirlbrand) has another 190,000 followers. She does all the promotion for her products herself and is so thin – it looks to me like she might have an eating disorder. She is 50 years old with bones jutting out from her neck and malnourished-looking arms. Is this what we want our daughters to strive for?
These media messages affect adolescent girls in profound and dangerous ways. Here are some sobering facts from Anad.org – a leading non-profit offering free peer-to-peer support services to people with eating disorders:
- 9% of the US population will have an eating disorder in their lifetime
- That translates to 28.8 million people
- Eating disorders are among the deadliest mental illnesses, second only to opioid overdose
- 10,200 deaths each year are the direct result of an eating disorder—that’s one death every 52 minutes.2
- The economic cost of eating disorders is $64.7 billion every year.
- Black teenagers are 50% more likely than white teenagers to exhibit bulimic behavior, such as binge-eating and purging.3
- Hispanic people are significantly more likely to suffer from bulimia nervosa than their non-Hispanic peers.3
As women with a great deal at stake, we need to more aggressively advocate for overcoming the media’s relentless “skinny” messaging.
A Deeply Personal Journey of a Relative’s Eating Disorder
This week our family lost a female cousin at the tender age of 34 years young who had been struggling with the disease since her early teens. In and out of hospitals from New Jersey to Pennsylvania to Florida and Minneapolis, she never found a reprieve from her illness.
And the disease starts much younger than you think:
- 2% of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner.
- 81% of 10 year old children are afraid of being fat.
- 46% of 9-11 year-olds are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets.
- 35-57% of adolescent girls engage in crash dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, diet pills, or laxatives.19
- In a college campus survey, 91% of the women admitted to controlling their weight through dieting.20
In our cousin’s case, we think the disorder was caused by Post Traumatic Stree Disorder. When she was just 8 years old (1995), her mother enrolled her in one of New Jersey’s top private schools. She flourished and her parents couldn’t be happier.
But soon her disposition changed and she became combative, anxious and depressed. It was not until years later she disclosed to her parents that a teacher in the elite private school had sexually assaulted her.
This traumatic event is what precipitated a life of emotional pain, anorexia, bulimia, cutting, and self-loathing. Of course, her parents were horrified that their daughter kept this a secret for so many years. But predators often swear their victims to secrecy threatening them if they tell.
Because our cousin got so sick from anorexia (sometimes weighing as little as 80 pounds) many times she was hospitalized with a feeding tube to ensure she get proper nutrients and supplements. But unfortunately, the treatments didn’t seem to help.
Her parents decided to file a civil lawsuit against the teacher and the private school to ensure this predator be stopped before harming other young girls. They found out during the course of the trial that the teacher had been fired from other private schools before coming to this one for similar reasons, but it was never put on his record. This was before the term predator was used and awareness of predatory behavior remained silent.
They won the case and were awarded a large sum of money which they used to provide additional treatments in the hopes of saving their daughter. With a plethora of residential treatment programs, outpatient treatment programs, psychiatrists, multiple medications, therapy, and the like she could never overcome the trauma of the sexual abuse. Consequently, on Thursday, November 11th, 2021 she was found unconscious in her apartment. She never regained consciousness having suffered both liver and kidney failure.
This is my effort to increase awareness for how deadly eating disorders are and the media’s role in perpetuating the problem. It is also an effort to educate parents about this challenging mental illness that results in more deaths than any other mental health disorder (besides opioids). Parents please talk to your kids about body image and make sure to listen to signs from your child who may be suffering in silence. Some things to listen for from your sons’ (yes boys get it too) and daughters’ conversations are, “I’m too fat,” “I need to eat less,” “I’m going on a diet, “I don’t like my thighs.” These can all be tell-tale signs.
For more information on the disease, treatments, and support go to: