Walking A Thin Line – celebrities, mass media and eating disorders

Walking A Thin Line – celebrities, mass media and eating disorders – Brief Article

Maria L. Chang

Many Hollywood actresses are making news with possible eating disorders. Is Tinseltown promoting body images that are impossible for humans to attain?

What do Courtney Cox, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Calista Flockhart, and Lea Thompson have in common? For one thing, they’re a new breed of TV superstar. Each actress is the lead of her own series. For another, they walk an extremely thin line: They look close to being dangerously underweight.

Actress Elisa Donovan, who plays fashion victim Amber in the TV series Clueless, crossed over the line in 1992 to battle anorexia, an eating disorder marked by an intense fear of gaining weight or getting fat (see “The Skinny on Eating Disorders,” p. 13). “At first, I’d eat no fat,” Elisa says. “Then, I’d just eat breakfast–cereal and toast–and not eat again until night.” Within a couple of years, the 5-ft, 6-in. actress weighed only 90 pounds.

For years researchers have tied eating disorders to severe psychological problems. Now scientists have found a new link in the equation: brain chemistry. People with anorexia and bulimia (binge eating followed by vomiting or overexercising), appear to have deficient amounts of serotonin, a brain chemical associated with moods and emotions, circulating in their brains. The lack of serotonin is also linked to people with depression (see SW 10/6/97). In fact, people with eating disorders are generally depressed.


Many teens don’t realize the psychological or physical dangers behind reed-like bodies. Instead they uphold super-thin images as their ideal. “The media has a tremendous influence–impacting on girls to be thin,” says Elaine Yudkovitz, a New York psychotherapist and specialist in eating disorders. The statistics are alarming: About one in 100 adolescent girls suffers from anorexia. The results can be deadly. Roughly 10 percent of anorexics die of medical complications from lack of food, or from suicide.

Females aren’t the only victims. In the past few years more males have been diagnosed with eating disorders as well. “Men are more focused on their bodies now than ever before,” Yudkovitz says. Males are less likely to starve themselves to death; instead, many exercise excessively to get rid of the calories they ate a condition known as exercise bulimia, which is also becoming very common in girls.

Doctors often treat anorexics and bulimics with prescription drugs and psychotherapy. But a new treatment may result from studies at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Researchers have identified a pair of hormones (substances that control the activity of an organ or tissue), called orexin A and B, in the brain that seem to influence feeding behavior in rats.

When researchers injected the hormones into rats’ brains, the animals ate 8 to 10 times more food than normal within a few hours. Scientists hope drugs that mimic orexin might increase hunger in anorexics and induce them to eat. After all, the body demands food to get the nutrients it needs to produce energy, build tissue, and just survive.

As Elisa Donovan, who finally overcame anorexia, puts it, “I never thought someday I’d have to eat something or die.”


Anorexia (“nervous loss of appetite”)

* First documented: 1649, by English physician Richard Morton

* Characteristics: Anorexics have an intense fear of gaining weight, so they either don’t eat enough food or eat almost nothing. As a result, they rapidly lose weight. Even then, anorexics are convinced they’re overweight. Sometimes they hide food, cut food into tiny pieces, or obsessively count calories.

* Who’s at risk: Anorexia often starts between ages 13 and 20. More than 90 percent of anorexics are female; many are ballerinas, fashion models, and gymnasts. Recently the number of males with eating disorders is on the rise, particularly among dancers and some athletes.

* How anorexia affects the body: As the body struggles with starvation, it protects itself by slowing down breathing and pulse rates, and lowering blood-pressure rates. In females, loss of the menstrual cycle is usually the first symptom. Anorexics’ skin often becomes dry and turns yellow; their bones become brittle from lack of nutrients. With very little body fat, anorexics can’t stand the cold. The body compensates by growing a fine coat of soft hair, called lanugo. People who don’t eat enough food soon become deficient in potassium, an important mineral the body needs. Potassium deficiency leads to heart problems, and could lead to cardiac arrest.

* Treatment: A hospital stay can help restore an anorexic’s weight. Psychotherapy also helps address the psychological reasons behind eating disorders and depression that usually accompanies the condition.

Bulimia (“oxlike hunger”)

* First documented: 18th century in French literature. It wasn’t until 1979, however, that bulimia became officially recognized as a disease

* Characteristics: Bulimics binge, or consume large amounts of food at one time, they try to rid themselves of what they ate by vomiting, over-exercising, or abusing laxatives or diet pills. Like anorexics, bulimics have a distorted view of their own body shape and weight, but many maintain a normal body weight.

* Who’s at risk: Bulimia starts slightly later than anorexia, usually around 16 to 21 years old. About 2 to 3 percent of adolescent girls suffer from bulimia. As with anorexia, most bulimics are female.

* How bulimia affects the body: Excessive vomiting often causes the stomach or esophagus (food tube) to rupture. Stomach acid brought up by vomiting can also wear down tooth enamel. Bulimics are at risk of dehydration and electrolyte (dissolved salt particles) imbalances, which can lead to heart failure.

* Treatment: Unlike anorexics, bulimics are usually more aware that something’s wrong with their attitude toward food. As a result, they’re more open to psychotherapy and medications.

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