Sophomore fashion merchandising major Lauren Lee was sitting in her middle school cafeteria when one of the boys in her class yelled across the cafeteria: “Hey Lauren, are you anorexic?”
“That was the first time I had even heard of the term,” Lee said.
Associate professor of psychology Dr. Ken Cameron said eating disorders are a social issue.
“If you look anywhere around the world, there is depression, there is schizophrenia, there is bipolar in every culture. But eating disorders are more culture specific,” Cameron said. “You have to have cultural messages that America is good at providing — the ones that say ‘you are adequate if you look this certain way’ and ‘you are strong if you can control yourself in a certain way.’”
Over the course of two years, Lee grew almost 6 inches without gaining any weight as she tried to maintain the “right type of figure.” She said she was severely under-eating while exerting a lot of energy into her school’s swimming and diving team. Lee also began missing menstrual cycles and getting in trouble at school.
“You are angry when you don’t eat,” Lee said. “I was angry all the time, so I was getting in trouble all the time.”
Lee was able to hide her anorexia from her parents under the guise of being picky and having menstrual problems. She was able to keep her eating disorder a secret until her senior year of high school, when she shared her testimony with her youth group at a church retreat.
“We had a sermon at church about how God sees us as a masterpiece, like the night sky or the Mona Lisa, and every time you hurt yourself, it’s like you are painting over it and not caring at all what God has done,” Lee said. “I didn’t compare myself to anything worth that value, so changing my mindset — it was like flipping a switch. So the only way I changed that is seeing my value in God instead of the world.”
As one of the seniors in her youth group, Lee was set to speak about a mission trip she had been fundraising for, but after being told they would be fasting on the retreat, she felt called to talk about her battle with anorexia for her senior speech.
“There were a lot of people who actually came up to me and said, ‘I had experienced the same thing,’ (and) ‘you’re not alone,’” Lee said. “There were boys and girls that came up to me. It opened a lot of doors for me to connect with people.”
National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) estimates that 20 million women and 10 million men in America will develop an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Eating disorders involve extreme emotions and behaviors involving weight and food, according to MentalHealth.gov. Common eating disorders include binge-eating disorder, bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa.
Senior general studies major AnnaMae Aufrance was diagnosed with anorexia and depression in 8th grade. She said she began to compare herself to other girls. Losing weight quickly became her obsession.
“It was a snowball effect,” Aufrance said. “I did lose weight; it became all about the number. I became addicted to the scale going down. (And) every time I lost weight, it fueled that fire.”
With family support, Aufrance began outpatient treatment with a team of doctors, psychiatrists and nutritionists. Even though she was gaining weight, Aufrance said her mental health remained weak.
“I (thought) ‘they need to stop asking me these questions. I need to get out of here,’” Aufrance said. “I still didn’t think I was sick. I was in denial for a while. It snowballed so fast that I didn’t realize how bad it got. It took years to really realize how bad it was.”
After years of self–deprivation, Aufrance said her anorexia turned into binge eating disorder.
“Since I wasn’t healed mentally, it took the nourishment and distorted it into another disorder,” Aufrance said. “There was still the self–esteem issues, still feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. There were a lot of similarities (between eating disorders) even though on the outside they were way different.”
During her first two years at Harding, Aufrance participated in counseling and began to incorporate her spirituality into her recovery.
“If I had just taken the clinical side, I wouldn’t be as recovered as I am,” Aufrance said. “You need that spiritual side as well. I’ve been in a place where I haven’t wanted God to help me, I haven’t trusted God to help me, and it just didn’t work. Once I added that in, I have seen his power and how he can work in my life.”
Since, Aufrance has underwent intensive outpatient treatment in Searcy and started a support group for women on campus struggling with eating disorders. She said there was no safe environment for people to share their stories.
“I think there needs to be a safe place to say ‘Me too’ and ‘This is what I’m going through,’” Aufrance said. “It takes courage to reach out and get help. It is a hard step to take.”
Aufrance said taking time to heal is essential.
“You have to be all-in (during) recovery,” Aufrance said. “You can’t do it half way or it will just drag on… if that means stopping school for a little bit or quitting your job for some time, you have to be all-in.”
According to Cameron, it is important to find the right help.
“Ultimately, the family’s role is to get that person to a mental health professional who is more specifically trained to help them,” Cameron said.
If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, call a hotline
NEDA Hotline: (800) 931-2237
Harding Eating Disorder Support Group: (330) 754-5072 and meet every Thursday at The Original Rock House Ministry at 7:30 p.m.
Written by Paige Cushman and Julia Reinboldt