EVERY WOMAN SHOULD BE THIN. At least that's what American society dictates. Pictures of emaciated models and celebrities flood the media, aimed at young women who feel defective if they're not so thin their bones protrude. And it's working. Seventy-five percent of American women say they live in a chronic state of dissatisfaction with their body. And 5-10 million young women struggle with eating disorders and borderline conditions.
These eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa (self-starvation that leads to extreme weight loss), bulimia nervosa (bingeing and purging), and binge eating (compulsive overeating with no purging), affect both mind and body simultaneously. According to Donald Durham, program founder for Remuda Treatment Centers, an inpatient/outpatient Christian counseling facility, eating disorders are often triggered by a specific traumatic event or set of circumstances that causes the person to use food as a solution to resolve her pain. Eating disorder sufferers tend to be young women aged 14-25 (however, the disorder can strike as early as age 8 or as late as age 70), Caucasian, affluent, and perfectionistic, with a type-A personality. When they feel their world is falling apart, they rest in the knowledge that they at least can control their bodies. The hidden truth, of course, is that what they initially take control over soon controls them.
Christie Schweer and Renee Ratcliffe found that to be true—and soon were battling for their lives. But they had the guts to get help. With the help of their faith in Christ, they've stopped looking at their bodies through distorted lenses. Now in recovery from anorexia, they share their stories in the hope others will find healing. —The EditorsMY STRUGGLE WITH BEAUTY
Three years ago, a normal day for me consisted of eating only nonfat or low-fat foods and exercising for three hours. What began as a simple plan to drop 5 pounds somehow spiraled into an eating disorder and a 30-pound weight loss on my 5'8" frame.
I'd never have considered myself a candidate for anorexia, but going halfway across the country to attend college proved to be more than I could handle emotionally. In order to cope with my loneliness, I became obsessed with weight and fitness.
During the first two months of school, I gained a few pounds, even though I was on the tennis team and was getting exercise. At home my mother cooked healthy, well-balanced meals, but the school dining hall offered mostly fattening foods and plenty of tempting desserts. I didn't want to be a victim of the "freshman 15," so I decided to exercise more and cut back on my food intake to burn off those extra pounds. I decided to eat salad for dinner every night.
In the beginning, I made subtle changes—eating less desserts and more fruits and vegetables. Soon, I began giving up more foods I thought would make me fat. If I indulged in a "forbidden food," such as chips or pasta or pizza, I was riddled with guilt. Eventually I even taught myself that meat and cheese were a "waste" of calories. I quickly became aware of the caloric and fat content of almost everything I ate. But because I never let myself go hungry, I didn't think I had a problem. My goal was to eat the fewest calories each day while still having the energy to do the things I wanted to do. As I lost weight, I began to receive compliments for my improved appearance. Being away from home and having to make all new friends made me feel insecure, so I relished the attention I received.
But as the year progressed, the compliments turned to concern. I started hearing comments about eating disorders. I couldn't believe how quickly I'd gone from being so attractive, and having the perfect figure, to being accused of having anorexia.
By the end of my freshman year, I'd dropped from 145 to 114. When I returned to school that August, my tennis coach looked worried. He arranged for me to have a physical exam and to meet with both a nutritionist and a psychologist. I thought the doctors would reassure me that I was fine—but instead, they forced me to face my problem.
After a physician gave me an EKG, he informed me my resting heart rate was dangerously low, and that I was at risk for having a heart attack. After that appointment, I went for a run and the whole time feared that at any moment I'd have heart failure. After an interview with the psychologist, I was given the final blow: She told me her diagnosis was anorexia nervosa. She recommended I start meeting weekly with a psychologist. I just kept thinking, How could this have happened?
I was open with my parents about what was going on, and they were supportive through everything. They had been concerned about my weight over the summer, but they also knew I needed to be the one to ask for help if lasting change were to occur. When I told them the diagnosis, they encouraged me to get the counseling I needed. I shared with them everything my psychologist and I talked about, and they were always only a phone call away to listen to and encourage me. I can't imagine what they endured knowing I was going through such a difficult time so far away. But I knew I wanted to work through my problem on my own, knowing they were pulling for me.
Over the next semester, I saw my psychologist weekly, and we gradually worked through my problem. As I faced my eating disorder head-on, I realized how bad things had really become. All I could think about was what I would or wouldn't allow myself to eat. My mood was determined by how much I weighed or how much I'd eaten. My obsession embarrassed me; it was hard to admit I had a weakness.
In order to work it through, my psychologist and I had to pinpoint the root of my obsession. We talked extensively about my perfectionism, my need for control, and how I'd hidden from my pain over leaving home. I missed the comfort and security I'd felt at home. In high school I'd been a star pupil and athlete. But in college I'd found it difficult to set myself apart academically and athletically. My body was the one thing over which I could have complete control.
Facing these feelings was emotionally draining; I felt cheated because I had to deal with my eating disorder while my friends were out having fun and enjoying college. But eventually I came to understand and accept who I'd become. Over time I gradually learned to let go of my obsession.
Although having an eating disorder was one the hardest things I've ever experienced, it's been one of the biggest blessings. I had to face the fact that what I'd been doing with my body wasn't God-honoring—I'd worshiped my weight as an idol. But God's taught me some amazing things through my recovery. I've discovered where true beauty lies: in my identity in Christ. During my second year at school, I got involved in Athletes in Action, and attended their summer camp. There they talked about being grounded in Christ rather than in athletics. I'd already gone through a year of counseling, but that message marked a real turning point for me. I suddenly realized I could let go of my eating disorder because God loves and accepts me, regardless of my weight. This acknowledgement was the only way I could finally release my obsession completely. I'd wanted to please the world as well as please God, but he showed me that in order to be with him, I have to let go of everything else.
Although my recovery's been gradual, I finally feel like myself again. I've gained 13 pounds over the last year, and look much healthier. I've been able to add at least 1,000 calories to my daily diet. I'm no longer afraid to eat foods such as meats and cheese. Some days I still become concerned about gaining too much weight and I have to be careful not to weigh myself or look at nutrition labels too often. But now I feel better equipped to deal with these fears. I finally can recognize when my past habits tempt me and stop them. My weight will probably always be a vulnerable area of my life, but it's in my weakness that God's power is made perfect.
Christie Schweer is a senior at the University of Virginia.
What to Watch Out for
- Skips meals or eats in a ritualistic way (such as cutting food into extremely small bites)
- Large amounts of food disappear—if bulimic
- Denies hunger
- Exercises excessively
- When eating, chooses only low- or no-fat foods
- Becomes repulsed with red meat and desserts
- Uses excessive amounts of mouthwash and breath mints
- Finds excuses to use restroom after every meal
- Meticulous and compulsive, with very high standards for achievement and success
- Withdraws from social settings
- Extreme mood swings
- Laxative or diuretic wrappers found frequently in trash
- Menstrual cycle changes
Where to Get Help
520-684-3913 or 800-445-1900
Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention, Inc. (EDAP)
206-382-3587 or 800-931-2237
Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders (ANRED)