More women over 40 are struggling with eating disorders, according to a report by ABC, which admits it's unclear whether there's just more awareness and diagnoses nowadays — the rising number reflects how many women actually seek treatment — or other factors at play.
It's way easier for older women to cover up eating disorder symptoms than it is for teenagers; young adults are constantly going to the doctor and being fussed over by their parents, so it's obvious if, say, a girl drops a lot of weight suddenly or starts pushing her food around with her fork instead of eating at dinnertime. But for women like 59-year-old Judith Shaw, who said her eating disorder was triggered when her husband asked for a separation after 35 years of marriage, disguising the larger problem was a cinch.
"I became obsessed with exercise," Shaw told ABC. "I wanted to show an exterior of strength that was able to mask the hollowness and vulnerability that I felt on the inside." She added that she received "great recognition and praise" after she became fixated with dieting and working out, which makes sense — our culture rewards all women for "keeping the weight off" but holds older women who manage to conform to our ridiculous standards of beauty in particularly high esteem. (I've never heard my mom sound concerned about a friend who lost weight or started an intense exercise regime; she's usually just proud and amazed she found the time.)
That praise gave Shaw "a sense of meaning in a life that felt directionless, alone and isolated." Which is why many people get eating disorders, regardless of age. But without someone watching over you, how do you break the cycle and get help? When Shaw stopped getting her period in her early 40s, her doctors just chalked it up to early menopause; they thought her anemia and deteriorating bone density were signs of aging as well. Older women are at increased risk for health problems associated with eating disorders, including significant and sometimes fatal damage to the heart, brain, and bones, but doctors rarely put two and two together.
Shaw's story has a happy ending: after years of therapy, she's able to recognize the issues that drove her to starve and exercise herself to death, and started sculpting as a way of healing. Now her pieces, called "Body of Work," are featured in exhibits at prestigious medical schools so professors can show medical students what patients experience in the midst of an eating disorder.
"I never went to college, and that's where some of my feelings of worthlessness came into play," she said. "I always wanted to be a doctor. That may never happen, but it's a bit ironic. In a way, I found my way into medical school because my art is inspiring doctors to understand this disease. That definitely gives me a sense of worth and purpose."
But not everyone is able to work through the pain. A new study shows that people who restrict what they eat because due to body dysmorphic disorder are at a higher risk for attempting suicide. "Significantly limiting food intake can be physically painful," study researcher Dr. Katharine A. Phillips, M.D., of Rhode Island Hospital, said in a statement. "It goes against our natural instincts to feed our bodies and respond to the physical pain that comes with extreme hunger. The results of this study suggest the importance of assessing individuals with BDD for restrictive eating behaviors to identify suicide risk, even if they have not previously been diagnosed with an eating disorder." There's really no way to put a positive spin on this information — except to say that if you're struggling with an eating disorder right now, you're not alone.
Image via Tomasz Trojanowski/Shutterstock.