Anorexia in Christian teens
How to identify it, what to do about it, how families can help
What is anorexia? Anorexia is a persistent avoidance of food, but not from eating too much. Anorexics may want to eat but are unable to — without necessarily knowing why. They have little control over the disorder until treatment starts taking effect.
The most widely publicized form is anorexia nervosa. If you have anorexia nervosa your body becomes thin and may drop to half the weight it should be — yet you still will not eat. The disorder affects more females then males, and can affect any age group.
Many people think the media should take some blame for portraying the idea that “superthin” is desirable. They say that magazines and glamorous TV ads too often use thin models. This can build up a wrong image in impressionable young minds that being underweight is normal and good.
Others point out that food and weight loss are usually only the surface of an anorexic's problem. Underlying problems may include low self-esteem, a craving for attention, an attempt to punish themselves, a need to have complete control over something, and many other reasons.
Teens reveal their path to anorexia
Some teens who have recovered from anorexia said they chose thin people as role models and tried to be like them. But one sufferer told us: “Anorexia isn't about being skinny — it is about something taking control of your mind and body. It was never to do with skinny role models for me. I just knew I needed to lose as much weight as I could until I was nearly dead.”
“You don't just find your body becoming skinny,” she said. “You start to listen to a voice that isn't your own. It is as if the illness takes on a form of its own. You isolate yourself and sometimes don't even lose much weight. An anorexic at nearly a healthy weight has just as much mental torment as one that is half dead.”
In November 2009, BBC News reported that researchers from Beat, a charity that deals with eating disorders, interviewed 600 16-25-year-olds with eating disorders. They found that 91% said they had been bullied, and 46% said they believed that bullying had contributed to their eating disorder.
When someone first develops anorexia it may not be obvious. As time goes on they become secretive about eating habits, and may seem preoccupied with themselves and with food.
They begin to lose weight, and may become obsessed with exercise. You may notice their clothes becoming looser. In the deeper stages of anorexia, personality changes and physical changes become very obvious. Sufferers becomes depressed, self-absorbed, and may feel overtired. They become noticeably skinny and bony, more sensitive to cold, and young women may stop having periods. Their body may become hairier, they can faint from malnutrition, and hair may fall out.
Long-term, anorexia can damage the heart and ovaries. Acids the stomach produces can rot an anorexic's teeth. Sufferers of anorexia may develop manic depression, suicidal tendencies and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
What families can do
Friends and family need to let the anorexia sufferer know they love her, and that God loves her too. Family and friends are also victims of the disorder. They may feel that the anorexic doesn't care about them any more because of the self-preoccupation, but more than anything the anorexic needs unconditional love and support.
Watch those nicknames!
Calling someone hurtful names when they are young may contribute to that person's becoming anorexic. Calling someone “tubby,” “porky,” “stringbean,” and other hurtful names is cruel and insensitive.
It is normal for some people to be overweight or underweight when they are 11, 12, or in early teens, but this weight usually evens out as they grow older.
And watch for signs of bullying. This can be absolute torment for some people, and as mentioned above, research shows that a huge number of people with eating disorders have been victims of bullying.
Thin doesn't equal success
Some people look at superthin models and think that thin equals success. But for every thin person who is successful there is a fat success story as well. For example, Oprah Winfrey was successful in television when she was overweight. So was actor John Candy and actress Kirstie Alley.
If you think you may be anorexic, you need to seek medical advice quickly. The problem with many anorexics is that they either don't believe there is anything wrong with them, or they won't admit that getting overly thin is a problem. This makes treatment difficult, because the first big step toward a cure is to want a cure (or at least accept that you need a cure).
You should want to look in that mirror and see and know that you are a normal person once again. It is important for sufferers to know they are not alone and that they didn't choose to get sick. Family and friends need to be sympathethic — not judgmental.
The treatment for anorexia usually takes three stages:
- Accept that you need help, then cooperate with the treatment.
- Gain weight from eating the right foods and having good medical care.
- Maintain your correct weight by building a positive and sensible attitude toward yourself.
What does the Bible say?
The Bible doesn't mention anorexia by name, but there are verses that relate to it. A physician told us she once suffered from anorexia. When she was recovering she came across a Bible passage that helped change her life. It is Psalm 107:17-21, which tells of people who, because of their separation from God, abhorred all manner of food. Any anorexic will identify with this loathing of food. But the Bible adds that “they cry unto the Lord in their trouble” and He saves them out of their distress. Getting rid of that separation from God is the key.
The Bible says that you are a temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16 and 2 Corinthians 6:19). This means you must look after your body. Fight against anything that will harm your body.
Ephesians 5:29,30 tells us we should not hate our bodies, but feed them and cherish them as Christ loves the church, because we are members of Christ's body. In 1 Peter 3:3,4 we are told to concern ourselves with what is on the inside rather than the outside.
Steven Curtis Chapman recorded a song called Fingerprints of God, with lyrics that may hold some encouragement for suffering Christian teens:
“Just look at you,
You're a wonder in the making;
Oh, and God's not through,
No — in fact He's just getting started …”
A helpful website is Judy's Story — the story of a recovered anorexic who has written a book on how she survived anorexia. The site is at http://www.angelfire.com/ms/anorexianervosa/