Contributed by: Dina Zeckhausen, PhD
This past week, “The Biggest Loser” revealed its winner: 24-year-old Rachel Fredrickson, who dropped 60% of her body weight and left a mere 105 pounds on her 5’4” frame. According to Dr. Krista Casazza, a body tissue expert at the University of Alabama, such a dramatic weight loss may increase the risk of heart attack, high blood pressure, and bone fractures.
But the crowd cheered, confetti rained down and Rachel picked up $250,000.
Shortly afterwards, my Inbox filled with emails from clients with eating disorders. “She weighs less than I did when I went to inpatient treatment…and she just got paid a quarter million dollars!” Who knows how many vulnerable viewers will be triggered by Rachel, inspired by her “success.” Tweets and on-line comments from the general public revealed denial, stigma and misinformation.
Some viewers said she looked fine and were impressed by her achievement. An eating disorder is not an achievement. Anorexia is the deadliest of all mental disorders.
Some wrote that she looked “gross” or “nasty.” Although these insults are typically reserved for overweight people, public body shaming is partly to blame for this mess.
Others thought she simply needed to gain back a little weight after the show was over. If only it were that simple.
While many people jokingly wish they had the “enviable problem” of needing to gain weight, there is no journey so harrowing to an anorexic as the trip back up the scale, particularly for those who were formerly obese. The person with anorexia has experienced the power of starvation and self-denial, a high as addictive as heroin. Having endured the shame of being overweight, there is nothing so heady as the illusion of control that comes with extreme weight loss. Deep down, recovery is viewed as a failure. Every ounce gained is power lost, foreshadowing the inevitable slide back into the hell of fatness. The best and the brightest will starve to death or commit suicide because they would “rather be dead than fat.”
Many say they don’t “get” eating disorders, but they’re no mystery. We spend time, money and attention on what we value. Paying the winner of a weight loss competition $250,000 (at the price of physical and mental health) pretty well sums up current American values. Is it any wonder sensitive and talented people succumb to the belief that what makes them special and unique is their ability to deny themselves food?
Recently I overheard a group of attractive moms chatting at a restaurant, one of them sharing the secrets of her successful weight loss. “I eliminated dairy, gluten, alcohol, soy, wheat and meat…and I feel great!” I worried about her kids.
The World Health Organization defines “health” as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being. A person whose rigid, perfectionistic food rules cause anxiety, obsession and isolation is not healthy.
During February’s Love Your Body Month a group of intrepid young women are using social media to make a change. They’re writing positive affirmations on Post-It notes and sticking them on bathroom mirrors, elliptical machines and scales all over Atlanta. If you see one, remember the message and say it to yourself. Take a picture and post it to Instagram with #atlglows. Whenever I write one and stick it on a mirror, I feel like a revolutionary. (You can do this, too!) The hope is that when a random teen (or her mom or dad) starts feeling bad about food or weight, she can scroll through positive messages at #atlglows and start to create new neural pathways in her brain.
Because negative self-talk isn’t just a nuisance. It can be deadly.