Imagine looking in a mirror and not seeing yourself. Instead all you can see is a specific feature – the arch of an eyebrow, the shape of the waistline, the muscle tone of an arm or leg – and you criticize it for everything you believe to be wrong with it.
That was what Morehead State University senior Haley Dyer experienced when she looked in her mirror. Instead of seeing a bright, young biomedical student with a talent for music and writing, she only saw bits and pieces that had to be fixed. And in Dyer’s mind, the solution was extreme dieting and excessive exercise that eventually landed her in the hospital.
Dyer related her experiences with anorexia nervosa on KET’s Connections. Host Renee Shaw also spoke with Mairead Moloney, a medical sociologist at the University of Kentucky, about research on eating disorders.
A Struggle for Physical Perfection
For Dyer the mental criticism started in high school, and by her freshman year in college, she started to change her behavior patterns. She says she was driven to do whatever it took to look like the beautiful women she saw in movies and magazines and on social media websites.
“I was following what I thought was society’s standards for what a young woman should be,” Dyer says.
Convinced that her approach was reasonable and rational, Dyer didn’t waver from her diet and exercise regimen even as her family and friends began to express concern about her weight loss. By the time the normally petite Dyer lost 50 pounds, her body had reached a critical point that her mind struggled to accept.
“Even when I was hospitalized, there was a part of me that did not want to let go of the disorder,” Dyer admits. “I felt like it was my identity, and I felt like that was why people knew me was because I was thin.”
Understanding the Causes of Eating Disorders
Along with anorexia, Dyer suffered from a disorder called body dysmorphia, which UK sociologist Mairead Moloney defines as a tendency for an individual to see only the flaws, whether perceived or actual, in their bodies.
“They quite literally do not see themselves as they really are,” says Moloney. “It’s impossible for them to see themselves the way they are and so it’s a very, very tough psychiatric disorder.”
While many people can be self-critical about a physical feature, Moloney says body dysmorphia can lead to social isolation and obsessive behaviors like an eating disorder. Research indicates that about 40 percent of female college students have struggled with an eating issue, but Moloney says the problem isn’t limited to young women.
“Middle-aged and older women are the fasting growing demographic where we’re seeing eating disorders occur,” Moloney says. “It has a lot to do with the sexualization of women and this idea that they’re only worth their physical beauty and attractiveness. … We’ve really built a huge anti-aging industry around not letting women age and trying to maintain their beautiful, youthful, sexy looks.”
Moloney says many individuals may have a biological predisposition for an eating disorder, but she says the condition usually needs some sort of traumatic trigger like childhood sexual abuse to become manifest. She says treatment usually involves counseling or therapy along with nutritional guidance.
Conventional thinking used to be that only wealthier people developed eating disorders, according to Moloney, but now she says researchers realize the condition can affect anyone. Moloney adds that minority communities and immigrant groups tend to have greater body acceptance, but even that can fade the longer they are exposed to skewed definitions of beauty that permeate the media and society.
Those influences can take root even in children. Moloney points to a recent experiment where researchers gave young girls the new Barbie dolls that more realistically reflect the different shapes of women’s bodies. The girls criticized the dolls as being fat.
“That’s the underlying message that we give women: You’re never good enough the way that you are,” says Moloney.
Changing the Conversation
Haley Dyer’s anorexia nervosa resulted in a month-long stay in intensive care and then three months in a rehabilitation center. She admits it’s hard to look at pictures of herself back then because she says they’re so different from how she saw herself when she looked in the mirror.
Today Dyer doesn’t shy away from discussing her experience. She says she wants to help others who may struggle with body image and eating disorder issues. But she does want to change how we have those conversations.
“Focusing on the symptoms is something that I believe allows society to dismiss what an eating disorder is,” says Dyer about food binging and purging and related behaviors. “All of those things are just manifestations of the real problem: the inability to cope with certain emotions or things you’ve been through.”