Our bodies are changing and sometimes it’s hard to feel good about ourselves. The media shows us unrealistically perfect bodies, and we wonder why we don’t look like that. For some, their negative body image is too much, and they resort to extreme and unhealthy measures to achieve what they view as the perfect body. Anorexia and bulimia are two of these unhealthy extremes. These eating disorders are recognized as mental and physiological disorders that impact how a person treats food and eating habits. Recognizing the signs, symptoms, and effects of these disorders may help you to develop a healthier body image and maybe even help a friend or family member who might be struggling with their own body image.
What Is Body Image?
Body image is how we perceive our physical appearance. It is shaped, at least in part, by the media and what the mainstream media advertises as “beautiful”. In current western culture, the media tells women that to be pretty or beautiful we must be thin. Men and boys are told that they must be lean or muscular. These ideals, along with peer pressure and unrealistic physical expectation, play a large part in shaping our body image, especially how we view our weight.
In order to be considered beautiful by cultural standards, some of us will go to great lengths, even unhealthy or dangerous lengths, to change the way our bodies look. In some cases, we may not be able to fully realize or recognize the changes in our body. This can lead to taking weight loss too far, as we strive for the unrealistic and idealized perfect, thin body. In serious cases, a person could be diagnosed with anorexia or bulimia, eating disorders that can leave the body drained and starving for energy. If left untreated, anorexia and bulimia can both result in hospitalization and even death.
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Anorexia nervosa is a medical condition that is characterized by a lack of appetite or unwillingness to satisfy an appetite for fear of gaining weight. Those who suffer from this medical condition also exhibit a distorted body image and believe themselves to be “fat” or weight more than they really do. They may be unable to recognize the physical changes in their body and take their weight loss to an extreme level by not eating enough or refusing to eat at all. An obsession with fitness and exercising to an unhealthy extreme may also be a characteristic of this serious medical condition. Other signs include obsessive calorie counting or food logging everything consumed; right down to the last breath mint and carrot stick.
If you believe a friend or family member may be suffering from anorexia, it’s important that you voice your concerns. Talk to a parent or trusted adult and they can convey those concerns to a medical professional that has the background and skills needed to address the person’s unhealthy behaviors and work with them to develop healthier eating habits and a more accurate body image. It’s not uncommon for those being treated for anorexia nervosa to get the help of both a medical physician and a psychologist. Anorexia is classified as a body dysmorphic disorder and has as much to do with one’s perception of their body as it does with their physical well-being. Treatment that tackles both the psychological and physical aspects may be most effective and result in the person gaining the perspective and long-term lifestyle skills needed to manage or recover from this disorder.
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Bulimia is also a body dysmorphic disorder in which a person obsesses over losing weight and being thin, believing that there’s no such thing as too thin or skinny. Those struggling with bulimia, however, manifest the disorder differently than those struggling with anorexia. Bulimia is characterized by a habitual, regular, consumption of large quantities of food. Intense feelings of guilt and remorse accompany this action. Overcome by the guilt of consuming food, someone suffering with bulimia may believe they have no choice but to purge the food from their body. One might resort to forcing themselves to vomit or defecate through the use of medications such as laxatives or syrup of ipecac, which induces vomiting.
One who’s suffering from bulimia may feel embarrassed of their actions and hide their large scale food consumption, called binging, and vomiting, called purging. Some may acknowledge that the behaviors that they’re exhibiting aren’t healthy, but they may also feel an overwhelming urge to continue these actions. When left untreated, binging and purging not only exhausts the body of key nutrients and energy it needs to function, but it also damages the internal organs, including the esophagus and teeth, which may be burned by the bile, or digestive juices, that are part of vomiting. There’s also a risk of dehydration since the body is not receiving the fluids it needs to recover from habitual binging and purging. If you believe a friend or family member is suffering from bulimia, pay attention to a few key signals, including: frequent trips to the bathroom after a meal, hidden food stashes or remnants of food consumed in large quantities in private, regular purchasing of purging aids, discolors or rotted teeth, or foul breath resulting from purging.
These body dysmorphic disorders commonly go hand-in-hand and it is not uncommon for a person to display signs of each and exhibit behaviors of both. Because of this, the treatment of bulimia is very similar to that of anorexia. Through counseling, support, and medical attention, it is possible for those affected by anorexia and bulimia to recover and develop healthier habits and a more accepting body image.
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