Starving to be skinny: College women fight eating disorders

By Caroline Young |

Photo Illustrations by Phillip C. Sunkel IV

Flagler junior Allie Martin* started starving herself a little over a year ago. Typically, half of an apple was her biggest meal of the day.

“I liked the feeling of being starving,” she said.

Martin said some days she would reach 150 calories, max.

“Some days I’d just have coffee,” Martin said. “After two days, I would break down and have a salad.”

In Dec. 2009, Martin weighed 50 pounds more than she does now. Her dramatic weight loss was the result of an episode of anorexia nervosa, which led to bulimia nervosa.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, four out of 10 Americans have suffered or know someone who is suffering from an eating disorder. And a quarter of college-aged women use binging and purging as a way to manage weight.

Last winter, Martin hid her rapidly shrinking body under bulky winter sweaters. When springtime came, she could not hide it anymore and her mother started to realize there was something wrong.

“I made it a point to not be at home for meals and if I was there, she’d make a point to make really fatty stuff,” Martin said. “It made me anxious being around food and I hated going out to eat.”

Since she said she was considered obese at 176 pounds before her weight loss, Martin simply lied about having a disorder. She told people it is not possible because she would be much smaller than she is at 126 pounds.

“It was a weird kind of-hunger high,” she said. “You get passed the point of being so tired, so for a long period of time, it’s a new way to function.”

Once Martin started getting stuck in social situations where she had to eat, she began purging anything that passed her lips and made it into her stomach.

“It was like, ‘Make the quickest escape afterwards to get it out,” she said. “Sometimes I would purge two times a day and sometimes I would transition from not eating to eating a lot and throwing it up.”

Kathy Shane, a mental health counselor in Jacksonville who has specialized in eating disorders for 25 years, said anorexia is one’s refusal to maintain a healthy body weight. Bulimia is binging, eating large amounts of food, and purging — throwing it all up.

Martin still struggles with bulimia today.

Beneath the surface

“It takes up more and more of your mind space,” Shane said. “So if you’re thinking about every calorie that goes in to your body and how your body is too big…then you’re not able to go to a deeper level internally.”

Shane said eating disorders are used as a way to deal with emotional fear, a mask for internal pain.

She works with her patients to help them separate themselves from the disorder and to realize it does not need to devour their minds.

“I’ve had people that weigh 80 pounds that think they’re fat,” Shane said. “And usually people are pretty ambivalent about treatment.”

She said once someone can separate from the disorder, the true reason for the problem can be confronted.

“I ask them, ‘who are you? You are not your eating disorder,” Shane said. “Bottom line is they need to address the underlying emotions.”

Martin was at another college and extremely unhappy with no set plans or goals for her life when she developed her eating disorder. She said it was her way of feeling in control.

“Nothing in my life was in order,” she said. “I was so tired of the way I felt about myself and it was the only way to change it — to take control of it.”

Martin is not alone with her reasons for abusing her body. Shane said most of the people she works with have eating disorders because they believe it will give them a strong sense of control over their lives.

“It’s a maladaptive coping mechanism to make you feel better,” Shane said. “Like some people drink too much to feel better.”

Although eating disorders are categorized as diseases and not addictions, Shane said they are similar to addictions.

“The hardest thing about my eating disorder was getting over the obsession part of it,” Abby Klock, a Flagler senior, said.

Klock became anorexic during her senior year of high school and it took her two years to fully recover. Everyday, she ate a handful of peanuts, three spoonfuls of mashed potatoes and a cup of hot tea with low-fat whipped cream.

Fitness professional and Flagler adjunct Christy Castelli became anorexic during college, too.

“When I would look in the mirror, I would see a heavy person and to everyone else, I was like a skeleton,” Castelli said.

Her anorexia was the result of mental abuse. Castelli’s longtime boyfriend constantly told her she was fat, thus depleting her self-esteem.

“He said he wouldn’t take me places until I lost 10 pounds,” she said. “I wasn’t fat, but I started believing it.”

It started out as a harmless attempt at cooking and eating healthier, and a weight loss of 10 pounds. But it soon became a competition with herself.

Castelli’s boyfriend would tell her how great she looked once she lost weight. The relationship ended, but the damage was already done. Anorexia stayed.

She limited herself to coffee, a salad and steamed vegetables. And she ate popcorn everyday because it was filling with zero calories. But the little calories she was taking in were always burned off during her three-a-day workouts.

“First thing in the morning before I left for school, I would jump rope for 30 minutes then run and swim then ride my bike to school, which was quite a distance,” Castelli said. “After classes, I’d come home and repeat the whole cycle. I’d have my air popped popcorn … Then, I’d do it again.”

For Klock, the pressure among peers in high school to be stick-thin pushed her to anorexia.

“One of my friends in high school started losing weight by not eating and everyone was making comments about how skinny she was,” Klock said. “I remember being really jealous.”

Shane described the host of reasons people develop eating disorders as a “perfect storm,” consisting of psychological, socio-cultural influences and family issues.

“I think [it’s] people who come from families that are at risk for high anxiety or other effective disorders,” she said.

Eating disorders are most prevalent in people who are self-critical, rigid and incredibly sensitive, according to Shane. She said disorders could be the result of sexual abuse and high expectations for achievement from family members.

“They tell themselves, ‘I feel more in control, this will get me all kinds of things,'” she said. “Bottom line is thin only gets you thin and it doesn’t take care of emotions or any other issues you may be dealing with.”

The Physical Damage

According to NANAD, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

And every eating disorder has great potential to result in dangerous consequences, like hair loss, kidney failure from dehydration, fainting, loss of menstrual cycle leading to infertility, osteoporosis and death.

