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Monday, January 21, 2013

Overcoming Problems with Body Image: Food Restriction

Prior to the 1960s, the ideal body image for women was a full-figured woman with curves--think Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren.  Then, came the Swinging 60s and Twiggy, and the ideal body image in fashion for women was very thin, almost boyish.  

The Changing Ideal Body Image for Women 
Eating disorders didn't start in the 1960s, but the proliferation of fashion magazine with images of Size 0 and Size 2 women as the ideal for women has exacerbated the problem greatly.  These ultra thin images of women are virtually unattainable for most women, but this doesn't stop a lot of women from trying to starve themselves--sometimes to death--to become thin.

Problems with Body Image and Food Restriction
Women in Certain Professions are More Prone to Eating Disorders
Certain professions, like acting, fashion, dance often inadvertently encourage women to be emaciated in order to get a role or a job.

Much has been written about anorexia and bulimia.  I'd like to focus this article on food restriction, which is a form of eating disorder that is less recognized than anorexia and bulimia and sometimes harder to detect by loved ones and even medical and mental health professionals.

Maladaptive Attempts at Gaining of Coping and Control
What all eating disorders have in common is that they're maladaptive attempts at coping, especially when the person engaging in food restriction feels out of control.  The need to feel in control is paramount for people with eating disorders.  When all else is out of control, controlling the amount and type of food ingested and maintained in the body is one way to feel in control.

Please note:  I'll be referring to women with food restriction issues, but psychotherapists and researchers are more aware now than before that men also have eating disorders, both heterosexual and gay men.

Food Restriction:  Not Just Your Average Dieting
When I refer to food restriction, I'm not just referring to a woman who is dieting to get down to a healthy weight.  Women who engage in food restriction, like other women with eating disorders, are usually obsessed with their food intake.  A lot of obsessive thought, time and effort goes into restricting food, counting calories, exercising, fasting and "cleansing."

Matters are made worse when these same women get compliments (from people who are unaware of the food restriction dynamic) for the weight that they've lost.  This reinforces their behavior and often makes them want to lose even more weight.

Food Restriction and Secrecy
Women who engage in food restriction will go to great lengths to keep the food restriction a secret.  They learn all different strategies to appear as if they're eating normal amounts of food when they're actually eating a lot less than is required to keep them healthy.

What Causes Eating Disorders?
The cause of this, as well as other eating disorders, can have many sources.  Often, somewhere early on, a parent might have made comments about the girl's body, possibly telling her that she's too fat or, somehow, implying that the ideal is to be thin.  I

In those cases, these girls grow feeling that being thin is equated with being loved.  Many women clients with eating disorders have told me that one of their parents told them as a child that they wouldn't meet a man if they were overweight or made other remarks that made them feel unattractive.

Often, there is no discernible cause for the eating disorder.

Adolescent Girls and Eating Disorders
For teenage girls, who might have been primed with these messages early on, adolescence, which brings changes in body image and hormonal changes, can be fraught with insecurities.   Developing breasts and curvy hips, especially when peers might not have developed in this way yet, can be a source of shame.  Add to this that our culture doesn't help girls to celebrate these changes, and you have a situation that is ripe for developing into an eating disorder for some girls.

Being away at college, away from the emotional support of loved ones, can also be a time when girls, who are prone to develop eating disorders, might engage in food restriction or other forms of eating disorders.

It isn't clear why some girls develop eating disorders and other girls, in similar situations, don't.  It's not unusual to discover that girls who develop eating disorders have mothers who either have a full fledged eating disorder or they are overly preoccupied with their weight.  But it's certainly not always the case.

Food restriction often goes hand in hand with anorexia and bulimia as well as excessive exercising.  All of these eating disorders are potentially dangerous, compromise a woman's health and, in extreme cases, they're sometimes fatal.  I'm thinking of women like Karen Carpenter.

Resources:  Getting Help
I've included a link below of a New York Times article in the Modern Love section by Cole Kazdin about her battle with an eating disorder.

I've also included a link for the Renfrew Center for people with eating disorders.  They have both inpatient and outpatient treatment.  There is an outpatient facility in NYC.  I have no personal or professional connection to Renfrew, but I have referred clients with eating disorders to both their inpatient facility in PA and their outpatient center in NYC with good results.

In addition, I've included a link for Overeaters Anonymous.  This is a 12 Step program for anyone with an eating disorder.  Even though it's called "overeaters," this 12 Step program provides support for anyone, women or men, with an eating disorder.  You can also obtain a one-on-one sponsor to provide support and guidance.

With Help There's Hope
Many women with eating disorders, including food restriction, have been helped by qualified mental health professionals.  If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, it's important to get both medical and psychological help as soon as possible.  Especially in cases of anorexia, where a woman might be delusional about being overweight when she's actually emaciated, it's also important to see a psychiatrist.  In some cases, it might be necessary to seek inpatient treatment to be stabilized.

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist.  I work with individuals and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my web site:  
Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006.

Chubby, Skinny, Accepting - Modern Love, NY Times  by Cole Kazdin

Renfrew Center

Overeaters Anonymous

photo credit: daniellehelm via photopin cc

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