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I'll admit it: Even though I write about body image issues all the time, I still think of eating disorders as happening mostly in high schools and college dorms. But Tara Parker-Pope's new New York Times/Well Blog piece set me straight: A significant percentage of the over 10 million American eating disorder sufferers are women in their 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond.
The phenomenon hasn't been well-studied, so Parker-Pope doesn't quote numbers. But she does talk to several eating disorder experts who confirm that the number of older eating disorder patients is rising, including Cynthia M. Bulik, director of the Eating Disorders Program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who says that though her program was initially aimed at adolescents, since 2003 half of its patients have been adults.
Parker-Pope also interviews Judith Shaw, a 58-year-old yoga instructor and artist who says that her anorexia was misdiagnosed as early menopause when she stopped getting her periods in her forties. Experts say that several eating disorder symptoms can be easily confused with aging, which may be a key reason why middle-aged ED patients are so under-diagnosed.
I think there's more to the story. Our culture glorifies the young-thin-sexy beauty triumvirate -- remember Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Rivers? This means any woman who stays a size 4 past age 35 is held up as a poster child for "aging gracefully," when what we really mean is that she's not aging at all. And because we're eternally locked in the anti-aging battle, to say nothing of the war on obesity, we also celebrate behaviors -- like cutting out carbs and engaging in hypercritical fat talk -- that, over time, can turn into chronically disordered eating patterns, especially when they're accompanied by unresolved emotional turmoil.
Doctors -- who are focused on telling us to increase our weight-bearing exercise to protect our bones, cut out refined sugar to prevent diabetes, and other age-and-weight-related illnesses -- aren't always much help.
This is not to say that all skinny women (of any age!) have eating disorders — it's impossible to make a diagnosis like that based on weight alone and healthy women come in all sizes. Or even that anyone who says no thanks to a slice of cake has a problem with food restriction. (Maybe she's just holding out for a piece with more frosting?)
But it's important to realize that the emotional fall-out of food choices doesn't fade as soon as we graduate from college, or even after we stop qualifying for the cheap life insurance plans. We tend to be hyperaware of not wanting to promote crash dieting and beauty obsessions to our daughters, but we don't extend the same kindness to ourselves. And when food and exercise becomes all about physical health (as in staving off obesity and lowering your blood pressure), we stop paying attention to how we're feeling when we're eating (or not eating) and exercising (or not). Which is a mistake because good emotional health is just as important to living a long, healthy life.
If you're struggling with your relationship to food and exercise remember, help is available no matter what your age.