20 percent of people with anorexia will prematurely die from complications related to their eating disorder, including suicide and heart problems, reported by the NANAD.

Shane said she has seen two women in their early twenties die from eating disorders they battled for years.

“Either being underweight or purging and over-excercising can alter the sodium, potassium and so on in the body….That controls your heart beat,” Shane said. “It’s not like you have a warning system… It happens immediately and it’s usually heart failure.”

And bulimia can cause a person to have severe oral health and hygiene problems such as erosion to teeth enamel from acid and gum infections, according to the Eating Disorder Expert website.

For Castelli, excessively exercising with barely any fuel caused her to throw up from exhaustion and her muscles to cramp.

“But you just keep pushing yourself…you don’t pay attention to it,” she said. “You can’t sleep at night because you’re over training… It’s pretty much just a mess.”

Taking over young lives

According to the National Eating Disorders Society, 95 percent of people with eating disorders are between 12 and 26 years old.

“We have it in our culture very much that how you look counts big,” Shane said. “And the pursuit of thinness equals control, achievement, success and popularity.”

According to NANAD, only 5 percent of American females have the body type portrayed in advertising.

Martin said she has always been interested in the fashion world.

“When I’m bored that’s what I research, so it’s always in my head,” she said.

Shane said people usually seek help when their lives have become nightmares.

“The preoccupation with food and weight and maybe exercise is kind of taking control of their lives,” she said. “What happens is the disease takes over more and more of their life and kind of consumes them.”

Almost 50 percent of people with eating disorders meet the criteria for depression, according to the NANAD.

“They tend to be more withdrawn, they can’t go to this or that because food is there and they become more isolated,” Shane said.

Castelli described eating disorders as a “personal hell.”

“You put yourself there and don’t know how to get yourself out of it,” she said.

She said her eating disorder took over her entire life and prevented her from being social because that meant being around eating and drinking.

“You can’t enjoy anything because you’re constantly beating yourself up and you’re starving,” Castelli said. “People are uncomfortable around you too.”

Klock said her disorder did a number on her close relationships.

“There was no one I could make understand for the longest time,” she said. “I not only brought myself down, but my family as well.”

And Martin said the sudden recognition she received from her newly thin body made her want take it further. She dyed her hair blonde. Boys started to notice her for the first time in her life.

“I didn’t want to stop getting thin,” she said. “It was always okay to be starving because I knew I was going to go out and get to wear the dress I couldn’t wear since freshman year of high school.”

Martin said her desire to be thinner and thinner completely clouded her body’s request for food.

“People who do this know that it’s bad,” Martin said. “But there’s this thing in your head that says if it’s working don’t stop, and that’s why it’s a sickness I think.”

Roads to Recovery

Only one in 10 men and women with eating disorders receive treatment, according to the NANAD.

Castelli did not seek professional treatment. She said eating disorders were not normally recognized in the 70s when she was in college and there were few resources for her to utilize.

“No one really talked about,” she said. “It was kind of a hidden thing.”

And still, Dr. Glenn Goldberg, Flagler counseling center director, said there has to be a lot more than the one to three percent reported Flagler students with active eating disorders over the past year.

“Of course part of the problem with eating disorders is the extreme effort put into keeping it secret or minimizing it,” Goldberg said. “In some cases we see students who have been treated for an eating disorder in the past and want help managing challenges, in part because they don’t wish to revert back to this.”

When Castelli got her first job as an aerobics instructor, she said her focus shifted from thinness to fitness and she was able to reason with her logical side to find a healthy medium.

“You need energy to do stuff like that,” Castelli said. “That’s what knocked some sense in to me and turned my way of thinking around.”

And Klock said it was her mom making an appointment with the family doctor that saved her life.

“She gave me a name and number to contact for help by people that specialized in eating disorder,” she said. “I went thought several weeks of therapy sessions and nutrition sessions as well.”

Castelli and Klock both said they feel they will always face body image problems throughout their lives.

“But the more I take care of my body and eat regular meals and exercise, the more I love the way my body looks,” Klock said. “I have learned what isn’t healthy and what is.”

Klock finished the New York Marathon in Nov. 2010.

“Running has definitely helped me overcome a lot of my problems, emotionally and visually.”

And Castelli said her motto is moderation.

“Enjoy life,” she said. “Don’t deprive yourself, don’t starve yourself but don’t over —indulge.”

Shane said eating disorders have a “Rule of thirds” with roughly one third of the people suffering from an episode and fully recovering. Another third will seek treatment and recover, and the last third continue to struggle for a lifetime.

“I am in the process of completely recovering,” Martin said.

Moving to St. Augustine and going to Flagler helped her to begin to conquer her eating disorder. She credits her progress to surrounding herself with good people.

“I just got to be much happier being involved in school and finding my first real boyfriend,” she said. “It was a lot of validation I was never getting before.”

Now, she said she eats healthy foods in normal amounts like veggie burgers, chicken and lots of fruits and veggies. But she still purges about twice a week when she feels like she eats “something really bad.”

Like Klock and Castelli, Martin enjoys running and is trying to incorporate 30 minutes a day into her daily schedule.

She said although she still struggles sometimes, she has come into a place of acceptance.

“This is my body,” Martin said. “For the first time, I wasn’t afraid to go on the beach.”

She said she is striving to focus on the important parts of her life like school and relationships, instead of her weight.

“My goal is to be happy and healthy and to work really hard,” Martin said. “I want to like myself for who I am and not the way I look.”

(*Name has been changed to protect source’s identity.)

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