Eating Disorders Strike Men and Women Victims Say Malady Saps Strength, Self-Control

By Kristina Sauerwein Of The Post-Dispatch | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), February 26, 1996 | Go to article overview

Eating Disorders Strike Men and Women Victims Say Malady Saps Strength, Self-Control


Kristina Sauerwein Of The Post-Dispatch, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


No body fat meant that people would gape at Stephanie and call her gross - the ultimate compliment.

No body fat meant that people would see nothing when Terry ran by - and he was always running, sometimes until his toes bled.

Stephanie wanted to be a skeleton; Terry a ghost. So they starved themselves until their bones looked like they would rip through their skin.

Growing numbers of physicians and counselors are studying the psychological factors that drive an estimated 7 million women and 1 mi llion men nationwide to suffer from an eating disorder - anorexia, bulimia, or both.

Anorexia is self-starvation to the point that a person is 85 percent below a healthy weight. Bulimia is binging on food, followed by self-induced vomiting or abusing laxatives.

Experts are continuing to record an increase in female and male patients - particularly male - with eating disorders. In the St. Louis area, anorexia and bulimia are "alive and well and growing," said therapist Francesca Ferrentelli, program director of the Rader Institute, an eating disorders treatment center at Lutheran Medical Center.

"So many women and men are destroying their bodies and living in shame and pain," said Michael Levin, a psychology professor at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, and a noted researcher who has studied eating disorders for 13 years. "And there are so many unknowns about why they do it."

Chaos Leads To Disorders

Both sexes are more likely to develop anorexia, bulimia or a combination - compared with 10 or 20 years ago, experts say. That's because eating disorders have to do with control - controlling one aspect of life (food) when everything else seems unfamiliar and uncontrollable (for instance, unstable relationships, corporate downsizing, new environments).

"Life is more chaotic today," said Sandra Haber, a psychologist in New York City who specializes in eating disorders. She cited an uncertain job market, an increase in family problems and a fear of AIDS and violence.

"People feel like they have less control," Haber said.

Add a society that continues to emphasize physical appearance, and "it's easy to see why eating disorders are so prevalent," said Arnold E. Andersen, psychiatry professor at the University of Iowa and author of research books on eating disorders.

One of Andersen's studies compared the number of thin-is-in ads and articles in the top 10 magazines read by females and males. He found that women's magazines focus on weight loss 10 times more than men's - roughly the ratio of women with eating disorders compared to men.

Search For Ideal Physique

Pressures for a perfect body play a large role in who develops eating disorders, Andersen explained. Women still endure the most intense pressure, he said, but society is telling men that they, too, have to sport a fat-free body.

"Men used to be able to get away with being roly-poly," said Randall Flanery, director of the Eating Disorders Program at St. Louis University's School of Medicine. In recent years, he's worked with male patients who are "really conscientious, even obsessed, about their looks," he said. "I rarely saw that before."

Both women and men want to get thin to look good, experts say. But what looks good is the difference between women and men who have eating disorders. Women want to be bonier than anyone else. They want people to notice, even if negatively, because it's a tribute to their control.

Men want to be trim. Most men with eating disorders were once teased about their weight. Most fear developing a health problem, such as heart disease or diabetes. Most would cringe at attention because they want to vanish in their thinness.

Stephanie and Terry have recovered from their eating disorders. Their stories illustrate the similarities and differences between women and men. …

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