The uncontrollable urge to reach perfection

By Amy Erickson and Erica Summers
Port Hardy Secondary School
Port Hardy, British Columbia

Every day teenagers deal with the stresses of school, sex, drugs and alcohol among others. As an added pressure, they are now bombarded with society's obsession with thinness and unrealistic views of the ideal body.

More and more often, teenagers are choosing to deal with these pressures in harmful ways, such as the use of drugs and alcohol, physical and verbal abuse and suicide. Now there are eating disorders to add to the list. Given that 90% of females say they are dissatisfied with their bodies, we cannot be surprised that Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder and Compulsive Overeating are becoming common methods for young people to deal with emotional pain. Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Association.


These eating disorders are all life-threatening and life-destroying diseases. Significant weight loss caused by an eating disorder can have dire effects. Loss of fat padding around heart, loss of body fat under the skin, lowered body temperature, diminished muscle mass, amenorrhea (loss of three or more consecutive menstrual cycles), dental erosion, heart palpitations and other heart problems, and mild anemia are a few of the less serious effects. These diseases can also have a more extreme result -- death.

Acceptance of one's body is something that many people are struggling to come to terms with. The media's portrayal of the human body seems to be becoming increasingly unrealistic. This is especially true for the media's ideas of the beautiful woman. Take for example the television and movie stars that are frequently on the covers of fashion magazines (Sarah Michelle Cellar, Calista Flockhart, Gwyneth Paltrow and Courtenay Cox),all considered beautiful, yet all extremely thin.

However, eating disorders are not just about the ideal weight or shape. Many things contribute to the development of an eating disorder. Among these are family environment, societal environment and internal conflicts. According to the St. Paul's Hospital Eating Disorder Program one third of these people have suffered or are suffering from sexual abuse. People must learn to realize that eating disorders are about underlying issues such as low self esteem, the need for control, and the inability to trust one's own feelings, rather than simply about food. These issues are replaced with a constant need to reach an unattainable goal, perfection. Purging, fasting, binging, vomiting and compulsive exercise are common cycles in the eating disorder process. These serve as release and numbing mechanisms.

One common misconception about eating disorders is that they can be fixed overnight. They are a complex and addictive cycle, and like other addictions, the road to recovery is a long and difficult process. Before a person suffering from an eating disorder can start to take back their life, there are many barriers that they must overcome. The average treatment program can take anywhere from three to five years, though 15%-20% of victims are never cured and 20% will die (this includes suicide).


Exercise -- too much of a good thing?
by Amy Erickson and Erica Summers

Usually, exercise is considered to be an important part of a healthy lifestyle. However, it can sometimes be taken to the extreme. Often linked with the eating disorders, Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa, compulsive exercise is considered another way to "purge" the system.

Compulsive exercise is more often found in athletes who are involved in sports which promote a thin appearance. These sports include swimming, gymnastics, running, wrestling and figure skating. Compulsive exercise and eating disorders are, in many of these sports, ignored if not accepted.

People who compulsively exercise take exercising very seriously, exercising more often and working harder for longer periods of time than is considered safe or normal.

This type of compulsive behavior often interferes with normal everyday activities including social life, work and school. Compulsive exercising often follows binging to rid the sufferer from any guilt caused by eating.

If you think that you demonstrate the behaviors associated with compulsive exercising, contact the National Eating Disorder Information Center or the Eating Disorder Resource Center of B.C.


Although it can be frustrating and difficult to understand why a person is suffering from a disease that seems self inflicted, patience and support is vital in the recovery process. While only the victim can decide to get help, there are some things that you can do to support them. Among these are:

  • express your concern about their health without invading their privacy

  • avoid making any comments on their appearance (including compliments)

  • avoid trying to tempt or force them into eating,

  • examine your own ideas and biases to ensure that you are not unknowingly conveying prejudice against people who aren't thin

  • don't blame them for their disease

  • don't take on the role of a therapist

  • The best thing to do for them is to be there to support them and to listen when they decide that they need to talk.

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Knowing the signs and symptoms of the different eating disorders might help you to realize if you or someone you know needs help. Many of the signs are general and apply to more than one eating disorder, such as claims of feeling fat when weight is low or normal, guilt or shame about eating and moodiness, irritability, abnormal eating patterns, fascination with food and depression. Others are more specific, such as hoarding food, self induced vomiting and wrestling and figure skating. Compulsive exercise and eating extreme loss of body weight in the absence of a related illness.

Eating disorders are life-threatening, so it is important that an eating disorder victim get help as soon as they possibly can. Admitting to having a problem and to needing help is the first step to any recovery. Seeking professional help is second. Finding a center and personal counselor that you feel at ease with will help to make the recovery process easier. The one thing that counselors can not stress enough is that one session, or one month of therapy will not and cannot cure you.

Did you know?

  • 90 % of women are dissatisfied with their bodies

  • The average weight of Miss America decreased from 135 lbs to 105 lbs between 1960 and 1990

  • 15-20% of the Canadian population suffers from either Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia Nervosa

  • The average length of treatment of an eating disorder lasts from 3-5 years

When choosing a counselor, there are many things to consider. Have they dealt with patients suffering from eating disorders before? Ask how many and how successful these treatments have been. If your eating disorder is severe, you may be referred to a treatment program. There are many aspects involved in treatment for eating disorders. Education about the disorders, restoration of weight, individual and group therapy are among these.

Eating disorders are a serious and very common occurrence among teenagers today. Thankfully, these diseases are starting to be taken more seriously. There are many doctors, therapists, centers and programs out there to help those with eating disorders to recover and to begin to lead a better life. Check out some of these organizations for more information.

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in The Wailer, the school newspaper
at Port Hardy Secondary School in Port Hardy, British Columbia.