A disease that’s too easy to understand

Every school break I look forward to returning home and reuniting with my friends. Unlike other high school friends, who seem to become fewer each year, our group remains tight. Though we don’t see each other as often, in our hearts we are the same close friends who played Barbies and attended high school proms together.
Part of the nostalgia is the familiarity of doing things we’ve always done together: lying on the beach, browsing the mall or eating at our favorite restaurants.
But the last part, eating, is something we haven’t all shared lately.
Our dear friend Amy won’t eat with us anymore because she has an increasingly serious eating disorder.
Amy’s problem is not something we noticed recently; it’s been an ongoing and wave-like cyclical pattern. At least, that’s what we see from the outside.
The first wave surfaced after high school graduation. Amy seemed paranoid about gaining the “freshman fifteen,” supposedly the average amount of weight a female gains in her first year of college.
Amy’s conversations increasingly revolved around exercising, food and her body. When we’d ask what she had eaten on any particular day, we could pretty much guess the answer: carrots, frozen yogurt, and plain bagels.
At Christmas she agreed to go out to Chinese food with us. But while we chatted and gobbled down sizzling rice soup, lo mein and house special chicken, she picked at her entree of plain rice.
Amy loves to draw attention to herself. As a child, she was put in the spotlight while acting in television commercials. After that, she always stood out as an excellent student and athletic competitor. Her successes continue; she goes to college in California and is currently president of all sororities on her campus. Her eating pattern could have been dismissed as a ploy for more attention; however, after a heart-to-heart conversation we had last summer, our tight-knit group of friends knew better.
Amy had confided in us last summer that she had missed three menstrual cycles. She said she realized that her exercising had probably led to the unhealthy condition.
My friends and I discussed our friend’s problem, comparing notes about her eating habits and behaviors to see if it made sense.
We each read up on eating disorders and learned what we expected. Missing three periods or more due to weight loss is called amenorrhea, a characteristic of anorexia.
Though we’re not doctors, we agree Amy’s behavior falls somewhere in line with anorexia. Anorexia nervosa is defined as a mental distress in which a individuals starve themselves and exercise excessively. Characteristics include a weight loss to 15 percent below normal, hyperactivity and hypothermia (or feeling cold constantly).
Anorexia most likely occurs in women who are perfectionists and need strict order in their lives, according to an eating disorder research group. This fits Amy perfectly.
After we were convinced Amy had a problem, we had a heart-to-heart conversation with her. As psychologists suggest, we told her we loved her, we supported her, and we didn’t want to see her harm her body. At that time, her parents also got involved and became aware of the problem.
I thought, and hoped, things would get better from there. But as I’ve learned, anorexia, like alcoholism, is something you have to work at constantly. Sufferers can relapse.
During spring break, Amy told one of us she calculates the number of calories she eats in one day and then burns them off at the gym. She said she was most proud of the one day she burned 1,200 calories on the StairMaster.
It’s frightening to hear that she is still struggling. And as friends who only see Amy three or four times a year, it’s difficult to feel like we’re helping. Our absence from her is the most frustrating part. But as long as she knows we love and support her, and as long as she continues to get help from her parents, I think she can overcome it.
My friends and I have discussed our friend’s problem at length, and we don’t know where to point the finger. Certainly, we grew up in a society that excessively focuses on physical appearance. But what else can you focus on when you spend your time eating, trying on clothes and lying half naked on the beach?
Amy represents a lot of women in her drive to succeed. To her, and most people afflicted with anorexia, the disorder is about self-control. She can control her achievements in school and in her social career, so it makes sense for her to control what her body looks like. Though her method of weight loss is extreme, don’t we all, especially women, hypercriticize ourselves to some degree?
The gym and tanning salons are always packed with people this time of year, in anticipation of baring more flesh to the opposite sex. Even I catch myself poring over magazines, wanting my legs to look like that, my stomach to look like hers, and my skin to be that color.
In this sense, women’s magazines are dangerous. No matter how much the articles tell women how to have self-esteem and become independent, the photos of models remind us of what is wrong with us and what we should look like. Media analysts point out that both men’s and women’s magazines emphasize the ideal image of a woman.
I’m not blaming my friend’s problem on the magazine industry, but it makes me sad to think that women hold themselves to a never-good-enough standard. It’s not just Amy’s problem, it’s society’s problem.
I should be surprised that 7 million women ages 15 to 35 suffer from an eating disorder. But I’m not. I can easily understand the reasoning behind what Amy’s doing to herself.
Psychologists always talk about the child-self when looking to the root of the problem. My first image of us as kids is when we would sit around in a circle playing Barbies. Now I think maybe we shouldn’t have.

For information and help with eating disorders, call the Mental Health Clinic of Boynton Health Service at 624-1444. The clinic offers information, and individual and group psychotherapy.
Sara Goo’s columns will appear in the Daily weekly. She is currently a senior in the school of Journalism and Mass Communication.